Oh well, I suppose I can no longer remain in denial, I’m holding the brand spanking new edition of the Sky Sports Football Yearbook for 2008-2009 and there it is in stark black and white, Gillingham Football Club “Football League Division Two” – otherwise known as the old Fourth Division, the basement, the end of the world, back to where we were when Scally and Pulis rode into town back in the summer of 1995. When we got relegated back in May at Elland Road it felt a bit surreal, and I’ve been busy ignoring the unpalatable truth that we’re in League Two all summer keenly watching Kent win plenty of cricket matches with style, nerve and ability, not words you’d automatically associate with the Gills over the last four years…
So what now? With Scally in Dubai and the ground sale a done deal, the club in debt to the tune of £3.3 million and minus Priestfield we’re pretty powerless at the moment to affect the “big picture” so naturally everyone will logically focusing on the here and now and the mucky business of actually escaping the basement at the first attempt and not via the trapdoor! Immediately gaining promotion after relegation is known as “bouncing back” but the Gills have never been a bouncy club, some teams whore themselves round the divisions at breakneck speed, up and down they go, Crystal Palace, Sunderland, Birmingham, Watford, West Brom, Southend, Brighton, Walsall, Crewe, Luton, Stockport, Rotherham, Grimsby, they are the “yoyo” clubs and that is something the Gills have never mastered. Three relegations and two promotions in thirty fours years and a quickest ever “bounce back” of three years (1971-74) suggests the squad would have to buck quite a trend if they were to regain our status at the first attempt.
The first problem is obvious, we deserved to go down, the bottom line was simple we didn’t score enough goals and aside from when Dickson led the line, never looked like doing so. Our away record was also utterly pitiable. Put those two things together and you have all the indications that we‘re, err, not very good. Stimson has tried to address this sad state of affairs getting rid of the obvious deadwood and replacing them with arguably better players man for man but the second half of the season saw an improvement in away performances but overall little change in results.
Stimson talks a good game but that is part of the problem, he has raised expectations and raised a few hackles with his ruthless treatment of some players, fair play if the methods work (and I sincerely hope they will and to be honest think they will eventually) but there is no goodwill left, patience has run out and if the Gills begin the campaign with the same brand of drab, uninspired performances bursting with effort but lacking in any sign of creative spark then the already distinctly dis-chuffed locals will be calling for his head before the end of the cricket season. I’d give him more time but understand the frustration and resentment of many, the club have been in a downward spiral for five long years and we’ve all had enough.
At least nearly 3,000 season tickets have been sold, down from 3,500 and boosted by extra cheap ones for kids, but still the majority of the hardcore have signed up for the new season, but I wouldn’t say it is with much enthusiasm, the most positive thing I could say about the forthcoming season a month ago was that I was “ambivalent” about it. Five pre-season games later I would have to admit the lack of goals and creativity remains obvious for all to see with Mulligan the most forlorn example of our faults. In the space of a handful of hapless “performances” in pre-season people’s attitude towards the poor bugger went from mild anger to humour and then pity. As ever ten out of ten for effort but nowt out of ten for showing any finishing ability whatsoever…
Tuesday 15th July 2008 Gills 0 Stevenage Borough 1
I know, I know, early pre-season is all about fitness (eleven subs at half-time) and any club can get mugged 1-0 when experimenting with formations and trialists, but the worrying thing was that fundamentally we didn’t look like scoring. We huffed, we puffed and did a convincing repeat of most of last season’s home games. We weren’t terrible like last season’s 5-0 annihilation by Charlton, just plodding and predictable. The fifty or so Stevenage fans with their cryptic orange banner and spiteful abuse for Stimson and their ex-players added a little spice to the evening but Morison’s lobbed goal nine minutes into the second half proved too much for us. Crofts did hit a post and Mulligan missed a sitter, but it was more the lack of sparkle that worried the 700 or so Gills fans as they filed out.
Thursday 17th July 2008 Faversham Town 0 Gills 8
We might struggle in the Blue Square Premier but even I think we might win the Kent League. The visit of the Gills drew over 1,200 to Salters Lane (usual crowd less than 200), with plenty of local Gills and curious natives. Again it was about fitness and multiple substitutes at half-time but this was a far more sociable occasion. A pre-match pub-crawl round Faversham, then a bit of pre-season singing and twenty five minutes of laughing at our inability to score before Oli opened the floodgates. A Pugh screamer from thirty yards, another from Nutter from twenty-five and a simple one for Miller on 45 left the Gills coasting at half-time. Jackson came on for the second half and notched a neat, calm and collected hat-trick showing all the qualities Mulligan so clearly doesn’t possess, his efforts growing less and less accomplished as his frustration grew. A comical own goal completed the scoring in a game where we hit the woodwork twice and played some decent stuff…
Saturday 19th July 2008 Grays Athletic 1 Gills 0
This was a really rather shite day all round. The “Recreation Ground” is a charmingly quirky oddity and the social club is friendly enough but Grays had the brass neck to charge us £13 to get in(!) – yet only £10 to see a West Ham XI a week later, and a whopping £4 for a big glossy three-match programme bereft of anything worth the cover price. We then contrived to lose 1-0, Grays dominated throughout wasting a string of chances, we created just two chances all day Mulligan missed an open goal having been presented with the ball unmarked with just the keeper to beat in the first half. We laughed out loud. Jackson skied a close range chance in the second. Grays scored via a Kedwell header on 29 minutes but more significantly by the end we looked a rabble, the chortling Grays fans chanted “You’re going down with the Luton” and some testy Gills fans joined in. At least those catching the Gravesend-Tilbury ferry on the way back didn’t sink…
Wednesday 23rd July 2008 Gills 1 Ipswich Town 1
I nearly didn’t make this game after a bomb scare on the train at Victoria but was glad I did. The first half was excellent, we played some nice stuff against full-strength opponents. We could and perhaps should have been 3-0 up at the break, we hit the post and blazed over at the end of a smart bit of interplay. Our actual goal was from a hopeful pot-shot by the ever-lively Jackson. Wright in the Ipswich goal could rightfully claim an assist diving over the ball at the near post. The 1,374 crowd applauded warmly at the break, during which Ipswich must have received an almighty blocking because they were a different side in the second half. King gave away a clumsy penalty just past the hour which their Miller converted and we had to hang on at the end but a draw was a fair result and more importantly at that stage of pre-season we looked like making progress…
Tuesday 29th July 2008 Dover Athletic 1 Gills 0
This felt like going back to square one. Okay, so Dover have improved under Hessenthaler but still had a three-quarters first choice eleven starting and we were rubbish thoughout. Again we created sod all, again the non-league fans were left chanting that relegation was on the cards along side Luton and again we lost 1-0 thanks to an 83rd minute header by Frannie Collin. The Gills fans in the 1,500 crowd were not amused… again.
So pre-season hasn’t exactly been an orgy of confidence-building goals, victories and slick passing, infact it has left many feeling less optimistic than at the final whistle at Leeds. I have to say three of the games I attended were crap but not in a useless way, not in a shambolic way, just in a plodding, worthy but dull way. Even without teams with points-deductions I’d be confident we’d stay up this season but there has been little sign of the zest, imagination and goal power required to get us promoted.
If you look at the squad the spine of the team isn’t bad, Royce, King, Crofts, Miller and Jackson, the basis is there for a half-decent lower division team but the mix isn’t quite right. We need defensive reinforcements, a bit more pace in midfield, a winger with guile and a decent partner in crime up front for Jackson, a big bloke to lead the line off which he could play. I didn’t see McCammon play at Thurrock, cricket week at Canterbury was too tempting… it promptly rained, but with Berry and Mills added to the ranks you have to admit that the team might not be the finished article, but should be good enough to hold their own in League Two.
To do anything better than that will depend on two things, scoring more goals and better mental strength away from home. With Luton (-30), Bournemouth (-17) and Luton (-17) beginning with swinging points deductions (harsh considering the people responsible for their financial plight are long gone and got away Scot free) and other teams on limited budgets with sub-3,000 crowds we might have a chance. My biggest hope is a simple one, that despite our obvious limitations the division is so weak we can pick up enough confidence-boosting points to get a bit of momentum going. We certainly need it…
The reality of the situation is that we’ll be one of the bigger clubs in the division, our support potentially could be the second biggest behind Bradford, there is the attraction of visiting some nicer towns (Chesterfield, Lincoln, Chester), and some new grounds (Accrington Stanley, Morecambe, Shrewsbury, Darlington, Rotherham etc) but if we end up stumbling along in lower mid-table still struggling to score and failing to win away from home it won’t be acceptable and Stimson will come under intense pressure to buck up his ideas of bog off. Scally would also come in for renewed criticism for getting us in this bloody mess in the first place but with an apparently competent Chief Executive at the helm and our glorious leader away most fans will start the new campaign rightly focused on supporting the team in their attempt to “bounce back”. My head says resoundingly “no” but my heart says “perhaps” which is why I’ll be joining most of the usual suspects for a day out in Dorset on Saturday… we’ll just have to see what happens next, the only certainty, the next nine months won’t be dull! Enjoy.
The Relegated Binman