McKenna Looking Forward to Seeing Away Support as Blues Travel to Gillingham
Friday, 7th Jan 2022 11:36
New Town manager Kieran McKenna is looking forward to watching his side play in front of the Blues’ away support for the first time when they take on Gillingham at the Priestfield Stadium on Saturday.
Town have sold their entire allocation of 2,100 seats for the visit to the Kent side, the game having been rescheduled after being postponed on Boxing Day due to Covid cases among the Gills.
“Fantastic,” McKenna said when asked about the sell-out away support. “I’m looking forward to seeing it. I’ve been to a few away games at Gillingham before when I was at Tottenham just to watch games, so I know what the away end is like and that there can be a good atmosphere there.
“Everyone has spoken to me about how good the away support is. I’ve experienced it at Portman Road now across two games, seeing it live and how noisy they are and how much they get behind the team.
“I know the situation all year, the travelling numbers have been fantastic, even when the team hasn’t been doing well they’ve stayed behind the players and stayed with the club.
“I can only thank them for that in terms of myself as a manager of the club but also on behalf of the players. I know it’s appreciated, the players have spoken to me on that personally and I know that they value that.
“The fact that there are so many travelling down to Gillingham is great, we’re looking forward to that and hopefully it will give us that extra boost that we need and will give the players the confidence and the backing and the energy that we’ll need to compete in what’s going to be a very difficult game.”
Gillingham are currently third-bottom of League One - 14 points behind 11th-placed Town - without a win in their last 12 in all competitions, nine in the league.
They are the division’s second-lowest goalscorers having found the net only 18 times in 23 matches. Defensively, they have conceded the same as the Blues, 34, although in one fewer match.
At home they have won only twice in League One this season - most recently on October 19th when they defeated bottom club Doncaster 1-0 - have drawn three and lost five.
They ended a run of six successive defeats in all competitions, five in the league, when they drew 0-0 away against the MK Dons on New Year’s Day, their first fixture since December 11th, a game McKenna attended.
“I managed to go to the MK game with our game being postponed, so I was able to see that one live,” he said.
“I got a good feel for them, I thought they did ever so well, to be honest, especially with the difficult circumstances they had coming into the game.
“They had issues with Covid and hadn’t played in a while, so I thought it was a really good performance by them, I thought they limited MK really well in terms of stopping them creating chances, making it a difficult game for them.
“And as they game went on they became more and more of a threat and I thought they were good value for their point.
“I think there are obviously things that we can learn from that game. But also from watching their games from before that, I think their fundamentals, their principles as a team, what they do well, what they find important is clear from watching them.
“I don’t think there’ll be any big change in that and we know it’s a big challenge and we know what we have to do well and we just hope we can execute that on Saturday.”
McKenna says the Gills have similarities with his first Town opponents, Wycombe Wanderers, who the Blues defeated 1-0 in their last game on Wednesday 29th December.
“Gillingham are an opponent that aren't too dissimilar to Wycombe in terms of style,” he added.
“They're a strong team physically and they're effective on set pieces and winning the second ball. They will put us under pressure and try to put balls into the box.
“Against Wycombe we stood up well to that type of threat, and the clean sheet was a big factor as it gave us the foundation to go on and win the game.
“If we're as solid, organised and resolute as we were in that game, and with the same level of determination, then we give ourselves a good chance.”
“The challenge is to hit those levels that we did against Wycombe in the parts of the game that we played well, and try to maintain that for longer.
“We need to be mentally, physically and tactically prepared for what they offer, and then we'll try to show our quality.”
Gills boss Steve Evans is known for his lively approach to watching games from the touchline and famously had fallings-out with former Town managers Mick McCarthy and Paul Lambert.
Asked whether he had sought any advice regarding Evans as he faces him for the first time, McKenna said: “No, not at all. Obviously, Steve is a very experienced coach and has a really good record with a lot of experience and wins under his belt, and has managed a lot of games.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for him and his teams and we know it’s going to be a big challenge. We know the type of game they will want to make it and they are very good at it and very effective at how they play it.
“Obviously they’re having a challenging moment in terms of wins, so they are going to be fighting with everything they’ve got for a result and we need to make sure we’re doing the same.
“We need to be 100 per cent on commitment and our aggression, and our physicality in the game needs to be at an absolute top level, and then beyond that we need to control ourselves with the ball, we need to play how we want to play and we need to be effective.
“So, I think for sure I’ll be more focused on what’s going on on the pitch and obviously full respect to Gillingham and Steve, and I wish them well for the season, but we hope that we can go there on Saturday and get the result.”
McKenna may well stick with essentially the same team that beat the Chairboys in his opening fixture, given that result and the Gills’ similar approach.
Christian Walton could return in goal, however, having missed the Wycombe game after suffering with Covid. Otherwise, Vaclav Hladky will again get the nod between the sticks.
Janoi Donacien, Luke Woolfenden and George Edmundson will continue as the three centre-halves with Wes Burns and Matt Penney once again the wing-backs.
Skipper Sam Morsy and Lee Evans look set to keep their places in the centre of midfield with James Norwood and Sone Aluko either side of central striker Macauley Bonne.
Bersant Celina is back in training after illness and a hamstring problem but will probably only be among the subs. Cameron Burgess, Kyle Edwards and Rekeem Harper are back in training after Covid but also seem more likely to be on the bench than in the XI.
Gills manager Evans says the Priestfield Stadium crowd will have a significant role to play against the Blues.
“Ipswich is going to be massive, really tough, we are in a battle at that bottom end and we need some points to get out of that battle,” he told KentOnline.
“We are going to fight, we might get beaten by quality but we are going to fight. If we do that again we will be in the game.
“It shouldn’t be forgotten that we have got a lot of home games to come. We have been on the road and two of our home games, against Crewe and Ipswich, both were off [because of Covid].
“From that point of view we will have a catch-up time at Priestfield and that is when we need the supporters.
“They have been our 12th man, sometimes our 13th man, many times in the last two seasons and we are going to need them.
“We don't want doubts but we may have a day where it doesn't happen for us because we are playing some big clubs, but we know what we have to do.”
Gillingham are expected to have skipper Kyle Dempsey back in their side following cartilage surgery, the midfielder having been an unused sub for draw against the MK Dons, while striker John Akinde is also expected to return following a minor hamstring injury.
Dan Adshead, who is on loan from Norwich, is out until the end of the month with a broken metatarsal, while Alex MacDonald has been ruled out for the rest of the campaign with a knee injury.
Evans says that in addition to the Covid situation it has been a tough period for his club with injuries.
“It has been the hardest six to eight weeks ever, with game after game players getting injured, not small injuries, six, eight, 10 weeks, consistently for seven or eight weeks,” he said.
“I have always said you have to find a way to come back in the next day and get motivated and be positive with the group because we have got what we have got every time we play.
“Liam Manning [MK Dons manager] said before we played them he didn’t know what team we would come with.
“I am 100 per cent certain when he saw our teamsheet he would have known it would be tough, as oppose to recent weeks where managers get the teamsheet and are thinking if we score one we will get three or four.”
Ahead of the game, the Gills have added 19-year-old Norwich City striker Tom Dickson-Peters to their ranks on loan and he could make his debut.
Historically, Town have the upper hand on the Gills, winning 13 games between the sides (eight in the league), drawing 11 (11) and losing just three (three).
The teams last met in the Papa John’s Trophy at the Priestfield Stadium in October when Joe Pigott and Conor Chaplin were on target as a much-changed Town side comfortably won 2-0.
Pigott gave Town the lead in the 43rd minute and Chaplin added the second on 71 with the Blues deserved victors.
In March, former manager Paul Cook’s first game in charge of Town ended in a 3-1 League One defeat to Gillingham at the Priestfield Stadium.
Jack Tucker gave the Gills the lead in the seventh minute but skipper Luke Chambers pulled a goal back for Town on 65, however, Oliver netted in the 73rd and 80th minutes to see the home side to a deserved first home league victory over the Blues.
At Portman Road in October last year, Teddy Bishop’s goal three minutes from time saw Town to a 1-0 victory.
The Blues had had plenty of chances in the first half, before the Gills improved after the break but Bishop’s fourth goal of the campaign claimed the points for Town.
Blues keeper Holy joined the Blues from Gillingham in the summer of 2019 after the Czech had spent two years with the Kent club, for whom he made 107 appearances.
Striker Pigott had a spell on loan with the Kent side in the second half of the 2013/14 season, scoring once in four starts and three sub appearances.
The Gills squad includes a couple of players with Portman Road connections. Winger Mustapha Carayol joined the Gills in the summer after leaving Cypriot side Apollon Limassol. The Gambian international made five starts and three sub appearances for the Blues, scoring once, during a spell at Portman Road in the second half of 2017/18.
Gills midfielder Stuart O’Keefe, who moved to the Priestfield Stadium from Cardiff in the summer of 2019, was an academy schoolboy with Town.
Saturday’s referee is Alan Young from Cambridgeshire, who has shown 43 yellow cards and two red in nine games so far this season.
Young’s last Town match was the 2-1 defeat at Portsmouth in March in which he booked seven players, including then-skipper Luke Chambers, Gwion Edwards and Teddy Bishop.
Prior to that he had only refereed one previous competitive Town first-team game but it was a memorable one from an officiating angle - the 0-0 home draw with Wycombe Wanderers in November 2019.
Just before half-time, a Chambers header was diverted into his own net by Chairboys midfielder Curtis Thompson but Young wrongly disallowed it for offside having consulted linesman Aaron Farmer with the players already lined-up for the restart.
In the second half, Blues keeper Holy stopped a Joe Jacobson penalty after Chambers had fouled David Wheeler with the offence appearing to have taken place outside the area.
Earlier, Town had had penalty claim of their own turned down when Jon Nolan’s shot had struck Jacobson on the hand.
Young was also busy with his cards that evening with Nolan, Donacien, Woolfenden, Kayden Jackson, Luke Garbutt and six visiting players all booked.
Young had previously been in charge of Town’s 2-0 July 2012 friendly victory at Cambridge United and the 1-0 U21 Premier Cup defeat to Southampton at Portman Road in November 2014.
Squad from: Walton, Hladky, Holy, Donacien, Edmundson, Woolfenden, Burgess, Burns, Vincent-Young, Penney, Clements, Morsy, Evans, El Mizouni, Carroll, Harper, Fraser, Edwards, Celina, Aluko, Chaplin, Bonne, Pigott, Norwood, Jackson.
Photo: Matchday Images
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