Relegation is Pretty Inevitable at the Moment - Notes for Gillingham
Friday, 7th Jan 2022 16:00 by TomTheWriter
After a 10-day break, Town return to action in Kieran McKenna’s first away game as manager at Gillingham and TomTheWriter assesses the mood in the opposition camp.
Having picked up an opening-game victory as manager, Kieran McKenna will be hoping to perform better than Paul Cook did in his first game in charge of the Blues at the Priestfield Stadium back in March.
Their opponents Gillingham have found themselves fighting to stay in League One for the past few months with injuries having been one of the main causes of their predicament.
So far this season, the Gills have picked up three wins, nine draws and 11 defeats from their 23 games, the fewest number of wins of any side in the third tier.
Last season, Vadaine Oliver was imperious in front of goal, Kyle Dempsey offered tenacity and drive in the midfield with Jack Tucker’s exuberance gaining plaudits from higher up the pyramid.
“I can't see [Steve] Evans being here in February. It feels like the conflict we possibly expected much earlier in his spell may still happen before he leaves”, “Evans will want the game off, [chairman Paul] Scally will want it on”, “I know Evans said it when he first came in but he also says we should have won every game comfortably.”
Evans has been in charge of the Gills since the summer of 2019, arriving after a spell with Peterborough United. He has always been seen as a ‘tough and rough’ manager, but has had his support from large parts of the fanbase over the years.
“Evans is a master of self-promotion and deflecting the blame anywhere but upon himself”, “Evans has been around long enough to know what's he doing. He'll have tried encouragement. Now he's upped the ante to try and get a reaction from certain individuals. Let's hope it works!”, “Evans might just consider staying if he is allowed to bring in five or six serious League one players overnight.”
Currently finding themselves in the bottom three, Evans is tasked with turning the ship around this winter window, knowing that it could be the difference between League One and League Two football next season.
Historically, Gillingham under Evans have entered big rebuilds each summer to offset a number of departures at the end of each season.
Goalscoring defender Connor Ogilvie left at the end of his contract, eventually joining up with Portsmouth for the season. Goalkeeper Jack Bonham stepped up to the Championship with Stoke City, with flying winger Jordan Graham also moving to the second tier with Birmingham City.
Compared to the squad that ended the 2020/21 season, seven of the starting XI remain from their 1-0 victory at home to Plymouth Argyle on the final day, with three of the bench still at the club.
Strength-wise, Gills fans have found a few things to be positive about this season.
On the other hand, they have found a few things to be negative about “Very weak from a defensive point of view”, “I have some reservations about the strength of our squad”, “We are woefully weak up front and in defence.”
MK Dons 0-0 Gillingham
“Well happy with that. Stopped the rot, as referred to above. Got a few of our best players back. Dempsey sub, so close to a return as well”, “Not the prettiest game but a very valuable point. Very good team performance”, “Good point and clean sheet, build from here now, well done lads.”
“Looked and sounded as though we conceded a few chances in the first half, though few (if any) of any real danger and were on the front foot a lot in the second half”, “More than happy with that point, well done Gills. The perfect start to 2022 after all that has passed, a tentative step in the right direction, positive with the promise of more to come. I like it”, “Good point and more so an unexpected one.”
After a long spell of time without playing due to Covid postponements, Gillingham picked up a much-needed point away to play-off chasing MK Dons, with the return of multiple players from injury helping their cause.
Fleetwood Town 2-1 Gillingham
“I still expect us to go without a win until we get our players back and or fresh recruitment in January”, “We need to win the battles in front of us and must do better - whatever team we put out, we should be competing better with the likes of Crewe, Fleetwood and Cheltenham”, “I'm just trying not to be too depressed. I'm ancient enough to remember about 10 seasons of battling to stay in this division and we did manage some great escapes.”
“Get our best players back and/or the run of the ball for once and we have a reasonable chance of staying up”, “Well battled in the last 20, but didn't create anything after we scored”, “However, overall what cost us was another atrocious penalty decision that went against us for the third game running, in my opinion.”
Twenty-one days before the MK Dons game, Gillingham played Fleetwood Town in their last fixture of 2021. They fell to a 2-1 defeat and were fortunate to have games called off to help get a lot of players back from injury.
“Only positive news is that [Jamie] Cumming should be available for Saturday”, “I don’t think we concede the first with Cumming in goal”, “Cumming has been superb for us.”
Young goalkeeper Cumming, who is on loan from Chelsea, has spent most of the season as the first-choice goalkeeper, maintaining his positive development after a spell with Stevenage last season.
“[Aaron] Chapman will probably stay as back-up keeper”, “I'm afraid that was fairly central really - Chapman really does look a liability”, “For a big bloke, Aaron Chapman doesn’t seem to impose himself in his area.”
Stepped in before the New Year due to Cumming having Covid, but has usually been seen as the back-up keeper for the league season, finding game-time in the cup competitions.
“Evans spoke about eight weeks being the sort of time he expected injuries to have cleared up by”, “We'd have to drop Ehmer and [Jack] Tucker as well. The aimless hoof in the general direction of the big target man doesn't work without the big target man”, “Ehmer is not the player he was previously.”
Snapped up in the summer from Bristol Rovers, Ehmer returned on New Year’s Day after a month out with a shoulder injury having been ever-present prior to that without drawing the headlines due to his defensive partner Tucker.
“[Rhys] Bennett didn't think he'd be fit enough to even play 25 minutes”, “On the games I have seen Bennett has been more impressive”, “[Robbie] McKenzie and Bennett looked very comfortable.”
A solid centre-half for Carlisle United last season, Bennett has joined a Gillingham side where he has been utilised for his versatility.
“McKenzie should have just booted it clear or off for a corner but waited for Chapman to come to the ball and their player nipped in”, “Could be wrong, but hasn't Evans talked up McKenzie in the past for his attitude and his flexibility?”, “While I do think McKenzie has done a decent job, he would have been useful in other areas during this period.”
Another versatile option, McKenzie has the ability to play across the backline. Has been used as a left-back for the majority of this season.
“I do feel that [David] Tutonda improved with a run of games similarly to [Olly] Lee who has shown glimpses of quality in recent matches”, “Tutonda returned to training but pulled up with another hamstring complaint”, “Still undecided about Tutonda to be honest. Looked hopeless to start, then OK, then a bit ropey again, then injured.”
One of the main reasons for McKenzie’s switch to the left-back position has been Tutonda’s fitness, who returned for the Fleetwood game after an absence of 12 games. After their winter break, he may be close to a full return.
“[Harvey] Lintott surely escapes that axe as a youth and playing pretty well”, “Lintott is one I would like to see get more experience ready for a real shot at the first team next year”, “Lintott to his credit was one who did I think the lad has a few goals in him for a defensive player.”
Young defender Lintott has been used as a replacement right-back on a few occasions this season, with the academy product making the jump to the first team.
“[Bailey] Akehurst has been good in his recent games, but did struggle a bit today”, “Akehurst was left side midfield”, “Akehurst was OK, a solid OK in my book, especially considering the circumstances.”
Another young defender in the ranks, Akehurst was used as a left-back at the beginning of the season, before dropping back into the academy.
“We'll agree to disagree on [Ryan] Jackson. The second yellow was clear, but was a rash choice he made in the course of play”, “Jackson normally lobs them on a high trajectory, rarely consistent on how far these are thrown”, “He has the ability to hurt teams but is starting too deeply to really do it.”
Stronger in the attack than the defence, Jackson has started every game bar two since the Papa John’s Trophy clash between the two sides in October.
“Abysmal, unprofessional and needless foul for pen and deserved sending off in second half”, “The goal return on Jackson’s long throws is awful. And finally, this season, there has been some aimless stuff”, “I was wondering if Jackson could play wide midfield in a traditional 4-4-2 formation.”
Had a lot of injury problems earlier in the season, but looks to have put that behind him for the time being. Likely to start on Saturday.
“Young Jack may well have evidenced enough to put him in the category of being worth around £1 million to a team with substantial funds”, “Tucker's tribunal money might take years by which time we might not even have a club”, “As for Tucker he will also go but we will get the development money for him.”
Arguably Gillingham’s strongest centre-half last season, Tucker has been drawing the eye of Championship and League One scouts since his first-team debut and looks to be someone with a high ceiling in the game.
“My hunch is that Tucker is unlikely to go, unless there is an astronomical offer”, “Tucker was excellent”, “Feel a bit sorry for Jack Tucker, he’s our only defender with any quality and this evening he didn’t even have a reliable goalie behind him.”
Has started the last 16 games in all competitions beginning with the Ipswich defeat in the Papa John’s Trophy. Is out of contract at the end of the season and is very likely to be on the move in the summer.
“Agree on Lee. In his first couple of spells with us, he impressed early on in his loan spells, but seemed to fizzle out”, “You never know, Olly Lee could make a return - we know he’s a good player”, “What’s going on with Olly Lee? He’s hardly featured since signing on a permanent deal.”
In his fourth spell at the club, Lee had found game time hard to come by this season, but did start the last four games of 2021, scoring once.
“Perhaps we will try to let [Ben] Reeves go by paying up some of his contract and encouraging him to find a new club”, “Bit thin on the ground with Reeves having to play in two different positions”, “Reeves doesn't get a look in and so on.”
Like Chapman, Reeves is usually found starting the cup games and then playing a supporting role in the league games. Hasn’t started a game since November.
“[Dan] Phillips was very good again”, “For me, Phillips was brilliant Tuesday night and I suspect would be in the team too along with Tutonda and possibly MacDonald”, “Phillips does appear to make us more of a unit.”
Young loanee Phillips switched Watford for Gillingham for the season and has recently come into the side after a lengthy absence.
“I'd add that I think [Dan] Adshead has been an adequate signing”, “Adshead and Phillips are loanees and decent enough to be kept in my honest opinion, but might not be”, “I would guess that the Adshead deal was only agreed as he was a defensive midfielder.”
One of two Norwich City players in the Gills squad this season, Adshead had been a key fixture for the club but has missed the last three games due to a metatarsal injury and is back later this month.
“With Lloyd as busy as he is, there’s always a chance we’ll snatch something”, “Annoyingly Danny Lloyd, who's a really exciting player and was buzzing, put two over the bar as well when one of them when clean though looked like a certain goal.”
Picked up from Tranmere Rovers this season, Lloyd has stepped up to League One well so far. Able to play across the attack, he already has three goals to his name.
Academy Player, Impressive Winger
“I don’t think [Stuart] O’Keefe has been good in the last couple of weeks”, “Unfortunately, the art of the tackle is leaving the game. Pretty sure our resident card collector O’Keefe wouldn’t have as many if he played 10 years ago”, “Also to be welcomed is the beneficial opportunity for the suspended O'Keefe to reflect on his behaviour in picking up bookings with alarming regularity.”
Developed in the Ipswich Town academy, O’Keefe will be eyeing up this fixture to showcase to the club that he shouldn’t have been released as a youngster.
“One further complication is that my understanding was that [Mustapha] Carayol was on a short-term deal which was due to expire around the end of the year”, “Let’s face it, as good as I think Carayol is can be, he isn't the best on the fitness front and that leaves us with Lloyd”, “Carayol at this stage he has still to prove his fitness over 90 minutes.”
Having been in-and-out of the side over a two-month spell during the season, former Town loanee Carayol has started the last five games without scoring. Adds some flair to Evans’s aggressive side.
“I'd also look to do something with [Alex] MacDonald. He had a year-long contract and is out for the season”, “With regard to MacDonald I don't think he will play for the club again”, “I wasn't impressed with MacDonald.”
Scotland youth international Alex MacDonald, like Lloyd, has been utilised for his versatility across the midfield and attack.
“Can we pay off on the cheap with a promise of welcoming back in pre-season?”, “Lloyd/MacDonald’s manic work rate seems to lift the team and bother the opposition”, “MacDonald was unrelenting.”
However, MacDonald hasn’t been seen since the Wycombe game in October, just after the Ipswich tie, and is out for the rest of the season.
“I think Dempsey is the most likely to go, but the fact that he is injured may thwart that”, “We also need a new central midfielder who can do box to box as without Dempsey we look so bad”, “I don't expect Dempsey quality but at least someone who can do the job so we are not left in the lurch quite as much.”
Star midfielder Dempsey was excellent for Gillingham last season. Was subject to a deadline day bid from Charlton Athletic, but they held firm.
“Dempsey wasn't at his best and Tucker can do better”, “The key players to come back are Dempsey and Oliver who will definitely make a difference but I fear we will be too cut adrift by the time they're back in 2022”, “Dempsey and Lloyd were running the midfield in a lot of games.”
Probably their most creative midfielder in the middle of the park, Dempsey keeps everything ticking in the game. Has missed the last seven games due to injury, but returned to the bench for the MK Dons game.
“You say about moving [John] Akinde but I would expect similar to be available on loan that is no good for us at all”, “Akinde would get more time. He simply does get time in our division.”
Having been absent for the first month of the season, Akinde has only missed two games since the beginning of September, including last week’s match against MK Dons.
“I found out Friday that [Gerald] Sithole had the virus just after the FA Cup game. I wonder of any players had it at that time too?”, “Sithole was an option. He’s been used a fair bit recently but wasn’t in Saturday’s starting XI”, “Sithole is far too inexperienced and we sent back the other recognised striker.”
Has featured heavily off the bench for the Gills this season, with 12 of his last 13 appearances coming as a substitute. After the arrival of Tom Dickson-Peters, he may find game-time hard to come by.
“Start him on Saturday. Considering he's from Norwich, I'm sure he'll be up for scoring against the Tractor Boys!”, “For this to work, we clearly have to play the ball on the deck. Hopefully then he has the speed, skill and eye for goal to help us”, “Maybe he's the fox in the box feeding off Oliver's knockdowns that we need?”
The first new signing of the winter window to write about is Norwich City’s Dickson-Peters, a young striker who has impressive in front of goal for the Canaries’ U23s side. Picked up on a half-season loan and will be desperate to make an impression on Saturday.
“We would need Oliver to be fit and at least one more forward to replace him”, “I can't see it being worth us selling Oliver, he is 30 - had a great season last season - but his general career record has been average”, “The quality of finishing has been atrocious.”
Gillingham’s top scorer in 2020/21 having netted 20 times, Oliver currently has seven to his name this year, recently returning from a six-game injury absence.
“Oliver clearly had a problem before the injury”, “I take some of the points on board and Akinde did work quite effectively last year with Oliver at times”, “It is definitely possible that we might be almost forced into selling at least one player in January. It is not impossible that that will be Oliver.”
Having returned for the MK Dons game, Oliver will be hoping to make up for lost time, starting with an Ipswich side he scored twice against last season.
Gillingham Fans on ITFC
“I think we're lucky Ipswich, Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton have all massively underachieved as they easily should be in the automatic promotion push and it's tight enough without them”, “Tomas [Holy] will be miles out of our wage structure I’d expect. Ipswich are notoriously big spenders”, “I could have added Ipswich to that but for some reason they have always punched above the size of their town.”
“Evans will have to draw on all his experience to keep the players motivated so we're in with a chance of escaping relegation”, “I am feeling relegation is pretty inevitable at the moment, where is the fire power to get us out of this predicament?”, “It makes you realise that if we have anything like a fully fit squad we should easily get out of the relegation zone and beyond as if MK are seventh, the teams around 18th to 20th are absolute pony.”
The main forum for a Gillingham fan is The Blues Rock Café, a comprehensive area for all Gillingham fans to dive into and discuss all aspects of the club.
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