It Will Take A Small Miracle - Notes for Gillingham
Friday, 4th Feb 2022 15:00 by TomTheWriter
One month after their last meeting, the Blues host a Gillingham side staring down the barrel of relegation and TomTheWriter assesses the mood in the opposition camp.
Currently running with a two wins out of every three record under new manager Kieran McKenna, Ipswich return to Portman Road for the first of two games against sides in the relegation zone.
Their opponents Gillingham have found themselves fighting to stay in League One for the past few months, but a new manager, Neil Harris, who was appointed on Monday, could see them head in a different direction.
This season, Vadaine Oliver has been leading the line under trying circumstances, Stuart O’Keefe has been snapping at heels in the midfield with Jack Tucker gaining plaudits from higher up the pyramid.
“I recall his Millwall teams being physically strong and fairly direct when we played them”, “That’s really a great bit of work from chairman Paul Scally. I like Harris and he always gave his all as a player”, “Welcome Neil Harris. He’s been there and done it and is a higher calibre manager than I thought we’d end up acquiring.”
After the 4-0 defeat to Ipswich at the beginning of the year, Steve Evans parted company with Gillingham with them sat in the relegation zone. Steve Lovell took temporary charge before the appointment of Harris on deadline day.
“Hopefully, we can all be patient and support Neil Harris and his team in their quest to make the best of what’s left this season and prepare us for better times come next August - when the direction of travel shifts from south to north”, “Personally, I'd like to see us give it a right good go in February as we could have that new manager bounce and there are some winnable games”, “Either way that journey starts tonight, hopefully with a win.”
He has had four days and one game with his squad so far and recorded a 1-0 victory over fellow strugglers Crewe Alexandra on Tuesday night. Harris will be looking to fire his Gills side to a victory on Saturday, with the club losing two games to Town so far this season, last month’s league fixture and a Papa John’s Trophy tie in October.
The State of Play
“If we are where I think we are, deep in the mire, we are lucky to have Lovell. It may be hard to take but things could be worse”, “Everybody seems to be blaming everybody else except the biggest culprits”, “Their confidence is totally shot, it will take a small miracle for them to regain any resilience this season.”
As it stands, Gillingham find themselves in 23rd place in League One with four wins, 10 draws and 15 defeats from their 29 games.
“[Jack] Tucker and [Max] Ehmer don’t work as a defensive pair”, “My target for the season is to avoid last place, preferably the last two places and to see a couple of wins. If those wins come quickly I'll start fretting again”, “We're not bottom of the league, which we were at half-time.”
The Gills sit 14 places and 19 points behind Town heading into the fixture on Saturday with a victory over the visitors keeping the Blues in touch with the play-offs.
Currently in the Gillingham squad they have a solid selection of centre midfielders to choose from, with new signing Ben Thompson adding to their strong ranks.
Their weakest position looks to be their attack with a lot of focus put on Oliver’s shoulders after the departure of John Akinde to Colchester.
Squad strength-wise, Gills fans have found little to be positive about this season.
“Youth-teamers with superior strength and athleticism”, “Our strongest XI would see us comfortably mid-table”, “When some of us imply that we’ve not much strength on the bench I feel that the claim is a tad unwarranted.”
The lack of senior options is the big negative. “The only thing we lack is strength in depth which is why we haven’t been able to cope with injuries”, “The squad is just too small to let others like [Ryan] Jackson, Ehmer and [David] Tutonda who are looking weak go”, “Any reliance on the back up (especially the weak defence) has cost us.”
Gillingham 1-0 Crewe Alexandra
“Well done boys - great effort all round”, “Players looked like they knew their jobs tonight. Marked improvement from the chaos since the Ipswich game. Congratulations Mr Harris”, “We have our problems, but the work-rate from the team isn't one of them under the right manager.”
“Thought Tucker was immense in second half, seemed to prevent what look like three certain goals with last ditch tackles and headers. [Aaron] Chapman also played well, a few good saves”, “The simple fact that we hung on for the vital three points gives me hope that our luck just might have changed”, “Looking forward to the trip to Ipswich even more now.”
In Harris’s first game as manager, they hosted fellow relegation candidate Crewe Alexandra with a Danny Lloyd penalty giving Gills their first league win since October.
Gillingham 2-7 Oxford United
“No team should concede seven. Lovell's had several weeks to get us organised. But we seem to be going backwards!”, “I transitioned from dejected, defeated fan to giddy lunatic at some point during the second half. That was a strange game even by the standards of the strangest in the last 50-odd years”, “A general lack of confidence is now made worse by several players probably miffed at not getting the move they wanted.”
“Sell the players we can to balance the books and start again in the summer. The season is clearly a write-off”, “Four goals gifted to them by a mixture of us and the referee and another three pretty pathetic goals defensively”, “Not the best day for our defence but if you discount the four dodgy penalties, it was a narrow home defeat against a play-off side.”
In what would be Lovell’s last game as interim manager, Gillingham were embarrassed at home to Oxford United with four Cameron Brannagan penalties sealing an awful afternoon for the club.
“I think [Pontus] Dahlberg's getting some unfair criticism at a time when the entire team is vastly underperforming”, “He won’t ever play for the Watford first team - will he?”, “Dahlberg has barely landed and has played in a team in a full-blown crisis. Ask yourself whether he or any defender you care to consider has been more responsible for recent calamities.”
After Jamie Cumming was recalled by Chelsea to be sent out on loan to MK Dons, Gillingham acted quickly to replace their first-choice keeper. Dahlberg, who spent the first half of the season with Doncaster, joined from Watford but hasn’t had the best start to his Gills career.
“Dahlberg has made some mistakes but the problem is that he is still way better than Chapman”, “Unfortunately Chapman is no better and probably worse”, “Chapman must start Tuesday. I hate to do this to someone so soon in his Gills career but I'm not sure I've seen a worse keeper for us.”
Signed as the back-up to Cumming earlier in the season, Chapman came in for the Crewe game after Dahlberg conceded seven against Oxford. Did well to keep a clean sheet on Tuesday.
“Jackson has never been a great defender and is now no longer a League One player”, “Jackson can’t take on the full-backs”, “Jackson is average for League One. He’s lost a bit of pace but he can do a job there.”
Had a lot of injury problems earlier in the season, but looks to have put that behind him for the time being. With Harris setting up in a 3-5-2 on Tuesday, he may come in at the right midfield position.
“Of the kids, [Harvey] Lintott definitely has promise”, “Of the three kids, Lintott is the only one who looks to be strong enough to make the first team squad”, “Lintott or Tutonda could perhaps be used.”
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.
“I think [Kyle] Dempsey will be gone but Tucker and Oliver to stay”, “I am expecting saleable assets to be sold, maybe Jack Tucker will remain due to his age and we will get compensation”, “They made the basic errors, all our defenders including Tucker know how they should defend, but they didn’t.”
The standout out young talent in the first team this season, Tucker is likely to leave at the end of the season with no new contract on the table.
“Bet [Conor] Masterson is already legging it away”, “Hard to see how Masterson would not be an upgrade on [Rhys] Bennett, due to his age, mobility and previous record”, “Welcome Conor Masterson I am sure the defence will benefit from your presence.”
Previously on loan with Cambridge United, Masterson made his Gillingham debut on Tuesday in a back three. Looked calm and assured and is likely to start on Saturday. On loan from QPR for the rest of the season.
“Harris might even make Tutonda look like a professional footballer”, “Tutonda looks like a deer in the headlights”, “In my opinion we should have never signed him or Tutonda.”
Picked up from Bristol Rovers in the summer, Tutonda started on the left of a five-man midfield on Tuesday and might have found a new position for himself for the rest of the season.
“I'm less certain about [Bailey] Akehurst or [Gerald] Sithole”, “Akehurst had a decent 70 minutes against Bolton away but in the next match he was hauled off at (or before - I can’t remember) half-time after a poor performance”, “He needs to strengthen but Akehurst looks like a footballer.”
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.
“If another player is leaving it might allow us to bring in another left-back and them use [Robbie] McKenzie elsewhere”, “Tutonda seems to be a disaster defensively but McKenzie does OK at left-back”, “McKenzie is a major blow. I think he is one of the few still with us who can be proud of what he has produced week-in and week-out.”
The man of many talents, McKenzie lined up as a makeshift striker in the earlier meeting between Ipswich and Gillingham in January, before starting as a right midfielder on Tuesday night.
“Trying to find a positive, McKenzie tried his best. At MK, when up front, he made the MK defenders work”, “I will change things like putting Tucker and McKenzie back in defence”, “Things need to change. It appears from McKenzie's selection up top that Evans has no confidence in the strikers.”
However, he has been usually seen at the left-back spot, which he had made his own throughout the season. With Harris’s formation switch, he could end up anywhere on the pitch.
“I’d like to see Masterson in for Ehmer, at least, and a structure that gives Oliver a chance of getting into the game”, “Imagine walking into our dressing room a few weeks ago and training with Ehmer every day”, “So how did we lose 7-2? Two basic reasons I think. Ehmer, who was again at fault for two of their three open play goals.”
Like Tutonda, Ehmer arrived in the summer from Bristol Rovers. He has featured the most of any Gillingham player this season, but he hasn’t pulled up any trees in his return to his former side.
“Ehmer came back from Bristol Rovers a shadow of his former self”, “How is Ehmer still in the team?”, “Seems like he was a decent character but very League Two, I’m afraid - bit of a carthorse and the games Bennett played alongside Ehmer were a disaster.”
With the recent switch, Ehmer lined-up in the middle of the back three, which could be a key change for the better at Gillingham. Having three centre-backs on the pitch could make them more secure.
“Apart from Thompson, Harris is presumably only going to be able to bring in out-of-contract players”, “I believe Thompson has had approximately 144 appearances for Neil Harris and approximately 53 since he departed in October 2019. Neil appears to have given him a lot of games at quite a youngish age”, “Ben Thompson confirmed. Signed until the end of the season.”
One of the more impressive deadline day dealings, Thompson departed Millwall to rejoin his former boss in Kent. Had been heavily linked to Portsmouth throughout the window, so it was a surprise see him drop down to Gillingham. May make his debut on Saturday.
“Alas, he went with a diamond and Olly Lee in the defensive anchor role”, “Olly Lee is a very good footballer. He hasn’t fitted in or played much but I like to have a spark. He will be a big piece for us and is a very clever player”, “Let’s see if Olly Lee comes back into the team with the new manager.”
In his fourth spell at the club, Lee had found game-time hard to come by this season and missed the fixture against Ipswich in January but then started the next five.
“I know he’s been injured for a while”, “Dan Adshead is likely to be out until the end of January”, “I feel he was played out of position in order to accommodate the loanees [Dan] Phillips and Adshead in more central positions.”
On loan from Norwich City, Adshead has been out injured for a while with a broken foot and has not played since the end of November. Rumoured to be close to a return, but Ipswich may be too soon for him.
“We’ve shipped 13 goals in his [Lovell’s] four-game tenure, he should have started Phillips today”, “Phillips has been one of our better players”, “In Phillips, the departed Cummings and maybe Adshead we had some decent loanees.”
Like Dahlberg, Phillips is at Gillingham from Watford for the season and has been in and out of the team for the past month. Started the loss to Ipswich, but has only featured from the start once since then.
“Agree about [Ben] Reeves. Never really got a chance under the previous management but has done well in the couple of games under Lovell”, “Reeves is injured - ankle ligaments, out for about three weeks”, “Personally I reckon Reeves is a decent player, agree on the others.”
Reeves hasn’t featured since the defeat to Wigan in which he scored one of Gillingham’s two goals, having been out with injury and is unlikely to feature on Saturday.
“[Mustapha] Carayol is virtually like-for-like for [Jordan] Graham”, “Carayol on his day can be useful but another Graham? Not a chance, sorry”, “Carayol also looks a different player (for the worse).”
Ex-Town loanee Carayol has been impressive for Gillingham this season, but hasn’t found the back of the net since the Morecambe game in August. Came off on Tuesday night on a stretcher due to a head injury, but was reportedly alert in the changing room. However, the knock could mean he is unavailable on Saturday.
“One from Danny Lloyd who was the only stand-out in yet another dire home performance”, “I agree with your point regarding to the spirit of the team. Lloyd was the only one trying to get people going”, “Lloyd seems capable of lifting himself (given freedom by Steve Lovell?). Hopefully he can be encouraged to lift the others.”
The goalscorer on Tuesday night from the spot, Lloyd has been one of Gillingham’s standout players during their poor form over the last few months. Has scored two goals in his last two games.
“Lloyd has been a popular character and lively player for us, but a bit in and out”, “Interesting the fulsome praise and send off on Twitter from Danny Lloyd”, “A couple of fans gave Akinde abuse as he was substituted and Danny Lloyd remonstrated with them.”
Likely to be Gillingham’s main outlet on Saturday, Lloyd’s position behind the two strikers allowed him to control the play. He will look to do the same at the weekend.
“The first goal actually started with Dempsey and O’Keefe tackling each other midway in the Oxford half”, “Agree when we have O’Keefe and Phillips, why play Lee at the base of a diamond or as a defensive midfielder?”, “I think it is O'Keefe near our goalkeeper. I take it he was meant to be covering a post but should have reacted as he was probably the closest player.”
Once part of the Ipswich academy as a youngster, O’Keefe has spent the last three years with Gillingham. O’Keefe will be eyeing up this fixture to showcase to the club that he shouldn’t have been released as a youngster.
“By playing O'Keefe as a ball-winning midfielder in a more traditional midfield starting position, he is able to press and do the closing down further up the pitch”, “O'Keefe and [Alex] MacDonald are characters I wouldn't mind seeing around next season”, “We also have decent defensive midfielders in O'Keefe and, when fit, Adshead.”
Has started the last 10 games and also found the back of the net in the 3-2 defeat to Wigan Athletic. Will be part of a midfield battle that Ipswich will need to win without Sam Morsy.
“Talked of how badly they’ve been treated and basically are now damaged as a result. [Charlie] Kelman was in tears at the end today!”, “A trier, but as likely to hit the back of the net as Akinde”, “Kelman and the Norwich lad [Tom Dickson-Peters] showed more desire on Tuesday than Akinde has all season. Good riddance.”
Back at the club after seeing his first loan spell cut short, Kelman will be looking to make up for lost time in his second stint from QPR. Has started four of the last five games.
“Kelman, Sithole and Dickson-Peters are just not up to League One and are a waste of time”, “Dickson-Peters putting himself about a bit and showing some good positional sense”, “We have other forward options in Kelman and Dickson-Peters now, so I don't think any more forwards are needed.”
On loan from Norwich City, Dickson-Peters is yet to find the back of the net for Gillingham since his arrival, having been prolific in academy football. Has only featured once since the game against Town, the 0-0 home draw with Shrewsbury a week and a half ago.
“I think Sithole deserves minutes soon, he's quick, works hard and he’s scored at the Rainham End!”, “Also, do we now have four strikers plus Sithole? When was the last time that was true”, “Sithole could replace Oliver, especially if we are relegated?”
Sithole has featured heavily off the bench for the Gills this season with 13 of his last 14 appearances coming from being a substitute.
“Time for Tucker, Oliver and others to step up and earn the crown!”, “I think he may try keeping Oliver as he likes target man, I suppose it depends on how far down the line Oliver is with his own transfer dealings”, “I think Oliver will stay.”
Gillingham’s top scorer last season, Oliver currently has seven to his name this year, but hasn’t scored since the 1-1 draw with Sheffield Wednesday back in November.
“The lottery of hoof ball forward, Oliver surviving on scraps and results were a little better”, “Oliver's contract is up at the end of the season, but he is still a fairly sought after player for his record last year if nothing else”, “I think it's safe to say that when hearing Oliver was out, no one was thinking - we are going to concede seven now.”
Scored twice against Town in the Gills’ 3-1 win at the Priestfield Stadium last season and will be looking to find his scoring touch after 13 games without a goal. Came off the bench on Tuesday night, so will be itching for a start on Saturday.
Gillingham Fans on ITFC
“Can Neil Harris make it two wins from two under his management, with victory over Ipswich Town at Portman Road?”, “We don't expect anything from Ipswich, so it's a free hit for Harris and by Cambridge next week, he'd have had nine days with us and plenty of squad time”, “My last game was Ipswich where the players looked like they'd rather be anywhere than Priestfield. Complete contrast tonight, full of commitment and high work-rate”, “It might seem trivial but at the Ipswich game I was looking forward to a burger at half-time. With Gills 3-0 down it was pretty much the only thing to look forward to.”
Last Time Out – Gillingham 0-4 Ipswich Town
“As far as I'm concerned we're as good as gone already, we create nothing and as a result we don't score and therefore don't win”, “From that point, one-way traffic. Three-nil down after 23 minutes and really, if truth be told, it looked like Ipswich eased off knowing the game was won”, “They kept the ball for fun and we couldn’t get anywhere near their players or the ball.”
“Gillingham woeful, Ipswich wonderful. I expected us to lose but the manner of the defeat might be terminal”, “I’m an optimist so until relegation is mathematically certain, I’ll remain hopeful. However, that first 25 minutes was awful”, “Agree about the worst performance comment - it's up there with the cluelessness and shambolic nature of the famous Wycombe relegation match.”
Back in January, in Steve Evans’s last game as Gills manager, Ipswich dominated Gillingham in their own backyard. James Norwood, Wes Burns, Macauley Bonne and a late Conor Chaplin penalty sealed an impressive 4-0 victory for the Blues.
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