Gillingham Season Preview: problems at Priestfield

Gillingham have had a drastic fall from grace. They looked worthy promotion challengers in February 2016 but 18 months, 28 League One defeats and just 14 wins later, they survived by a mere point last term. Where did things start to go wrong?  Ahead of the new season, supporter Ben Thompson of The Rainham End talks about the problems that must be addressed.

It certainly has been crazy! The problem was the season before, we finished in 9th place which was a good solid place but at the back of that season we hit really bad form at the wrong time. Then it carried onto the following season which was last season, although we had a really decent enough start last season, it started to fade away. Justin brought in too many midfielders and not enough defenders. Every other game we constantly had injuries and half the time we ended up playing other defenders not in their natural positions, e.g. Deji Oshilaja who is a centre half but played right back. In the end it was that gutless, spineless performance at home to Oxford which we lost and cost Edinburgh the job and rightfully so.

Both Justin Edinburgh and Adrian Pennock were criticized for enforcing hoof ball, yet you conceded more goals than anyone in League One. Did you have the worst of both worlds?

I think that was the case, yes. Like I said in the previous question, we signed too many midfielders and not enough defenders, and I think that was why we only kept 3 clean sheets all season. We did too many silly mistakes which cost us games well. I think it was a sinking ship which Edinburgh like I said, deservedly got sacked, Pennock tried to steady the ship and somehow very luckily stayed up on the last day of the season.

New signing Alex Lacey was well thought of at Yeovil and Gabriel Zakuani tends to put his body on the line. After shipping 79 goals last year, could they give you some stability at centre-back?

I’d like to think so I hope! Haha, but yeah, I’ve always rated Zakuani very highly in the games I’ve watched him play, and he’s got plenty of experience at other clubs he’s played that. With Lacey, again I’ve heard got positive things about him, only a fairly young kid as well, defenders was the main key we needed to strengthen in, so I’m pleased we have sorted that area as quickly as possible. Hopefully Lacey will be the next John Egan haha, but we shall see.

Right-back Luke O’Neill signs after being released by Southend. He may not be the most technical player, but is it good to have some solid pros at the club?

Absolutely. I hadn’t really heard much about Luke O’Neill, but from what I heard, he’ll give it all he’s got and that’s what we need I think. Last season we had players at the club that didn’t even want to play for us, so it’s nice to sign some players that do want to play for us. Right back again was an area we needed to look at as we only really had Ryan Jackson who we released and now signed for Colchester. Other than that we had Aaron Morris who could play there but was injured all of last season. I’d like to sign 1 more right back for cover if possible but will see.

The aforementioned trio had all signed by 7th June. Did this strong start to the window restore some trust? Does Peter Taylor deserve credit?

It has yes, but I won’t get too excited! It’s good to see we’ve acted fairly quickly in signings and like I said, the main area we needed strengthening which was defenders, so it’s pleasing. He does, hopefully it turns out to be good. I do like Peter Taylor, he does have an eye for a player as it proved in his last spell as manager here as we signed John Egan who turned out to be a good player for us. Problem was his tactics were just too boring and negative style of football. I’m hoping Taylor as Director of Football turns out to be a good move so fingers crossed.

The downside to your transfer window is that you’ve lost two of your most gifted players in playmaker Bradley Dack and poacher Cody McDonald. Do you worry about a lack of technical quality?

Yeah, that was the downside. I was more upset with Cody leaving if I’m honest. I was expecting Dack to go anyway as one of these days he was going to further his career, but I was surprised to see Cody leave. He’s been at the club for so long now, so will be weird to see him come back in an AFC Wimbledon shirt on. But yeah, I think Cody will be a massive miss for us. Although we have signed Tom Eaves, I still feel we need to sign a Cody similar player, a poacher with a bit of pace that can score goals, and that’s what we’re lacking so far I think, so yeah I am worried with the lack of technical quality at the minute. Who knows, we might sign someone between now and the end of August, but yeah was heart-breaking to see Cody leave us for so long but again we will see really.

The replacements for McDonald are tall strikers Conor Wilkinson and Tom Eaves. Are you encouraged that they are more suited to high balls, or worried that they have a worse goalscoring record?

I’m more worried they have a worse goalscoring record. All over social media. I’ve seen Bolton fans saying Wilkinson is terrible etc, and similar thing with Eaves. But then again, who knows time will tell. It might well be a case of Pennock changing his style of football so hopefully change last season as at times watching Gillingham play was just diabolical. It is worrying about their goalscoring record but you never know. Hopefully it will all turn out to be good.

Josh Wright scored 11 goals in the second half of last season. If Gills fans had to give Pennock some credit for one thing, would it be turning Wright into a potent goalscoring midfielder?

Oh absolutely. I think what proved to be the turning point was at the start of the season Wrighty was captain, when Pennock came in, he changed the captain and I think it proved to be better. Wrighty was playing better and scored goals which turned out to be vital, especially his hat-trick of penalties against Scunthorpe! But yeah, it’s given Wrighty the freedom as well, so it has turned out to be good, so fair play to Pennock on that. I hope Wrighty is still a Gillingham player come the end of August as he was linked with a move away as well, I don’t think I could bear losing another player who turned out ok for us!

Young midfielders Greg Cundle and Elliott List have been given new deals. Big seasons for the youngsters?

I’d like to think so yes. I haven’t really watched Cundle play too much as he’s mainly been on the bench, the odd sub appearance here and there, but I do like Elliott List, got huge potential and could be a good young exciting winger for us. I’d like to see List involved in a lot more games this season and I don’t see why he can’t.

Another player staying on is Josh Parker – was he one of the few bright sparks in the second half of last season?

Yeah definitely. I was unsure about Parker for a while but it did turn out to be a half decent signing in the end. I hope he can continue doing so this season, as his goal against Port Vale earlier on last season actually turned out to be vital in the end! But yeah, other than Cody leaving, I probably would have offered him a deal anyway so it’s pleasing to hear he’s staying on for another season at least.

Stuart Nelson has been transfer listed after five years at the club. Do you see another goalkeeper being brought in before the Doncaster game?

If I had to say, probably not no. Other than Nels, we have Tomas Holy and Tom Hadler as keepers. I’m disappointed to see Nels being transfer-listed as us Gills fans know his passion and desire for the club, yes he did make a lot of mistakes last season but on his day he can prove to be a good keeper. But Pennock has come out saying he still has a role to play this season so it might turn out he might be un-transfer listed so again we will see.

What are your thoughts ahead of the League One season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

I think Portsmouth will be up there for me. Although Paul Cook has left them, Kenny Jackett has gone there and I rate him highly as a manager. He was the 1 man I wanted here at Gills this season, so I think he will do a good job for them. I think Bury will be up there as well, as they’ve signed some decent players as well and I think Beckford for them will score goals for them and has the experience to. But yeah looking forward to the season starting now.

Where will you finish? We both predicted top six last summer!

We certainly did and look how that turned out! Haha. It’s a difficult one for me. My head says 1 thing and my heart says another. If we can get off to a good start and keep it that way, then possibly and hopefully a lot better season than last. But I do have a fear of us doing awful again, Pennock to get sacked by Christmas and then Peter Taylor coming back in for the rest of the season and still go down. I’m going to go with a comfortable mid-table finish. I’ll say 12th. With the season we had last season, I’ll more than happily take that!

The Football Lab’s Verdict

Gillingham have lost two of their most gifted players in Dack and McDonald this summer. Though improvements to the defence including Lacey’s arrival have muted fan discontent with Pennock, that may re-surface when his long ball tactics return. A lack of quality in possession could be their downfall. 23rd

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