David Cameron Walker

Archive for the ‘Gillingham’ Category

Only title win will quench Gills fans’ thirst for success

Monday, March 4th, 2013

Lower league fans love to have a dig at those who support top-four Premier League sides and their demand to see three points every week, retorting with “come and support a real team” and the like. Yet having been top of League Two for the bulk of this season, a chunk of Gillingham’s support are beginning to show a similar attitude after Martin Allen and his men surprised all by heading into the final months of the season at the summit of English football’s fourth tier.

Granted, performances have been indifferent at home and the results largely similar. Priestfield has become something of a bogey ground in recent months as opposition teams come and outplay a team seemingly filled with nerves and lacking confidence. Yet record-breaking away form – 11 wins in a season is the best of any Gillingham side ever – has kept the team’s nose in front of any other side, raising expectations with only 11 games to go.

What is the indifferent home form down to? Allen claims teams are raising their games when they visit, making it doubly difficult for the Gills to dominate. Shouldn’t it be down to the team to ramp up its performance once more, though? You’d think so, but it’s hard to remember the last time Gillingham convincingly won at home – perhaps stretching back to beating Scunthorpe 4-0 in the FA Cup last November.

Since then, the Gills have won three out of 11 at home with only one of these victories coming by a two-goal margin. In the league, Gillingham have not scored three at home since beating Burton 4-1 on October 20th and a few midfield departures have left the side lacking the creativity to do the same again. Supporters then have their backs up, this affects the team and performance levels drop.

The players would be well within their rights to blame a poor atmosphere for contributing to disappointing displays, while the fans will say it is up to the squad to give them something to shout about. As with most things in life, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

But away from home, Allen and his men have cracked it. Eleven wins, five draws and just the one defeat against Torquay in October have propelled the club to top position. The formula seems simple enough: nick a goal and then soak up the pressure. Just ten away goals conceded shows how the Gills are among the best in the country on their travels, with a high-performing back five of Stuart Nelson, Matt Fish, Joe Martin, Adam Barrett and Leon Legge are key.

The big questions, of course, are ‘will Gillingham get promoted?’ and ‘will they win the league?’ The team are still eight points clear of fourth place with 11 games remaining, so the club are on track for promotion. But with only one title in the club’s history – the old Fourth Division in 1963-64 – the fans are demanding more.

Gillingham have a remarkable four away games still in March, with only two at home. If they can somehow remain unbeaten across this month and continue their exceptional away record, then they’d be in an excellent position to win the title.

With fans’ expectations higher than ever, there’s no better time to rediscover the very best form at home and pull away from Port Vale and Burton. It certainly won’t be easy with a crowded fixture list, but it’s the same for everyone. Gillingham’s record-breakers are only potentially eight weeks away from truly making it a season to remember – then the supporters may finally have something to cheer at Priestfield.

Written by Ben Curtis, We Are Going Up’s Gillingham Blogger

Ben tweets at @benjamin_curtis

Where could it go wrong?

Monday, October 8th, 2012

Gillingham really do have what it takes to get promoted this season. That’s if the first 11 results of the campaign are anything to go by and judging by the mood around the club, nobody is settling for the play-offs in May. Yes, it’s too early to be certain. But the players have given themselves the almost-perfect foundations from which to charge towards League One, steamrollering their way through teams without breaking into too much of a sweat and pacing into a three-point lead.

In fact, that’s been the biggest eyebrow-raiser so far: how the squad have killed games off early and taken it down a gear. There’s still plenty to come, too, as we head into the second quarter of the campaign. Whichever eleven players Martin Allen has put out – often he’s been making five changes a game – there has always been the feeling they are nowhere near their peak.

And when they do peak, there won’t be a team capable of stopping them.

A lot of this early-season positivity is down to Allen’s introduction. Following the departure of Andy Hessenthaler, ‘Mad Dog’ has taken a more-than-capable squad of players, made a couple of additions, got them fitter and more organised. Hessenthaler didn’t fail in bringing together a decent group of footballers, but couldn’t get them working together. Allen’s taken on the baton and set about turning them into record breakers.

Five league away wins in a row – and, with that, a new club record – and 26 points from 33 is very different to argue with. We’ve already played a number of the bigger teams, including Wycombe, Chesterfield, Port Vale, Oxford and Bradford. We’ve already beaten bogey teams (Southend and Barnet) and recovered from defeat (winning at Northampton). We have one of the league’s top scorers in Danny Kedwell, the league’s best defence and best goal difference. Youngsters like Bradley Dack are coming through and showing promise, while the more experienced 36-year-old Deon Burton looks to be an excellent signing.

What could go wrong, then? Plenty over 35 games, of course. The odd injury or suspension is unlikely to affect things due to the size and quality of the squad, but a prolonged and widespread problem could provide some turbulence. Players of quality, like Jack Payne, could leave in January, though the club is in a place where it could turn down offers for most of the squad. Four red cards in five games is far from ideal in keeping first-team consistency, so perhaps ill-discipline could hinder in the months to come.

Yet with a strong financial backing, you wouldn’t think so. Having previously been saddled with large debt caused by an overspend on the Medway Stand’s construction and relegation from the Championship, the club has found itself in better shape from a wedge of transfer money. Matt Jarvis’ move from Wolves to West Ham is thought to have netted Gillingham around £1 million, while former youngster Ryan Betrand continues to pull in £100,000 for every ten appearances he makes up to 40. An England call-up also earned the club £200,000.

And Paulo Gazzaniga’s move to Southampton – for anything between £750,000 and £2.5 million, depending on where you read about it – has left Gillingham near-debt free, if not in the black. Even if Gillingham are still in the red, it’s clear that money would be made available to Allen in January if the squad is in any kind of strife.

Key to Gillingham’s progress, though, is Allen. He’s already said temptations from anything below the Premiership will not lead to him leaving. He and Paul Scally have been working well together thus far, but few relationships in football are long-term. If Allen is still the Gillingham manager at the end of the season, it is hard to see how Gillingham couldn’t take one of the top three positions. Even if not, they’d be a strong contender in the play-offs.

Martin’s messages through the club’s website, where he updates supporters on squads, friendlies, new contracts and invites to the training ground, have helped him quickly become a fans’ favourite. Training at the local outdoor swimming pool in the summer and other quirky training methods have kept the players on board. All of this leaves Gillingham fans ominously wondering: where could it all go wrong?

Could it?

Written by Ben Curtis, We Are Going Up’s Gillingham Blogger

Ben tweets at @benjamin_curtis

Quality remains for next boss as Gillingham fans hope for new dawn

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Gillingham’s chairman Paul Scally works by the motto never look back – one that has been used in several conversations with journalists, television presenters and in his programme notes during his time at the club. It was also the title of a book about the club’s 2000 Wembley triumph.

And after another season of disappointment under Andy Hessenthaler, the former player, player-manager and manager in years gone by, he may be wishing he’d stuck by it in the last couple of years.

Hessenthaler seemed the right choice to take Gillingham forward after the disappointment of relegation under Mark Stimson in 2010. Fans were disillusioned and the club needed a figure that would bring everyone together.

Eighth in his first season was disappointing, but acceptable having been tasked with rebuilding a squad in the aftermath of a relegation hangover.

Huge investment in the team ahead of the campaign just gone should have led to a top-three finish, if not a play-off place at worst, in what was his second season. Finishing eighth again didn’t do the funding justice, and with attendances falling to 15-year lows, Hessenthaler was rightly pushed aside earlier this month.

What will the new manager find when he (or she, if the wishes of a few fans lead to Hope Powell being offered the job) pulls into Redfern Avenue in the next month? A very talented squad quite capable of finishing well in the league, an excellent youth set-up that continues to lead to first-team debuts and a group of fans desperate for success.

While Hessenthaler didn’t live up to the hopes and expectations of the club in terms of promotion, he did build an excellent squad. Charlie Lee and Chris Whelpdale were strong buys. Paulo Gazzaniga – a 20-year-old Argentinian goalkeeper – is under the watchful eyes of Premier League scouts. Additionally, many loan signings paid off well, including Gavin Tomlin from Dagenham & Redbridge.

However, where he failed was in getting them fit and working on the pitch. There were glimmers of how good the team could be, beating Crawley away on Boxing Day and champions Swindon at home in April. But ultimately a lack of consistency led to a promising start fizzling into huge disappointment.

The new manager will have a team capable of scoring goals – Gillingham were the top scorers in League Two last season – but also one likely to concede. Finding a balance between the two with a strong formation is essential.

Additionally, the new boss will need to have a back-up plan. Andy Hessenthaler was a little like George Osborne towards the end of the season, setting a course of direction but refusing to change. For a lack of growth on the government’s part, there was a lack of points for Gillingham – and no plan B for both.

But whoever is chosen will have an even bigger problem – one that Hessenthaler faced when he returned: a disillusioned fanbase. News of recently-released defender Simon King finding out about his fate on Twitter has left several shaking their heads, in addition to next season’s centenary kit that will see the club play at home in red.

With crowd numbers starting to fall – and with many questioning whether to renew their season ticket – the club needs a quick start and success at the end of next season. And that’s no easy task.

A new manager will also have Hessenthaler as director of football, an arrangement never seen at the club before. Hessenthaler recruits players, something he is good at, while the new manager gets the success on the pitch.

Only time will tell whether it works, but Paul Scally can only hope he’s not rueing another never look back moment. If Gillingham finally get promotion this time next year, he may be done with the motto altogether.

Written by Ben Curtis, We Are Going Up’s Gillingham Blogger

Ben tweets at @benjamin_curtis

Results freeze leaves Hessenthaler battling indefensible winter

Friday, February 17th, 2012

While the February freeze appears to have disappeared from our shores, it is still gripping the defence of Gillingham at a time when the club could do without it. Already lagging behind the pace of the top three heading into the new year, the Gills are now starting to fall even further back towards mid-table because of a very leaky backline and are set to miss out on the prize they have their eyes on: promotion. Anything less would have been considered failure at the start of the season, but many supporters are now beginning to wonder whether a top-ten finish is achievable.

And that, of course, means all eyes are on manager Andy Hessenthaler and whether he is up to the job in hand. For example, why didn’t he move to repair an ageing defence in January? The transfer window represented the best opportunity to remedy the damage of a disappointing first half of the season and help boost promotion credentials. Instead, the club didn’t make any changes and not even the cracks are repaired. The campaign is on the brink of tatters.

Of course, you may question whether Gillingham should be considered a team capable of being promoted. Is there a big-club mentality? A tiny bit. Many still look back to the days where the club was battling for mid-table in the Championship and believe that this should be the norm for Kent’s only Football League club. Others go the other way and believe the club have found their level again after a golden decade of football between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s.

Either way, the chairman Paul Scally has backed Hessenthaler in the transfer market over the last twelve months and the faithful now expect results. Regardless of size, investment has been made to take the club out of League Two.

However, the reality is different. The squad head to Port Vale on Saturday staring their fifth straight defeat in the face. Ten goals have been conceded in the last three league games, too, going from 3-1 up at home to AFC Wimbledon to losing 4-3 on January 21st. Then followed being 4-1 down at half-time to Accrington Stanley, again losing 4-3, before the nation’s Sky subscribers were able – if they so wished – to see another defeat against title-chasing Southend last Monday.

Not quite what was expected after a decent run culminated in an excellent 2-1 win at Crawley Town on Boxing Day. Since, the defence has been completely out of place. Injuries have meant Hessenthaler has been forced to use midfielder Charlie Lee at right-back, while captain Andy Frampton has spent plenty of time on the sidelines.

But then here is where the frustration lies. The club needed to bring in fresh legs to help the defence cope with several absences, but haven’t. The use of youngsters – including Jack Evans, Connor Essam and Paulo Gazzaniga – has come too late. And now the club’s season looks likely to pass by in a similar vein to another bout of cold weather.

Hessenthaler is likely to be given more time than most would to turn it around, not least from the chairman, but it’s clear his position is under increasing scrutiny. To keep the fans happy, he needs to guide the club into that final play-off spot come May or many will be calling for change.

Now we’ll see if the grit and determination that underlined Hessenthaler’s character as a player can be brought to the fore as a manager. If not, this will go down as an indefensible winter that will live long in the memory and one that took his job.

Written by Ben Curtis, We Are Going Up’s Gillingham Blogger

Ben tweets at @benjamin_curtis

Tight budget, but the Gills require one more January signing

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

With the January transfer window just around the corner, it was about time those dreaded words were made public….

“If players go, then we are balancing the budget, but we have a good squad and that’s the squad we have pretty much until the end of the season now”

Gillingham’s chairman Paul Scally told Kent Online this week. And so, like the majority of lower league football fans up and down the country, it looks as though dreams of a promotion-clinching signing can be stored away for another six months.

No money in the wallet. No loose change down the back of the sofas. Just make do with what you’ve got. Yet, without denying another signing or two would be welcome – when would it not – the majority of Gillingham fans will be reasonably happy with the squad heading into the new year. There are areas where the team could have extra cover, but with an already large squad and some decent acquisitions last summer it may be a case of trying to get the best from what is at the club already.

That may not be a bad thing, either. The players used so far have set the foundations for a play-off campaign, while hopes of a top-three finish have not yet been extinguished. As we approach halfway in the league season, the dial is pointing more towards success than it is failure.

If the club needed any reminder of progress that has been made of late, it only needs to take one look at last season. After 20 league games in 2010-11, they were recovering from a poor start and had just been dumped out of the FA Cup by non-league Dover. League form had been indifferent, occupying ninth place with only eight goals in nine home games. Strikingly, their third away in 37 league games had just been achieved.

Yet now Gillingham are in the play-offs and five points ahead of last season. The squad is also stronger with goals coming from a wider range of sources. Saturday’s 0-0 draw away at Macclesfield was the side’s third clean sheet in a row and they go into a busy Christmas period seven games unbeaten.

The club has also managed to reach the third round of the FA Cup to set up a tie with former manager Tony Pulis and his Europa troopers. Sadly, toughened Stoke are quite possibly the best-prepared side for a cold and atmospheric Priestfield Stadium, but ticket revenue and a Premier League challenge will be most welcome.

Yet there still are a couple of snagging problems. One is a new contract for Luke Rooney, with player and club failing to reach a settlement. Rooney has a spark of genius that can turn games around – it would be a great shame to lose him, but with praise coming from the likes of Swindon Town manager Paolo Di Canio, this could well be a possibility.

Bigger still though, is the problem of finding a replacement for Frank Nouble – currently on loan from West Ham – and trying to grab Jo Kuffour on a permanent deal in January. Nouble looks likely to return to his parent club permanently, while Kuffour’s form could interest teams in higher leagues.

Which brings me back to the chairman’s quote on the playing budget. While he has done everything to provide Andy Hessenthaler with a squad capable of challenging in League Two, the club may need just one more financial miracle to attract Kuffour from Mr. Scally.

The striker is in the final four weeks of a three-month loan spell, then there’s a chance of a permanent move. Agree a deal and the club will be looking good heading into the new year. If he heads elsewhere, Gillingham will be back to only having a couple of strikers and the goals could dry up.

While the foundations of a decent season have been set, the January transfer window represents a crucial moment. And if signing Kuffour means balancing the books, there could be some nervous faces around the dressing room over the next few weeks.

Written by Ben Curtis, We Are Going Up’s Gillingham blogger

Ben tweets at @benjamin_curtis

Indifferent start, but the Gills will come good

Friday, October 21st, 2011

When a team has had a sluggish start to the season, fans tend to scratch around for the obscure positives to keep them believing of better things to come. Well, Gillingham are the top away goalscorers in the country (16) and have conceded the fewest home goals in League Two (four, with three other teams). On that basis we should be flying high at the top of the league, but sadly there are other statistics that put us in our place. For example, only two clean sheets in our 13 league games; one of these on the opening day of the season and the other against 10-man Plymouth at the height of their financial problems. Otherwise, we have conceded 13 away from home in only seven games and continue to look weak at the back. Our home form – usually one of the best in the league – has been indifferent and only nine goals at home is no better than anyone in the top 16. All of this leaves us in ninth place with more than a quarter of the season gone.

Anyway, enough statistics. Manager Andy Hessenthaler has frequently called Gillingham’s performances Jekyll and Hyde displays and the man’s not wrong. We continue to start a game poorly and finish well or vice versa. Worse still, we don’t turn up at all. But only a couple of times have we looked convincing across more than two-thirds of the game and ultimately that leaves us a little off the pace as we approach the winter months.

Things had started well, too, and pre-season left everyone full of optimism after some excellent signings. Danny Kedwell joined from AFC Wimbledon, Lewis Montrose from Wycombe, Andy Frampton from Millwall and, best of the lot, Chris Whelpdale and Charlie Lee both from Peterborough. Added to the maturing performances of younger players Jack Payne and Luke Rooney and the experience of Matt Lawrence, Danny Jackman and Danny Spiller among others, the squad looked (and still does) a strong one.

Three wins and a draw gave us our best start to a season since 1995/96 – where, incidentally, we were promoted from then Division Three under the leadership of now Stoke City manager Tony Pulis – before defeats to Rotherham, Shrewsbury and Southend knocked us back.

And since, those Jekyll and Hyde displays have come to the fore leaving Gillingham fans (and Hessenthaler) unable to predict how we will do next. Take our 6-1 win away at Hereford last month as an example. Goals from defence, midfield and attack, set pieces and open play. Tap-ins and long-range efforts. As convincing a performance as you are likely to see from an away team at any level and one that should spur a team on to greater things.

That was followed by a 3-1 home win against Burton and another decent display, before three quick first-half goals against AFC Wimbledon led to an away defeat and a very poor performance in front of a sell-out crowd.

A lucky draw at home to Port Vale followed before we sent five goals past Torquay at Plainmoor last weekend.

So which is the real Gillingham? One that is capable of scoring goals – especially since the arrival of Frank Nouble and Jo Kuffour from West Ham and Bristol Rovers respectively – and one that is always likely to concede. One that will end up with a decent home record and an indifferent one away. Importantly, one that will be challenging in the top seven at the end of the season.

From late-November to April last season, we lost only two games in 26 and both of those to teams that went up automatically in May. As any League Two fan will tell you, consistency is the key to success and Gillingham have history in doing so in the middle of the season. That we have had a reasonable start – only two points off third – could mean we’re shaping up nicely for the remainder of the season.

However, three difficult games stand between us and the chance to score points on a consistent basis. Oxford United at home, taking place tomorrow, Swindon away on Tuesday night and Morecambe away a week tomorrow.

Five points from these three would leave us in good shape. Anything less wouldn’t be a disaster, but anything more and we’ll start to see Gillingham creep up to where those optimistic pre-season predictions thought we would be.

But for all clubs, there is a long way to go – so expect plenty of scouring for positive statistics over the coming six months.

Written by Ben Curtis, We Are Going Up’s Gillingham Blogger

Ben tweets at @benjamin_curtis