After two seasons of needing results in the final weeks of the season to secure survival, the season being effectively over before the start of April remains a familiar feeling. A limp defeat at home to Colchester, summed up by an easily-saveable Jacob Murphy penalty, sums it all up – we’ve had every opportunity to arrest this slump but have lacked the nerve to take any of them.
All that’s left to play for is pride, based on the evidence of this run we’ve been on, it’s not exactly something we’ve seen in droves from this side. With a month of just about the toughest possible fixtures remaining, this slide looks unlikely to end before the season is out.
Although it’s hardly ideal to be considering sacking another manager, this isn’t just a bad run of form, not over 21 games. I really want Tony Mowbray to be our manager next season but we can’t just limp through the rest of the season in the hope that next will be better. We saw with Chris Coleman what happens when you just let a manager off the hook for letting another season peter out.
A trip to one of the teams with strongest home records in the division doesn’t hold out much hope. The return of Adam Armstrong is a boost but we just aren’t creating enough chances for him to be effective. Trying to play Joe Cole and Marc-Antoine Fortuné in the same frontline has taken out so much of the dynamism that worked so well for us earlier in the season, at least one should be dropped to facilitate Armstrong’s return.
In an ideal world, Sam Ricketts would be dropped from the team too with his performances remaining abject for a defender of his experience. It’s not that he’s lost pace but his decision-making and positional play has been poor. With Chris Stokes still injured and Ryan Haynes out on loan, Mowbray is certain to persevere with his captain.
Last Time We Met
You would imagine that following our previous meeting with Gillingham, our forthcoming opponents will have extra motivation to capitalise on our brittle confidence. Back in November a Gillingham side who looked rather flat for a side engaged in a second vs first game, were shellacked in a twelve-minute four-goal blitz at the Ricoh Arena. A Jacob Murphy hat-trick and Ben Turner header rendered a second-half in which Gillingham made a reasonable attempt at getting back into the game academic. The intent and dynamism of our first-half performance is a far cry from the slow, stodgy football being served up right now.
How Are They Doing?
Gillingham have been resilient near the top of the table this season, thanks in no small part down to the management of Justin Edinburgh. Since the former Newport and Rushden manager’s arrival, Gillingham have transformed from relegation candidates to genuine promotion contenders, all achieved via combination of free transfers and loan signings (it can be done).
Having started the season so well, Gillingham haven’t been in amazing form, sitting just 12th in the form table since the turn of the year. Yet unlike us, they haven’t fallen completely to pieces as the season has progressed but have generally been able to grind out results when the situation has called for it.
Injuries to their two key players – midfielder Bradley Dack and centre-back John Egan – have played a large role in disrupting some of the early momentum they’ve built-up. Without a direct replacement for Dack, Gillingham had to alter their tactics having lost the ability to force it through the middle more directly. Hard-as-nails Adam El-Abd has stood in for Egan fairly well although lacks the same mobility.
Andrew Crofts has recently returned to the club on loan from Brighton. Having been a strong performer as box-to-box midfielder at Championship level, his signing should be seen as something of a coup for Gillingham. He’ll be joined in midfield by Josh Wright who is enjoying his most consistent season having previously impressed intermittently at Scunthorpe and Leyton Orient.
There is plenty of pace in this Gillingham side, with wing-backs Ryan Jackson and Bradley Garmston having impressed this season with their ability to stretch the play. Similarly fast, Dominic Samuel in attack was mightily impressive for us last season but has registered a slightly underwhelming seven in 22 for the Gills. Ben Dickenson, Luke Norris and Jermaine McGlashan also add to Gillingham’s vast array of pacey footballers.
There was a suggestion this week from Sam Ricketts that somehow, we may be better off playing the better teams in this division, but the length of this run suggests to me that whoever we play, we’re struggling against at this moment in time. With Gillingham boasting a strong record at home and with a strong motivation to avenge a humiliating defeat earlier in the season, it’s hard to look at this fixture with even a quantum of hope.
Back in January of last year we threw away a 1-0 defeat with three goals conceded in the final 10 minutes at the Priestfield Stadium. With the players having to trudge past the away stand to get back into the dressing room, they were subjected to a torrent of abuse from the travelling fans. Having hit the heights that we did since that game, it’s a depressing thought that we could be heading back full circle come the final whistle on Saturday.
I can only see a fairly hefty defeat coming our way, a 4-1 win to Gillingham.