Just how important will that late, late defeat at Wigan be for Gillingham’s promotion chase come the end of the season?
Ever since Craig Morgan’s 96th minute header, the Gills have failed to regain the form that had carried them to the summit of Sky Bet League One on many occasions. Now, with twelve games to go, teams are beginning to pile up behind them, and key injuries to the spine of the team are posing serious questions of Justin Edinburgh’s young squad, which they seem unable to answer at present.
Tuesday’s loss at Fleetwood was their third in a row; all against relatively lowly opposition with respect to Chesterfield, Oldham and Tuesday’s conquerors. The loss of John Egan at the back has disrupted the cohesion of a Gillingham defense which has never been particularly comfortable at the best of times. His leadership and towering presence will be missed for another six weeks, and while Adam El Abd possesses character and experience in abundance it remains to be seen whether he can replace the solidity that Egan brought to the team. Doug Loft may not be a fans favourite but he added experience of a promotion race and another voice in midfield.
However, perhaps the most important loss is that of Bradley Dack. His goals, assists, work rate and all-round play have played a crucial role in the lions share of Gillingham’s wins this season. Being without him for six weeks is a massive blow to a team that is beginning to look slightly goal shy at the very worst time. Dack’s presence to the Gillingham team cannot be stated in mere statistics; his charisma, for a start, stands out on the pitch and it is clear that he is well-liked and respected among the Gillingham squad.
So what does this all mean for Gillingham’s promotion hopes?
Burton look to be out of sight at the top of the table, and look set to earn a very well-deserved promotion. Jimmy Floyd-Hasselbaink and then Nigel Clough have worked wonders on a very small budget and deserve all the plaudits they will undoubtedly receive. Wigan are the team in the form and with the squad that Gary Caldwell has assembled (admittedly at no small expense) they seem likely to fill the other automatic promotion spot.
As such the team look likely to be aiming for a play-off spot at best.
To secure a place in the top six it is crucial that goals return to the squad. The return of Luke Norris to the scoresheet on Tuesday bodes well given Dominic Samuel and Rory Donnelly have looked out of sorts in front of goal. Samuel, especially, played poorly against Chesterfield as his first touch seemed to let him down on countless occasions and his miss in the first minute could have won the game in hindsight. George Williams has looked very good but as another young midfield it remains to be seen how he will stand up to the pressure of the promotion run-in.
The midfield looks a bit lightweight at the minute and Edinburgh may be forced to abandon the diamond that has been ever-present this season. Wide-men such as Williams, Bradley Garmston, Jermaine McGlashan and Brennan Dickenson may be called upon to provide a different angle of attack in the absence of Dack, while the experience of Josh Wright will be pivotal in providing a bit of class and composure at the heart of an incredibly young midfield. His captaincy is incredibly well-deserved and he will be another player that Gillingham fans may want to enjoy before the end of the season.
The importance of Saturday’s game cannot be understated away at Scunthorpe. A win would break the mini away-day hoodoo that has developed since the Boxing Day Victory at the County Ground and ease the pressure building before the visit of Crewe to MEMS Priestfield the following week. With the cushion rapidly dissipating between Gillingham and those just outside the play-offs, three points might just develop a bit of breathing space for the players to thrive in. More importantly, it could bring back the confidence and flair that characterised the attacking verve of Gillingham until so recently.
One positive remains: at least Gillingham will have Egan, Loft, Dack and Cody McDonald back and fresh for the play-offs.
It’s squeaky bum time, but Gillingham don’t do it any other way.