Gillingham’s season has collapsed since the New Year. Just five victories in this calendar year leaves the Gills one point shy of Barnsley in the final play-off spot with two games to play. Already post-mortems are explaining away relegation next season, clearing out the deadwood for another campaign in League One, and even debating whether Justin Edinburgh should be in a job next season.
It’s all too easy to point fingers at Gillingham’s season and say ‘they bottled it’, ‘Edinburgh didn’t have the experience or the guts’, ‘the players were too young’. However, this should not be the case and can be explained through three questions that are popping up time and time again.
What went wrong? Where did it go wrong? Why did it go wrong?
Put simply, everything has gone wrong. It’s gone terribly wrong since that Wigan defeat but that is football and neither the players who have exhibited an exciting, attacking brand of football nor the manager who licensed and cultivated that style should be denigrated too harshly for the collapse. Events have conspired, injuries have occurred and confidence has been lost.
There have been influential moments since Big Ben tolled out 2016, no doubt. Stuart Nelson’s horrific mistake against Wigan denied the Gills top spot, a huge win over championship rivals and precipitated a collapse in that game and in the games to follow.
However, Mr Miller’s refereeing error to gift Doncaster a free-kick on the edge of the Gills’ area after a ‘foul’ from Max Ehmer and allow the home team back into the game was just as costly. Likewise, Mr Lewis’ inability to spot a blatant handball on the Sheffield United goal-line as Jay McEveley denied Luke Norris illegally, and got away with it. Indeed, had Norris dispatched his penalty in the game versus Walsall, we may be talking about an automatic shoot-out at the Pirelli Stadium this Saturday.
These moments are crucial, season-defining moments. They are the fine lines that decide where a team ends up over the course of the season. They are ultimately moments that have not gone in Gillingham’s favour and that is the reason they are lying in seventh. That is the truth and should not be shied away from.
There is personal responsibility for this. Player mistakes have cost Gillingham at some pretty awful times, and put pressure on the team. The current home form is testament to the pressure have heaped upon players, manager and club. Edinburgh too has made mistakes from which he must learn. Replacing Josh Wright not once, but twice, against Wigan and Doncaster, with Jermaine McGlashan was criminal.
Where things have gone wrong since Wigan, they have also gone spectacularly right when looking at the context of the entire season.
Gillingham have achieved some remarkable results over the course of this campaign—who will forget the away days at Swindon and Millwall, all after blowing away Sheffield United on the first game of the season? In fact the great moments have been so memorable it is hard to remember all of them. The last minute winner against Scunthorpe; dismantling Fleetwood; beating a smug Graham Westley-led Peterborough to reclaim top spot in the league.
The experience of this promotion-chasing campaign should do players such as Norris, Brennan Dickenson, Bradley Garmston—to name but a few—the push on they, and Gillingham, need to be succesful. As Edinburgh has pointed out, how many of them have ever experienced the pressure that comes with such high-stakes as a promotion battle?
It seems but a sidenote in the streams of negativity flowing out of MEMS Priestfield at the minute, but Gillingham Football Club are two games away from a play-off position and five games away from a place in the Championship, taking on some comparative footballing behemoths.
Now is not the time for post-mortems, predictions for next season, criticisms. It is a one-week period that could hopefully turn into a four-week period that could see the club achieve only its second ever promotion to the second flight.
The immensity of what this group has achieved this season, despite its spluttering finish, should not be forgotten, and it must certainly should not go uncredited. Indeed, there should be rapturous acclaim after the Millwall game no-matter what, for a squad of players who have given everything for this club and made it proud once again.