Gillingham’s season in 2015-16 was well and truly a rollercoaster. Well, a rollercoaster with one giant incline followed by an equally large descent, returning to mid-table mediocrity. The infrastructure of a successful club has been established and the fans are certainly looking upwards, but there are three areas Gillingham must improve if they are to challenge for promotion in the coming season.
Experience in the spine:
Gillingham’s youth structure came to fruition last season with Bradley Dack and Jake Hessenthaler playing key roles for the team. Dack, in particular, played a starring role throughout and looks certain to move on to pastures new. Moreover, the ‘youth policy’ with which manager Justin Edinburgh approached the transfer window and the formation of his squad paid instant dividends.
Emanuel Osadebe was man of the match on his debut against Sheffield United and won the goal of the season gong with a superb individual goal against Bury; Bradley Garmston, Deji Oshilaja, Rory Donnelly and Max Ehmer were all brought in and played starring roles at varying points throughout the season; Darren Oldaker and Elliott List were in and around the first team squad with Edinburgh relying on them to provide cover to a minimal squad.
However, this policy seemed to hinder the Gills in the second half of the season. The loss of four consecutive home games at the back end of the season smacks of fear, at best, and crippling fatigue at worst. Strikers suffered a crippling vicious circle as a lack of confidence led to a drought of goals with confidence declining further; the wing-backs looked afraid to get forward and the midfield began to lose control in the centre of the park; the centre-backs become vulnerable to balls coming in from the wings splitting the back four and the ‘keeper.
Adam El-Abd brought a definitive stability and a string of clean sheets—his injury was a crucial point in the climax of the season but Andrew Crofts couldn’t achieve the same in his homecoming. An experienced hand on the tiller in the pivotal latter stages could have made all the difference.
A commanding, experienced centre-back will be a necessity; a battle-hardened, ball-winning central midfielder is just below on the shopping list; a striker with nous and the skills to bring other forwards into play would be an extremely handy addition, especially if they can lend a teaching hand to the raw but promising strikers at Edinburgh’s disposal.
Conduct Transfer Business Early:
Dack and John Egan look certain to leave MEMS Priestfield. However, their departures still need to be handled correctly, although this refers more to Dack with Gillingham powerless to impact Egan’s exit with his contract expiring.
A quick and cordial approach to this will provide early funds for the club, and give Scally and Edinburgh the chance to create a cohesive and detailed transfer strategy. It will also prevent a hangover, lingering on into pre-season and disrupting the squad and distracting the fans.
There will be no hard feelings for the talismanic midfielder who has stood head and shoulders above his team-mates for the majority of the season. The passion shown by the no. 23 will not be easily replaced; at times a combustible figure, the circuit he took after the gut-wrenching disappointment of the defeat against Millwall, signing every autograph and posing for every selfie will not be easily forgotten.
In the more immediate term, the futures of Josh Wright and Stuart Nelson must be sorted. Not least for the crucial role they occupy within the team. Nelson saved Gillingham on countless times last season (despite his howler against Wigan) while Wright was one of the signings of the season despite fading, along with the rest of the team, heading into the closing stages. Yet again, their passion and apparent love for the club would be sorely missed.
Goals, Goals, Goals:
Goals were severely lacking in the absence of Dack. Luke Norris looks like he will play a key role in this respect in the coming season, although it is difficult to see Donnelly returning to the goal-scoring form that he dipped in and out of. His confidence, at times, looking desperately low while a major blow-out on social media post-Millwall will do nothing to restore that moving into pre-season.
Cody McDonald looked strong and back to his goal-scoring self towards the end of the season, however the start of the season will be crucial. If he fails to hit his stride he may struggle to retain a spot in the team, with age and contract status working against him. While Noel M’bo and List look extremely promising, it may be too soon for the both of them.
As ever rumours abound, with John Marquis and Dominic Samuel being linked with a return to a club and talk of a move for Uche Ikpeazu. Only Edinburgh will know the system he wants to play, but a 20-goal a season striker will surely be a target, or at least a forward to bring the best out of his other strikers.
There are three areas for Gillingham to improve. However, if these can be resolved then there is no reason why the Gills cannot build on a very promising campaign. With Edinburgh at the helm and more young players looking to push into the first team Gillingham looks to be a club on the up.