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 (sixteen) 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 thirteen league games; one of these on the opening day of the season and the other against ten-man Plymouth at the height of their financial problems. Otherwise, we have conceded thirteen 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 sixteen. 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