While the February freeze appears to have disappeared from our shores, it is still gripping the defence of Gillingham at a time when the club could do without it. Already lagging behind the pace of the top three heading into the new year, the Gills are now starting to fall even further back towards mid-table because of a very leaky backline and are set to miss out on the prize they have their eyes on: promotion. Anything less would have been considered failure at the start of the season, but many supporters are now beginning to wonder whether a top-ten finish is achievable.
And that, of course, means all eyes are on manager Andy Hessenthaler and whether he is up to the job in hand. For example, why didn’t he move to repair an ageing defence in January? The transfer window represented the best opportunity to remedy the damage of a disappointing first half of the season and help boost promotion credentials. Instead, the club didn’t make any changes and not even the cracks are repaired. The campaign is on the brink of tatters.
Of course, you may question whether Gillingham should be considered a team capable of being promoted. Is there a big-club mentality? A tiny bit. Many still look back to the days where the club was battling for mid-table in the Championship and believe that this should be the norm for Kent’s only Football League club. Others go the other way and believe the club have found their level again after a golden decade of football between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s.
Either way, the chairman Paul Scally has backed Hessenthaler in the transfer market over the last twelve months and the faithful now expect results. Regardless of size, investment has been made to take the club out of League Two.
However, the reality is different. The squad head to Port Vale on Saturday staring their fifth straight defeat in the face. Ten goals have been conceded in the last three league games, too, going from 3-1 up at home to AFC Wimbledon to losing 4-3 on January 21st. Then followed being 4-1 down at half-time to Accrington Stanley, again losing 4-3, before the nation’s Sky subscribers were able – if they so wished – to see another defeat against title-chasing Southend last Monday.
Not quite what was expected after a decent run culminated in an excellent 2-1 win at Crawley Town on Boxing Day. Since, the defence has been completely out of place. Injuries have meant Hessenthaler has been forced to use midfielder Charlie Lee at right-back, while captain Andy Frampton has spent plenty of time on the sidelines.
But then here is where the frustration lies. The club needed to bring in fresh legs to help the defence cope with several absences, but haven’t. The use of youngsters – including Jack Evans, Connor Essam and Paulo Gazzaniga – has come too late. And now the club’s season looks likely to pass by in a similar vein to another bout of cold weather.
Hessenthaler is likely to be given more time than most would to turn it around, not least from the chairman, but it’s clear his position is under increasing scrutiny. To keep the fans happy, he needs to guide the club into that final play-off spot come May or many will be calling for change.
Now we’ll see if the grit and determination that underlined Hessenthaler’s character as a player can be brought to the fore as a manager. If not, this will go down as an indefensible winter that will live long in the memory and one that took his job.
Written by Ben Curtis, We Are Going Up’s Gillingham Blogger
Ben tweets at @benjamin_curtis