Gillingham’s chairman Paul Scally works by the motto never look back – one that has been used in several conversations with journalists, television presenters and in his programme notes during his time at the club. It was also the title of a book about the club’s 2000 Wembley triumph.
Following another season of disappointment under Andy Hessenthaler, the former player, player-manager and manager in years gone by, he may be wishing he’d stuck by it in the last couple of years.
Hessenthaler seemed the right choice to take Gillingham forward after the disappointment of relegation under Mark Stimson in 2010. Fans were disillusioned and the club needed a figure that would bring everyone together.
Eighth in his first season was disappointing, but acceptable having been tasked with rebuilding a squad in the aftermath of a relegation hangover.
Huge investment in the team ahead of the campaign just gone should have led to a top-three finish, if not a play-off place at worst, in what was his second season. Finishing eighth again didn’t do the funding justice, and with attendances falling to 15-year lows, Hessenthaler was rightly pushed aside earlier this month.
What will the new manager find when he (or she, if the wishes of a few fans lead to Hope Powell being offered the job) pulls into Redfern Avenue in the next month? A very talented squad quite capable of finishing well in the league, an excellent youth set-up that continues to lead to first-team debuts and a group of fans desperate for success.
While Hessenthaler didn’t live up to the hopes and expectations of the club in terms of promotion, he did build an excellent squad. Charlie Lee and Chris Whelpdale were strong buys. Paulo Gazzaniga – a 20-year-old Argentinian goalkeeper – is under the watchful eyes of Premier League scouts. Additionally, many loan signings paid off well, including Gavin Tomlin from Dagenham & Redbridge.
However, where he failed was in getting them fit and working on the pitch. There were glimmers of how good the team could be, beating Crawley away on Boxing Day and champions Swindon at home in April. But ultimately a lack of consistency led to a promising start fizzling into huge disappointment.
The new manager will have a team capable of scoring goals – Gillingham were the top scorers in League Two last season – but also one likely to concede. Finding a balance between the two with a strong formation is essential.
Additionally, the new boss will need to have a back-up plan. Andy Hessenthaler was a little like George Osborne towards the end of the season, setting a course of direction but refusing to change. For a lack of growth on the government’s part, there was a lack of points for Gillingham – and no plan B for both.
But whoever is chosen will have an even bigger problem – one that Hessenthaler faced when he returned: a disillusioned fanbase. News of recently-released defender Simon King finding out about his fate on Twitter has left several shaking their heads, in addition to next season’s centenary kit that will see the club play at home in red.
With crowd numbers starting to fall – and with many questioning whether to renew their season ticket – the club needs a quick start and success at the end of next season. And that’s no easy task.
A new manager will also have Hessenthaler as director of football, an arrangement never seen at the club before. Hessenthaler recruits players, something he is good at, while the new manager gets the success on the pitch.
Only time will tell whether it works, but Paul Scally can only hope he’s not rueing another never look back moment. If Gillingham finally get promotion this time next year, he may be done with the motto altogether.
Written by Ben Curtis, We Are Going Up’s Gillingham Blogger
Ben tweets at @benjamin_curtis