So another year has come and pretty much gone in the blink of an eye.
As we enter the busy festive period, it is hard to believe that Justin Edinburgh has now been in charge of our club for around 11 months.
And what a good 11 months it has been.
His job when he arrived was to keep the club in League One, and not only did he achieve that comfortably, he surpassed all expectations by leading the Gills to a 12th place finish.
Hands up if you think I’m doing a good job! Justin has proved a revelation.
A minor miracle considering we were staring into the abyss as 2014 turned into 2015.
Upon his arrival he hit the ground running, and in his opening few games the Gills took points off of supposed bigger clubs such as Peterborough, MK Dons and Bristol City.
He then ended the campaign masterminding consecutive home victories over Bradford, Rochdale and Notts County.
The Gills ended 2014-15 in convincing fashion at home.
The summer and pre-season was one full of optimism, and it’s fair to say that in 2015-16 he has continued in the same vein, all the while happily admitting that the boys in blue are punching well above their weight.
An opening day destruction of Sheffield United set the platform, and the Gills saw off more fancied sides such as Wigan and Bradford on route to an unbeaten start that stretched over seven games in the league.
An opening day victory that set the tone.
Bradley Dack was the star performer in the early weeks, setting up and scoring goals in equal measure, to such an extent that the only concern was whether we could hold onto him.
I think every Gills supporter was happy to see the back of August as it meant we had kept our long haired talisman for another few months at least.
Dacky: The Gills’ star performer so far this season.
Back to back away defeats to Colchester and Barnsley in September were frustrating – more so now considering their current league positions – but the character in this young side that Edinburgh kept referring to then came to the fore.
Did the players let it affect them? Did they heck?
They reacted to the two reversals by embarking on another unbeaten run, this time seven games in all competitions.
Fleetwood bore the brunt of any frustrations built up in the two losses, as a rampant Gills reacted to conceding early by hitting four without reply in a frenzied first half burst.
In amongst it all Rory Donnelly scored what is for me one of the best solo goals to grace the Priestfield in recent times.
Donnelly’s GOTS contender in the home win over Fleetwood.
Perhaps his buddy Emmanuel Osadebe may have something to say about that, but I’ll get to that shortly…..
The 5-1 win was enough for the Cod Army to part company with their gaffer Graeme Alexander, and he wasn’t the first boss who had lost his job – both Paul Dickov (Doncaster) and Dave Robertson (Peterborough) previously saw the axe fall shortly after facing Gillingham – after coming up against Justin and his boys in the early part of the campaign.
Back to our boys though, and Donnelly’s sublime double in that fixture – his first goals for the Gills – sent him on a little autumnal goal spree.
Donnelly’s autumn goals kept the Gills right in the promotion hunt.
After that brace he netted another two at home to Oldham in a 3-3 draw before scoring a crucial header away to Chesterfield and then a last minute beauty to win the game at Crewe.
Two last minute goals – courtesy of Harry Lennon and Doug Loft – in home games versus Scunthorpe and Southend earned more late points as this young squad proved they were all willing to go to the very end in search of goals and points.
So to the first real big one at the end of October, as the Gills visited Walsall in a ‘first v second‘ showdown.
After forty minutes we were cruising, 2-0 up and looking comfortable.
But Justin had warned us in the summer that this side would suffer blips, and so this fixture proved.
A crazy 60 seconds allowed the home side back into the game before the interval, and in all truth they ‘Gills-ed’ the Gills with a last minute goal to nick all three points.
The following week we sadly rolled over and died in our FA Cup tie at Stevenage, suffering back to back losses for only the second time under Edinburgh’s stewardship.
Could we react again as winter began to set in?
For the first time all term there were murmurings – nothing more – of discontent from the fans, both at games and on social media.
A penalty shoot out defeat to Yeovil in the JPT Southern Quarter Final meant it was four without a win.
Had we been found out? Had teams worked out how to play against us? Was the diamond effective away from home? Should we go to three at the back? Or one up top?
These were all question being discussed by the supporters?
Or was it something more simple?
Luke Norris had gone off injured at Crewe – he returned in the last minute versus Millwall this past Saturday – with an ankle problem, and after that we won only once in five games without him.
Or at least certainly without a player of his ilk.
An improved player in 2015-16, Luke Norris has been missed while injured.
Now Norris has split opinion amongst Gills fans since arriving at the club, and I admit that last season he frustrated the hell out of me.
He wasn’t scoring loads, but in the absence of them I think people demand the minimum of working hard and putting the hard yards in for the team.
In 2014-15, for me, he didn’t do that enough. There was too much arm waving and gesticulating every time something didn’t go his way.
But this term, right up until his injury he has been a different player entirely.
He is never going to be a prolific goal scorer, but his hold up and link play during the opening three months were crucial.
He was always an outlet, he kept the ball and he allowed others to break in beyond, so was it really that much of a coincidence that in his absence the goals dried up slightly for Bradley Dack, and completely for Rory Donnelly?
For me no.
So what could Edinburgh do to improve us in that area?
He had previously stated he would use the loan market – and he has, very well, as Jordan Houghton and Deji Oshilaja are testament to that – if he could get in the right type of player, one who would improve the squad.
Over to you Dominic Samuel.
Dominic Samul – an instant hit, especially after netting two at Millwall.
The loan star from Reading made his debut at home to Bury, and his impact was instant.
Having (yet again) conceded early, the Gills needed a response to calm any nerves, and Samuel was on hand to tap home to level things up in a game that we went on to win 3-1.
Now I mentioned Emmanuel Osadebe earlier, and anyone in the ground that day needs no reminding of his last minute, lung bursting, tackle avoiding, energy sapping, nutmegging, cheekily finishing contender for goal of the season, so I’ll just let you all enjoy it again…..
Osadebe’s attempt to outdo his good mate Rory’s solo effort.
But back to Samuel now.
After another defeat, this one pretty humbling, in their second ‘first v second‘ encounter of the season, the Gills needed to react after being battered 4-1 at Coventry.
A Tuesday night home game against Rochdale provided that opportunity, and Samuel demonstrated the kind of centre forward link play that had been missing since Norris’ enforced absence.
Receiving a ball on the edge of the box early on from Osadebe, he killed it dead in one touch into the path of Dacky, who didn’t even have to break stride to steer it home and give us the lead in a game that we went on to win 2-0.
There’s that character again, that ability to react to the blips Edinburgh had warned us about.
Next up the boys in blue went to Shrewsbury to try and arrest something of a slide away from home, as since the back to back wins on the road in October we had then lost three on the spin, conceding 10 in the process.
A late concession meant one point rather than three, but the performance had been good, Cody McDonald was back in the goals, and it set us up for a massive home game the following Saturday.
Our third ‘first v second‘ battle of the campaign was the first on home soil, and a win over Burton would see us return to the summit.
Sadly, our captain Lofty had an half hour to forget, getting himself sent off for two needless yellows in a game in which we were already second best.
The remaining ten men battled valiantly, but three second half strikes saw our unbeaten home run stretching back to April finally go, and with it we slipped to 4th and six points behind our visitors.
Like Norris, Doug Loft seems to be something of another ‘marmite’ member of our squad.
Some love him, some cannot stand him.
Loft’s red v Burton was his second during his time at the club, after this one versus Scunthorpe.
All I will do on the matter is leave you all with a couple of statistics.
Of our five league defeats this term, Loft has played in 352 (78%) minutes out of 450 available, and that would’ve perhaps been higher but for his daft dismissal versus Burton.
Of our 12 league wins this season he has only featured for 267 (25%) minutes out of 1080 available.
Now you can all make you own decisions.
Anyway, after a third consecutive defeat to a side at the top of the pile, Gills fans were rightly a little apprehensive about our final game before Christmas.
A visit to our dear ‘friends‘ Millwall, who after a slow start had begun to pick up.
All the statistics were against the boys from Kent, and they hadn’t won a game at the New Den since the days of Andy Hessenthaler in 2003.
As my Christmas present to you all, I’ll simply leave you with the highlights from the game. Grab yourself a beer, a wine or a brandy, crack open the mince pies and enjoy.
To sum up, if we had been offered this position at the start of the season we would’ve taken it.
Justin is right in saying that in terms of budget, squad size and squad age we are overachieving, so let’s embrace it.
We’ve been treated to some wonderful stuff this season, and long may it continue.
From Dacky’s worldy on the opening day, to Josh Wright’s composure in midfield, to Donnelly’s impudent chip versus Fleetwood, to Nels’ vital stops at vital times, to Paddy’s lung buster at home to Bury, and every goal and save in between.
From the blunting of the Blades to the taming of the Lions, and every other win we’ve enjoyed.
All in it together; the Gills’ spirit has played a big part in their success.
The next four months or so could be very special in the history of Gillingham Football Club.
As I said in an article months ago, this is a special squad, lets believe in it.
UP THE GILLS!!
** As 2015 draws to a close I want to say a massive thank you to EVERYONE who follows the Twitter page and reads the blog. When I launched it in February I had no inkling it would go so mad, nearly 1,200 followers is just crazy.
There’s been a few bumps along the way, and I know we won’t always agree on everything, but that’s the beauty of this wonderful game we love.
MERRY CHRISTMAS & A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL OF YOU.