The league season is nearly here, host of Express FM’s Football Hour and Pompey Live pundit Jake Smith takes a look at Gillingham as part of his club-by-club preview.
Intro: The Championship was last graced with the presence of Gillingham in 2004/05, when the Kent-based side finished 22nd in the first season of the rebranded division, therefore relegated to the new League One after five years in the second tier.
Ever since, the Gills have spent their time in Leagues One and Two and have not, until now, looked anywhere near likely making a return. Scottish manager Steve Evans took over the club last summer and has made his side a tough one to beat, but we’ll come on to his impact in a minute.
The Gills were formed in 1893 under the name New Brompton and have played their home matches at Priestfield Stadium throughout their entire 127-year history.
The club joined the Football League in 1920 but were voted out of it 18 years later, in favour of Ipswich Town. They did, however, return in 1940 when the Football League was expanded from 88 to 92 teams.
At present, Gillingham are the only club in the Football League to represent the county of Kent and are also supported by legendary commentator Brian Moore, who once had a fanzine named after him in the 90s!
Gillingham finished last season in 10th-place after the implementation of the unweighted points-per-game system, the club’s second-highest finish since their 2005 relegation from the Championship.
Home Ground: Priestfield Stadium, Gillingham (Kent), 108 miles (by car) from Fratton Park – Capacity: 11,582
2019/20 Table Position: 12th (League One) – 51 points after 35 games with an average of 1.46 points per-game.
Overall Head-To-Head Record: Gillingham Wins: 9 – Draws: 9 – Portsmouth Wins: 19
Previous Meeting With Pompey: Gillingham 1-1 Portsmouth, 1st January 2020, League One
2020/21 Fixture Dates:
Tuesday 20th October, 2020 – Priestfield Stadium
Saturday 27th February, 2021 – Fratton Park
Manager: Steve Evans – you either love him or you hate him. It’s the opinions of Gillingham fans that mean the most right now though, and the general consensus seems to weigh in the Scotsman’s favour, who appears to be taking the Gills in the right direction.
The 57-year-old hothead is well-known for having a disruptive past and for his extremely loud screams from the touchline, however there’s no denying that his hard work at Priestfield is paying off, and the fans of the club are right behind him!
As a striker during his playing days, Evans spent his short career entirely North of the border, featuring for the likes of Clyde, Albion Rovers and St. Johnstone. A horrible knee ligament injury brought an end to Evans’ playing career in 1986, at the age of just 24. During his 7 years playing in attack, the Glaswegian netted 42 goals in 168 competitive appearances.
Evans went straight into coaching and earned his first managerial job in 1994 as a 32-year-old, taking over at non-league Stamford (Lincolnshire), whom he guided to the United Counties Football League Premier Division title and promotion to the Southern Football League before resigning in 1998.
Each of Boston United, Crawley Town, Rotherham United, Leeds United, Mansfield Town and Peterborough United have all had the pleasure of Steve Evans’s company in their respective dugouts – and at each club, Evans has been known to receive complaints, fines and suspensions for his ill-mannered ways and short temper, often sent to the stands and picking up touchline bans for his antics.
Notable managerial honours include 2 x Conference titles with Boston United (2002) and Crawley Town (2011), League Two automatic promotion with Rotherham United (2013) and League One Play-Off Final success the following season (2014), also with Rotherham – completing a famous double-promotion for the Millers.
At Gillingham, Evans has recorded 15 wins from 41 games, holding out for 17 draws and being defeated on 11 occasions – conjuring a win percentage of 34.9%.
One To Watch: One-time million-pound man Jacob Mellis is a player to keep an eye on this season.
The 29-year-old midfielder became Steve Evans’s third signing of the summer when he signed a two-year deal on August the 10th – Mellis joined as a free-agent after being released at the end of his contract at Bolton Wanderers.
Mellis came onto the scene in 2007 when Premier League giants Chelsea paid out £1million for his services whilst he was only 16-years-old. Touted as a potential star for the future, Mellis was part of the Chelsea team that reached the FA Youth Cup Final under Paul Clement in 2008, asserting himself as a regular within the Chelsea Reserves.
Despite an exciting start to life at Stamford Bridge, to which me made the move from Sheffield United, Mellis never made a senior appearance for the Blues and departed on a permanent deal to Barnsley in 2012, following successful loan spells at Southampton and Barnsley themselves.
He has spent the rest of his career in the Football League, featuring over 200 times for teams such as Blackpool, Bury and Mansfield Town.
Signing of the Summer (So Far): The 2020 summer transfer window has been an extremely busy one at Priestfield with manager Steve Evans already securing the signings of Ryan Jackson, Robbie McKenzie, Christian Maghoma, Alex MacDonald, Jacob Mellis, Kyle Dempsey, Jordan Graham and Vadaine Oliver all on permanent deals, as well as Arsenal duo Zach Medley and Trae Coyle on season-long loans.
The ambition is clear to see, Gillingham are looking to push for the Play-Offs and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them as this season’s dark horse in League One. My pick of the mass induction of new faces has to be midfielder Kyle Dempsey, who started his career at Carlisle United.
The 24-year-old already has a decent bulk of Football League experience, having already played for clubs like Carlisle, Huddersfield Town, Peterborough United and more recently Fleetwood Town.
Cumbrian-born Dempsey made the switch from the Fylde Coast down to Kent on August 17th, having spent three years at Fleetwood. Dempsey is known best for his ball retention, eye to go forward and create and the ability to link the midfield to the attack.
Gillingham have not yet revealed their squad numbers for the upcoming season.
Season Expectation: 2020/21 will be the Gills’ 7th consecutive season in the third tier, having been promoted as champions of League Two back in 2013. The club have tasted Championship football before and have spent many seasons towards the top of the English football ladder, but it has been quite some time since they last reached those heights.
It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to see them get there again, although they never seem to be fancied as promotion contenders, more just there to make up the numbers in the league than anything.
This year may be different however, Steve Evans has a CV which boasts League One promotion and has been backed well, but sensibly, by the board this window to bring in the players he believes will be capable of causing a few upsets to the teams at the top.
Despite my prediction, which you’ll see in a second, I would like to think that Gillingham could be one of the teams that makes a late push for the Play-Off places and I’m sure fans of the club are also expecting to finish between 6th and 12th.
My Predicted Finish: 10th
Gills in the Blood – Matt’s Assessment
I caught up with Matt, who is part of the ‘Gills in the Blood’ YouTube Channel, to gain a deeper insight into what to expect from Gillingham this season. Matt attended his first game in 1989 but has been going regularly since 1995, holding season tickets between ’95 – ’01 and from 2014 onwards.
He is feeling confident ahead of the season, insisting that not much more needs to be done now for his side to improve on last term’s 12th-place finish: “Steve Evans has made us harder to play against so I think it’s more tweaks needed rather than changes.
“If we can overcome the loss of Max Ehmer to remain solid defensively, and perhaps be more clinical in front of goal, then I think we’ll be around the same area as last season at the very worst.” – Matt continued.
“I imagine the minimum would be to improve on last season and then, after that, see how high we can finish. If we can improve on our shortcomings from the previous campaign, I think we could surprise a few people. A cup to run on top of that is always an added bonus” – The Vlogger added, pointing out his expectations for the new season.
So, where does Matt think his side will finish when the league reaches its conclusion in May?
“If the new group being put together can gel quickly enough, then we will comfortably be a top-half side again and will certainly be looking up. As it stands, I will plump for around 8th.” – he predicted.
“Jordan Graham and Jacob Mellis could potentially be very exciting to watch. Mellis was highly rated at Chelsea as a kid and could help unlock defences, and I think Graham would be higher up the pyramid if it weren’t for injuries stalling his progress. I’m looking forward to seeing him take on full-backs and providing dangerous deliveries.”
When asked for his thoughts on Marmite manager Steve Evans, Matt responded: “For me he’s been absolutely fine and I’m one who did not really want him coming in. He’s been vocal and got his point across whenever the need arose, but I don’t think he’s acted any differently to how any manager up and down the country does.”
Finally, Matt chipped in with his thoughts on the imposed salary cap and how it has impacted Gillingham: “It has affected us a lot less than I had envisaged to be fair. Some of the signings we have made – the likes of Kyle Dempsey and Jordan Graham have been superb and I think Steve Evans targeting players he can trust is a clever ploy.
“There are plenty of quality players based down South and I haven’t seen the comment regarding Southern clubs struggling to sign players compared to those in the North, but it’s a bold shout!”
You can follow Matt and his team on Twitter – @GillsInTheBlood
Photo: Jason Brown