It might not have been the rip-roaring start to the season that we all hoped for when we woke up on Saturday morning, but Gillingham’s 0-0 draw at Doncaster is probably just what we needed.
Our only goalless draw last season came in the final game, and it proved to be (just) enough to keep us up as we kept a clean sheet when we desperately needed one.
And now we’ve kicked off our campaign in similar form, holding on under pressure from the home side as our defence bent, but didn’t break, under duress.
This season my confidence in our ability to keep things tight is somewhat higher than it was last year. Defensively we’ve offloaded the likes of Chris Herd, Ryan Jackson and Deje Oshilaja and replaced them with Gabriel Zakuani, Alex Lacey and Luke O’Neill, plus the loan signing of Connor Ogilvie.
As a result we have more options at the back, with head coach Adrian Pennock opting to run with a back three, mirroring the successful formation he was a part of during Peter Taylor‘s stewardship in the 1999/2000 season.
“We need our defenders to defend. Too often last season they didn’t.”
That year Taylor counted on his three reliable centre halves – Pennock, Guy Butters and Barry Ashby – to keep them out at the back, while his attacking talent looked to do the business at the other end.
‘The Eggers’, as Taylor affectionately called them, were a trio of no-nonsense, defence-first defenders. The term ‘defence-first defenders’ may sound a little daft, but at this level it’s more important to have defenders who can repel borders first, rather than someone who can play raking crossfield passes and bring the ball out of defence.
Too often at this level we see players who fancy themselves as ball-playing centre halves, but when push comes to shove can’t actually defend. If we’re going to succeed we don’t need that type of player at Priestfield. We need our defenders to defend. Too often last season they didn’t.
Messrs Pennock, Butters and Ashby could certainly defend, and in 1999/2000 they provided the defensive stability from which the Gills mounted a successful promotion campaign and the best FA Cup run in the club’s history as they made it all the way to the quarter-finals.
Gillingham’s legendary season: 1999/2000
Fast-forward to present day, and it looks very much as if Pennock (aided by his former gaffer) is now looking to replicate that defensive formula with a host of new defensive signings.
Zakuani seems to be the natural leader the back line needs, and alongside him O’Neill and Lacey could well form Pennock’s first-choice back three.
With Lacey out injured on Saturday Max Ehmer occupied one of those three spots and, according to some of our fellow 365ers at the game, was the shakiest of the trio, despite being the longest-serving Gill in the back line.
But once Lacey returns to full fitness I expect to see him slotted straight into the starting lineup alongside his fellow new arrivals, and I expect Pennock to keep the trio together for as many games as possible this season as he looks to rebuild Gillingham’s broken team from the back.
Early glances at the side suggest we don’t appear to have the firepower of last season (especially if Pennock continues to leave last season’s top scorer Josh Wright out of the side), so we can expect wins (or losses) by the odd goal and a generally more scrappy, resolute approach to defending from now on.
It might not be the prettiest to watch but, if we go about our business in the right way, it may well be more effective than we’ve been used to in seasons past.