“Don’t give up on us, don’t give up on the club, and don’t give up on the team.”
The desperate post-match words of Gillingham head coach Adrian Pennock rang pretty hollow after the club’s 2-1 home defeat to Shrewsbury Town on Saturday. They rang hollow because, in at least one of those cases, it seems very much as if a lot of fans already have.
And if you need any evidence of that fact you need only look at the Priestfield Stadium stands. The fans are disappearing.
No matter how bad things used to get at Priestfield Stadium, one thing was always constant, The Rainham End. The fans in that stand – and those in the middle three blocks, in particular – were there through the thinnest of the thin times.
But this shot, taken during Saturday’s defeat to Shrewsbury, shows that things have changed.
— Glenn Moore (@GlennMoore7) September 2, 2017
It wasn’t just behind the Rainham End goal, either. The Medway Stand has been noticeably empty for much of the season, too, and some estimates put Saturday’s matchday attendance at not much more than 3,500.
It’s also telling that the club appears not to have released the attendance figure for the day. Maybe they’re embarrassed. They should be. But whether it was a genuine matchday omission or deliberately withheld, it’s almost irrelevant. You can hide the official attendance figure, but you can’t hide empty seats.
“Fan confidence in the manager isn’t so much on the floor – it was already there after last season – it’s now six feet under.”
The inconvenient truth for those in charge at Priestfield is the fact that, after years of blind faith and unquestionable support, the Gillingham fanbase has wised up. They know what’s up, they don’t like it and they’ve voted with their feet and their wallets.
After the shambolic back end to last season saw the club inexplicably re-appoint the man who so nearly relegated the club, the writing was on the wall.
The cheap option appointment was brought in under the guise of giving a wronged man a fair chance. But it would appear that, despite a full pre-season and an overhaul of the playing staff, little has changed out on the pitch. If anything, it’s worse.
Pennock, a legend as a player and a terrace favourite from his time as one of the team’s defensive mainstays, has had a markedly different relationship with the fans since taking over the reins.
Going to the fans to celebrate a point (or perhaps berate, as some interpreted his gesticulations following Tom Eaves’ hat-trick against Southend) one minute, then disappearing down the tunnel with barely an acknowledgement after each defeat hasn’t gone down well with some sections of the fanbase, who are calling out the boss for his apparent ‘fairweather’ attitude towards the supporters.
On the pitch, little has improved in terms of results and Gillingham already find themselves in the League One relegation zone and now SkyBet, sponsors of the three Football League divisions, have Gillingham as 2/7 favourites to be relegated from League One. Those odds also make the Gills the biggest nailed-on favourites for the drop anywhere in English football’s four divisions.
Skybet relegation favourites
|Oldham Athletic||League One||1/2|
|Brighton & Hove Albion||Premier League||EVENS|
|Crystal Palace||Premier League||7/4|
|Huddersfield Town||Premier League||7/4|
|Northampton Town||League One||15/8|
|Plymouth Argyle||League One||2/1|
|Swansea City||Premier League||9/4|
|Crawley Town||League Two||9/4|
|AFC Wimbledon||League One||11/4|
|Odds via Skybet, correct as of Sunday September 3, 2017|
While some (myself included) were prepared to give him time following his appointment to put his own stamp on the club, it seems the hallmark of Gillingham under Pennock is less 24 carat gold, more Strood Market knock-off.
One by one the club’s most valuable playing assets have departed Priestfield as a key attribute in any squad – the ability to create and score goals – evaporated from the club.
Some left because the club failed to offer acceptable terms, others because they were sold and, in the recent example of Josh Wright, we saw a player leave because of an apparent personality clash between the head coach and a player whose attitude had previously been beyond reproach. None of those key men have been adequately replaced.
As a result, the team now has a midfield with little creativity and barely any goal threat, while the forward line is now populated by players who have no track record of scoring goals regularly at this level.
Our attacking signings with league experience have struggled to make an impact at their previous clubs, while Gillingham’s best hope for consistent goals now comes from a young lad who last season was banging in the goals in English football’s EIGHTH TIER.
Fan confidence in the manager isn’t so much on the floor – it was already there after last season – it’s now six feet under. Gillingham’s last win came on Good Friday, and it’s been a run of pretty bad Saturdays ever since.
And here’s the killer stat. Under Pennock, Gillingham have played 26 league games and they’ve won just four.
So far the only real positive I can come up with for Pennock is he appears to have recruited well in defensive areas. Had those defensive reinforcements worked in tandem with the attacking players we had last year, we might not be looking too bad right now.
But we sold Bradley Dack and didn’t reinvest the money in the team. We failed to re-up Cody McDonald’s contract and we fell out with Wright to the point we let a sellable asset walk away from the club (and almost certainly into the ranks of a divisional rival) for nothing. As a result watching the Gills now resembles watching someone taking a butter knife to a gunfight.
The clock is unquestionably ticking for Pennock. The fans aren’t buying the “we need a slice of luck” line as the key driver behind a potential upturn in form. They aren’t buying the bizarre substitution choices (and timing) and the strange obsession with three at the back with wingbacks, a system that simply hasn’t worked.
In short, the Gills fans aren’t buying Pennock as Gills manager, and while everybody knows who’s coming next (Peter Taylor’s probably applying Chelsea Dubbin to his old Adidas Copa Mundials as I type) I think the fans’ patience is as little as one more defeat away from some concerted chants of “Pennock out!”
Based on what we’ve seen from Pennock’s Gillingham, his removal from the hotseat looks a case of when, rather than if.
Which takes me back to Pennock’s post-match quote I mentioned at the start of this piece. While begging the fans to stay on board is all well and good (not to say desperate after only five league games of a new season) I’d suggest the key man in all of this is the man who took the baffling decision to re-hire him in the first place, Gillingham chairman Paul Scally.
Because if Scally genuinely believes Pennock is still the best man for the job, then it’s he who has truly given up.