It had been a long time coming, but Gillingham’s fans, players and staff finally had something to celebrate on a Saturday night as the team put on a gritty display to earn a 1-0 win against Charlton Athletic at Priestfield.
Adrian Pennock’s lineup raised more than a few eyebrows, with four centre halves (five if you count Luke O’Neill) selected in a team where a number of players were asked to step out of their comfort zones and do unfamiliar jobs for the greater good of the team. And, to a man, they rose to the challenge.
Gillingham lined up with a wall of solid defenders across a traditional back four. O’Neill, Gabriel Zakuani and Ben Nugent were all in their natural positions of right back, centre back and centre back respectively, but another centre back, Alex Lacey, was asked to play out of position at left back (he’d later switch to right back, too).
Another man asked to perform out of his comfort zone was another centre back, Max Ehmer. The former Gills skipper has been criticised for some poor decision-making during games this season, and has been seen by some as the man to miss out when selecting central defenders in both a back four and a back three. On Saturday he was selected to play a midfield holding role.
And, after a slightly wobbly start that saw him booked in the opening quarter of an hour, Ehmer grew into his new role and produced one of the most notable performances of the game.
He helped protect the two centre halves behind him while also providing a physical presence in midfield. He even pushed forward on occasion, and was the man who set up striker Tom Eaves to score the only goal of the game.
I must admit, after watching him relax into the anchor role over the course of the 90 minutes, I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing him there in future games, particularly away from home.
Eaves netted the winner, and was right up there with Ehmer for outfield Man of the Match. He scored the crucial goal and never stopped chasing down defenders and battling for long balls.
With Gillingham’s lineup, playing a narrow midfield three, meaning they had to play a longer game it was crucial that Eaves kept the Charlton defence honest and he certainly did that. And once he scored he noticeably grew in confidence as a player. It was almost as if he grew a couple of inches taller, chased that little bit harder, looked that bit more confident on the ball. That’s the Tom Eaves this team badly needs.
Speaking of running, the role of the midfielders was an unsung, unglamorous one this weekend. With much of Gillingham’s play involving soaking up pressure and hitting on the counter, or playing long balls out of defence, the job of Mark Byrne and Scott Wagstaff was to cover huge amounts of ground, pressure the ball wherever possible and look to feed the front two and Sean Clare wherever possible.
Wagstaff sadly broke down at the end of the first half, but like a Duracell bunny in a Gills shirt, Byrne kept on running for the full 104+ minutes of game time. It wasn’t a match-winning performance like Eaves’ or a match-saving performance like Tomas Holy’s, but Byrne’s contribution was no less important, and deserves equal billing.
Young loanee Clare has been a breath of fresh air for this Gillingham team. He’s brought a youthful exuberance and fearlessness to the side and his pace and willingness to run at defenders proved a useful outlet throughout the game. He was involved in the goal, and nearly scored one for himself with a superb first-half free kick.
But despite a host of stand-out performances on the pitch, the Man of the Match award, quite rightly, went to the big Czech between the sticks.
Tomas Holy had a quite brilliant day in goal for the Gills, pulling off a string of saves to keep the home side’s clean sheet intact. He was aided and abetted by some wholehearted defending from the players in front him, who threw bodies in front of shots for the cause, but on the countless occasions Gillingham needed Holy to save them, he stood firm and kept the Addicks out.
It really was one of those days. Square pegs in round holes, players throwing themselves in front of shots, a goalkeeper playing like a man possessed. Gillingham won through sheer force of will.
On another day we may have lost by a hatful. Charlton’s finishing was at times pretty wasteful and goalkeepers don’t always produce displays like Holy’s on Saturday. But on the day Gillingham’s desire, determination and refusal to stop meant they finally got something their efforts deserved – a win.
Saturday’s result would have been a sweet moment for head coach Pennock. He’s been under fire from fans, including myself, who have called for him to go. And this week there has been a bizarre story in the media this week about the possibility of former Newcastle United midfielder Nolberto Solano (who has just 33 games’ experience managing in Peru) taking over the team. It sounds bizarre (and quite possibly fabricated) but Gillingham are a strange old football club at times, so fans haven’t completely ruled it out as a possibility.
But that win would have meant a lot to the former Gills centre back, who captained the team in the playoff final in 2000 as the club reached the heady heights of the championship. You only need to see his hug of Holy by the tunnel at the end of the video below to see just how important that win was to him.
— Simon Head (@simonhead) September 16, 2017
This win doesn’t change my view that he isn’t the right man to lead the team, but it is always nice to see someone under pressure coming through and having success.
From my standpoint, Pennock’s worth as Gills boss shouldn’t be dependent on the result of one game. No manager’s future should really come down to performance in one match – it should be judged over their full tenure. And in Pennock’s case, there’s an awful lot of ground to make up. Nonetheless, Saturday was a good first step.
If Saturday’s result proves to be a legitimate turning point for the club and the team goes on to produce that level of performance on a consistent basis, few will complain about the current gaffer staying in his post. But one swallow doesn’t make a summer and there’s plenty more work to do. I’m sure Pennock himself would acknowledge that.
While we should credit everyone for their role in Saturday’s win, we must also not lose sight of the fact that it is only one win. A hugely deserved, hard-fought win, but just one.
Now the job is to repeat the trick on a regular basis to pull the club away from the drop zone.
On to the next…