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Farewell to the Pennock era

Former Gillingham FC media man Nick Bull reacts to Adrian Pennock’s departure, and reflects on the former terrace hero’s disappointing stint in charge at Priestfield



Credit: Kent Pro Images
Kent Pro Images

So, farewell then, Ady Pennock. His departure from Gillingham on Monday morning is probably the most predictable and welcomed sacking that I can remember in my 22 years following the club.

Some will say he shouldn’t have been offered to stay on in the role this summer. Others weren’t enthused from day one. But the last nine months will go down in history as being among the worst in living memory, combined with a period that tarnished a popular ex-player’s reputation. Few, if any, will mourn the loss of a manager who won five times in 30 league games.

Not only did I want things to work out for him (who didn’t to begin with?), I genuinely thought they would for a good few months. The improvements of his first four weeks in charge – notably the battling, organised performances at Champions-elect Sheffield United and beaten play-off finalists Bradford City – suggested a relegation battle was unlikely going into mid-February. How things changed.

As soon as Justin Edinburgh was sacked on 3 January, it was apparent that Pennock would be taking charge. Rumours around the club hinted that Ian Hendon could be coming on board as a joint manager, which didn’t particularly enthuse the fan in me.

At the start I liked his approach; Pennock and his coaching team were working from 7:30am until 5:00pm on their first official day. Watching clips from recent games was their main task; in-depth preparation and evaluation were particularly lacking under the previous regime, I felt. “We train as we play” was a common slogan at Beechings Cross, too.

Pennock put in the hours, but the results didn’t materialise on the pitch

However, the first problem came during his official unveiling press conference, with the suggestion that the club could challenge for the play-offs. I’m not sure Ady particularly believed that, but what else could he have said? “Yeah, 18th will be a result for us come April” wouldn’t have washed – let’s not forget Edinburgh’s “overachieving” lines in his final press conference were undoubtedly the final nail in his coffin. If fans weren’t enthused with his appointment as it was – the reaction across the club’s social media channels was notably downbeat – then Pennock predicting a difficult few months would have jilted even more supporters.

The extent of the problems quickly became clear to him. Some of the wages players were on wouldn’t have been out of place in the Championship. The squad was midfield heavy. Fitness levels were below the required standard. Too few of the players were natural leaders, apparently, too.

The first would have been difficult to solve quickly, especially as QPR were never keen on taking Jay Emmanuel-Thomas back (it’s interesting to note that he doesn’t even have a squad number at Loftus Road this season). Strengthening in defence and forward positions needed either a budget (virtually all spent) and/or cunning transfer activity. I felt he did fairly well in this area – just don’t mention Ollie Muldoon. A crash fitness course would get levels up a bit, but on-field leaders are gold dust. In hindsight, it’s not hard to explain last season’s results.

After his post-match press conference at Oldham (a poor 1-0 defeat to mark his first game in charge on January 14), he didn’t hide his frustration to the local journalists, speaking off the record for a good few minutes about the dire display. His public comments weren’t any better – honesty from a manager is always welcome in my eyes.

But more than indifferent results, I feel that Pennock’s comments played a significant part in turning fans against him. In hindsight, introducing Facebook Live streams for his pre-match press conferences is something I’d reconsider, especially as it meant that every word he said was scrutinised more than any Gills manager before him. His favourite phrases (“chomping at the bit” etc) became unpopular and mocked, and fans felt he wasn’t saying anything new from week to week (spoiler: most press conferences are repetitive and uneventful). Then there’s the issue of the captaincy; giving the armband to Lee Martin this summer after saying Max Ehmer’s coronation to the role in January was because he liked a defender wearing it suggested a problem between him and Josh Wright. Fast forward several months and that all ended in a massive PR disaster for the club.

Credit: Kent Pro Images

Falling out: Pennock’s clash with Josh Wright saw the popular midfielder, top scorer and Player of the Year leave the club (Kent Pro Images)

Credit where credit’s due: Ady and his coaching team were far easier for me to deal with that their predecessors. Always good for a laugh and a joke, he was keen to push the club in the community, he surprised fans with house visits on their birthdays and visited club staff while in hospital. He wanted to push the notion that we were all “one club”. But behind the scenes, I got the feeling all wasn’t well. Early on in his reign, one senior player told me that the dressing room was flat and hadn’t been boosted by Pennock’s arrival in any way. Another said his man management was poor, while the general consensus that he was “non-league”.

I’m told he had a big row with one experienced player at half-time during the dreadful defeat at Coventry City. There was a sizeable post-match inquest after the Rochdale thrashing in March. Tactics and team selections quickly became unpopular, and by default, players don’t buy into a manager with a poor win rate.

Credit: Kent Pro Images

Harshly treated: Goalkeeper Stuart Nelson (Kent Pro Images)

But in terms of relations with fans, the departures of the big-name players was arguably his death knell. Frank Nouble, Paul Konchesky and Billy Knott all departed within a month of his appointment. Cody McDonald opted for AFC Wimbledon in the summer, Bradley Dack couldn’t wait to get out of the place and fans backed Josh over his mutual termination. Runner-up in the player of the year vote last season, Stuart Nelson has been (unfairly, in my opinion) sidelined but is still supported by fans. Pennock may have been told to cut the wage bill – if so, he succeeded – but losing so many fan favourites would have only have been forgotten if results improved. They didn’t. “We looked doomed,” is what one of the most sensible and level-headed Gills fans I know told me after Saturday’s Rochdale thrashing.

It’ll be interesting to see if Pennock comments on his time in the role. As he mentioned in his emotional interview at Northampton on the final day of last season, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that fans are not privy to. Was he in the wrong place at the wrong time given the various goings on in ME7? Quite possibly.

We can only wish his successor luck – I fear they may need a lot of it.