One of the first things I was told when I started working in football was to expect the unexpected. Look at recent managerial changes – Everton appointing Sam Allardyce having previously targeted Marco Silva and Carlos Carvalhal to Swansea, among others – if you don’t believe me.
However, it’s safe to say many Gillingham fans fully expected that Justin Edinburgh wouldn’t make it to the end of the 2016/17 season as manager. So much so that I’d actually written a draft press release announcing his departure during the second half of the woeful home defeat against Oldham Athletic three months earlier. After all, in my time watching the club – dating back to the final days of the Mike Flanagan era – I can never recall a manager winning over fans successfully once a large number want him out.
Whatever people’s feeling are towards Justin, it can’t be nice knowing that the call from upstairs is coming. He was probably well aware that Steve Evans had attended at least one Gills game early on last season prior to taking over at Mansfield. The club’s final game of 2016, a third 2-1 defeat against Millwall within seven months, was watched by former Lions manager turned jungle contestant Dennis Wise, too. I think Wise’s appearance in the Directors’ Box at The Den irked him and a few others, in particular. That, combined with the team ending the match with nine men, saw him decline to fulfil his post-match press duties.
Tuesday, 3 January began like a normal working day at Priestfield. A few minutes were spent discussing the previous afternoon’s awful home defeat to Oxford United, a game notable for chants of “You’re getting sacked in the morning”. By home fans. Things seemed perfectly normal in ME7, although the club’s customer service centre phone lines were often a tell-tale sign of mood among fans. They weren’t particularly busy that morning, if memory serves.
When I saw Justin at around 9.40am, it seemed as if he was about to head to training. There was a quick hello as we passed on the stairs; given the news it later turned out he’d just received, fair play to him for not greeting me with something stronger. My guess is that he was probably told of his sacking barely 10 minutes earlier.
Word spreads quickly in football is another thing I learned working at the club. At 9:55am journalist Pete O’Rourke tweeted about Edinburgh’s departure, which prompted a call from Radio Kent’s Ben Watts. “Nah, nothing in it, mate,” or words to that effect, were my reply to his questioning. By being so alert to the online speculation and chasing up the story (something many lesser journalists do these days) as quickly as he could, he actually ended up putting out tweets saying it wasn’t true. Thankfully, it hasn’t counted against him, as he continues to develop into an accomplished broadcaster.
It was only upon putting the phone down to him and answering a call from Chairman Paul Scally confirming the sacking that O’Rourke’s tweet was revealed to be accurate. Now, given the pre-prepared statement from months back, anybody who does a bit of online digging will see that the story ended up going live at 10:30am – not a significant, but still a fair time delay (28 minutes, I believe). The reasoning? The club website, provided by a company who supplied nearly every EFL club with their online hub, often took between 10 and 15 minutes to publish stories – but it could also do it within five minutes on a good day. Frustrating isn’t the word. It’s also why transfers were not usually trailed with a “new signing to be unveiled at X o’clock” message on social media as the story would no doubt appear on the website about five minutes late, making the media operations look somewhat useless.
As it happens, only Ben and Luke Cawdell, another hard-working journalist who deserves greater recognition for his long-standing reportage of the Gills, were told of the news in advance of the official announcement; all other enquiries were met with a “the club will be commenting shortly” line, which admittedly doesn’t take much to decrypt.
The players’ lounge at lunch that day was an incredibly subdued affair. Forget any talk of the dressing room being lost and the squad wanting a change at the top: publicly this was a group of players who knew that they’d contributed to the downfall of a management team. I was told at the time that the old management team went around the entire squad and shook hands before leaving the building by 10:15am. No hard feelings and all that. Of course, privately, some players may have enjoyed the news: most likely those who hadn’t featured much in previous weeks – often one or two “outsiders” benefit from a managerial change by working their way into the starting XI. Somewhat ironically, given he lost the captaincy and left the club nine months later, it could be argued that Josh Wright was the only player to thrive under Ady Pennock. What a funny old game.
It’s quite remarkable how things have changed in ME7 in the past 12 months. Sure, Pennock’s reign ended up being a rail replacement service when the club needed a high-speed getaway from trouble. But, despite many people’s initial thoughts (mine included!) about the strength of this season’s squad, Steve Lovell’s team continues to prove that anything can happen in football. A first-ever away win at Charlton to start 2018? That’ll be great, thanks. Perhaps the Medway Messenger’s last back page under the Edinburgh reign, complete with a quote headline from him predicting “Good times ahead” wasn’t so far-fetched after all?