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Can Gillingham rebuild ‘Fortress Priestfield’ this season?

After a disappointing home season for the Gills last year, Steve Lovell will be looking to make Priestfield Stadium a fortress once again

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While club chairman Paul Scally continues his seemingly never-ending quest to move to a new stadium, this weekend Gillingham manager Steve Lovell will set about rebuilding Gillingham’s existing home into a fortress once again.

A couple of decades ago ‘Fortress Priestfield’ was a reality. Gillingham’s home used to have a reputation as a ground no side wanted to visit.

As Kent’s only Football League club, Gillingham is something of a footballing outpost, and teams often arrived at Priestfield with ambitions of coming away with a point.

The trip south wasn’t always the most pleasant, the surroundings were far from salubrious and the team itself often played nasty, in-your-face football that many teams had little answer to.

Those days were most prevalent under the stewardship of Tony Pulis, who instilled a hard-nosed approach that was built upon by Peter Taylor, then continued by player-manager Andy Hessenthaler. That era in the club’s history saw the Gills reach their highest heights, and deliver some of the club’s most impressive results.

We became a League 1/Division 2 juggernaut, putting weaker teams to the sword while outbattling those on (or above) our level as we made it to the playoff final twice and earned promotion at the second attempt.

Once we were in the Championship and rated as relegation certs we continued to fight, bloodying the noses of bigger, better-funded clubs as Hessenthaler’s Gills scrapped their way to 11th in English football’s second tier, the club’s highest-ever league finish.

The football wasn’t always stellar, but the fans loved every kick of it. We were rough, tough, committed and played every game like we meant it.

In more recent years the team has looked less gritty, but under Lovell it feels like there’s more of that old-school spirit returning to the side.

Mark Byrne epitomises that approach, buzzing around midfield looking to influence the play, with or without the ball.

Gabriel Zakuani’s no-nonsense approach to defending will have some fans thinking fondly of some of his predecessors from the early 2000s, while up front Tom Eaves’ sheer presence has given the side the sort of battering-ram centre-forward we’ve missed since the days of Iffy Onuora.

The Wall: Gabriel Zakuani's no-nonsense approach is just what Gillingham need in the heart of their defence

The Wall: Gabriel Zakuani’s no-nonsense approach is just what Gillingham need in the heart of their defence

Before people leap on these mentions as direct comparisons (they’re not), they are merely an illustration of the type of player that we had, then lost, and now appear to be bringing back to the fold.

And it’s these types of player that will help the club become solid at home once again.

But it wasn’t always just about the players. The boys and girls in the stands played a huge part back then, too.

The Rainham End was boisterous, intimidating and full of humour. And the Medway and Gordon Road stands used to follow their lead, building an atmosphere that helped drive the Gills on to late winners, or match-saving equalisers.

While the opening game of the season is often a happy-go-lucky affair that doesn’t always have the same intensity of games towards the sharp end of the season, the points this weekend are no less important than those in April. A great atmosphere from the off on Saturday might just kick-start something positive.

After all, we’ve gotten off to flying starts at home before.

In 2015 we kicked off with a 4-0 hammering of Sheffield United, while opening day nine years ago saw the Gills hand our old friends from Swindon a 5-0 caning at Priestfield.

And in our first home game back in 2001 the Gills dished out another 5-0 thrashing to our big rivals at that time, Preston North End.

Getting off the mark at home is crucial to any team’s season. If it takes time for that first home win to come, the fans start to get worried, the players start to get twitchy and, before you know it, any home advantage will have evaporated.

Football is a game of confidence and, after an excellent start on the road at Accrington, a follow-up win against Burton on Saturday would give the Gills – and the fans – just the shot in the arm they need after a disappointing home campaign last season.

Last season in League 1 no team won fewer games at home than Gillingham, who registered just five home wins from their 23 games at Priestfield last term.

We drew a lot of home games last year – 11 in all – and were the fifth-lowest scorers at home, with 26.

But that was last season. Now we have a fresh start, a refreshed squad and a manager who has the chance to attack this season from the off, rather than having to right the ship with the team in turmoil.

The pieces are in place. Now it’s time to deliver. The players are ready. The fans are ready. Let’s see if, together, we can get off to a great start at home once again.