Connect with us

News and Features

Why Gillingham’s schedule could prove crucial as relegation concerns start to surface

Steve Lovell needs to establish a solid base at home ahead of crucial New Year clashes if the Gills are to avoid a relegation dogfight



Credit: Kent Pro Images

The League One season is long and arduous, but despite it being quite early days, a definite gulf in class has emerged between those battling for promotion and the bottom half of the table filled with relegation candidates. As it stands, Gillingham is generally considered to be right in the mix of relegation candidates.

Transfermarkt shows that Gillingham endured a quiet summer in which more players left than arrived for Steve Lovell’s first full season at the helm. One piece of business well-met by fans and the manager was the renewed loan deal of Tottenham Hotspur left-back Connor Ogilvie, who played 42 games for the Gills last season, scoring once and tallying two assists. Charlton duo Brandon Hanlan and Regan Charles-Cook and AFC Wimbledon’s Barry Fuller and Dean Parrett also made their way to the club. Josh Rees and Callum Reilly joined from the lower divisions.

This level of summer activity didn’t set Gillingham in a good place with the oddsmakers and remain one of the favourites to struggle this season. But, a loss in the EFL Cup to Millwall on penalties is allowing the team to focus on the most important aspect of the season: survival. On top of this, Gillingham appears to have been given a golden opportunity during the business end of the season to stay in League One – should they not be safe by the final couple of months of play.

Favourable fixture pileup in 2019

The key to any relegation candidate avoiding relegation is taking points off of the teams around them. Coming into the season, Gillingham, Rochdale, Accrington Stanley, Wycombe Wanderers, AFC Wimbledon, and Shrewsbury town were tipped as relegation candidates by The Guardian. At the seven-game mark of the season, the likes of Plymouth Argyle, Bradford City, Scunthorpe, Bristol Rovers, and somewhat surprisingly, Oxford United have joined the battle.

Oxford United had a strong summer aimed at rectifying their 2017/18 campaign and were expected to at least contend for a promotion place, per Kent Online. But, with one win, five losses, a draw, and 17 goals against through seven games, they’re expected to be in the relegation battle this season.

Given how the relegation battle has begun, Gillingham are considered to be a relegation candidate, despite their standing in 15th after seven games. As of the 14th September, Betway has Plymouth at 11/10, Oxford United at 7/4, Wycombe at 15/8, and Gillingham at 2/1 to get relegated. Somehow Shrewsbury are given longer odds than Gillingham at 9/4 despite being without a win in seven games and without manager Paul Hurst who brought them so close to promotion last season.

So far this season, Gillingham has been fairly neutral in the league with regards to their preference of playing at Priestfield Stadium or away. With a win and a draw at home, one win away, two away losses, and two home wins, the Gills boast a slight preference to playing in front of their home fans.

In a relegation scrap, it’s important to be hard to beat at home. But, Gillingham’s immediate outlook means that they need to start stealing points when away. Before the New Year, Gillingham will travel to face six of the relegation candidates detailed above, from which they’ll need to take some points. These are split by the Gills hosting Bradford on the 27th October and Wycombe on the 15th December.

The second half of the season, as the table starts to take shape and teams begin to panic, is what decides the relegation battle. Luckily for Gillingham, the fixtures have favourably stacked fellow relegation candidates into groups of home games. From January through to April, the Gills will have eight home games against currently tagged relegation scrappers with away matchups against Wycombe and Wimbledon coming in February and March. If Gillingham are in the thick of it come March, they’ll get to host Oxford United, Bristol Rovers, and Rochdale at home in March and then Shrewsbury, Plymouth, and Bradford in April.

Momentum counts for a lot at the back end of the season when every point matters, so establishing strong home form and beating these teams who could well be around Gillingham will count for a huge amount. But first, Gillingham must rebuild the fortress.

Make teams fear Priestfield Stadium

Success at home has to be a priority for Gillingham this season and is something that manager Steve Lovell has detailed as a target for this season. It doesn’t even have to be a particularly colourful style of play from the Gills; as long as points are being tallied and fans can get excited to see the team go all-out on their turf, the home crowd will create the atmosphere that travelling teams will hate to play in.

This is especially important given how the fixtures are laid out. Lovell has some time before the crucial home games come around, giving him time to cultivate a tough culture at home against top-half opponents, but by the time the New Year rings in, he’ll need his squad to be set and ready to claim some crucial wins at Priestfield Stadium.

There are a lot of teams considered to be in the relegation scrap of League One this season. But, the way that Gillingham’s fixtures have fallen has given them a golden opportunity to, if they need to, escape the relegation battle with some crucial ties at home. But, they’ll need to build a home-win mentality before the latter months come around.