People refer to the Gills as a side that are ‘punching above their weight’. Indeed, we have performed wonders to not just make it into this division, but to stay in it for as long as we have (so far). Such is the length of time we’ve now been at this level, the time has now come for the squad to experience a major overhaul. Why? Because they aren’t up to the task any more.
Gillingham have earned their place in Division 1 / the Championship by a combination of hard work and team spirit. Now, it’s sad to say, both seem to have disappeared over the last 12 months.
There is a distinct feeling within the club’s fan base (and perhaps some of the players too) that the heart of the side is now too old to compete at this level. There are a number of players still regularly selected for the side who are clearly struggling to stay with the pace of this division – and are beginning to prove a liability.
Nicky Southall returned to Priestfield a shadow of the player we sold to Bolton, Paul Smith has regressed into a slow, immobile plodder with limited vision and no attacking threat, while Chris Hope, once the model of consistency, seems no longer able to do the basics of marking, tackling and distributing the ball from the back that marked him as one of the best centre halves at this level when he arrived at the club.
These players have performed excellently for the club over the years – and it will be a difficult decision (in sentimental terms) to let them go, but let them go we must. They should be given the thanks they deserve for their commitment and service to the club, but times change and it is now time for these players to move on.
You also have to add the player manager to the list. Andy Hessenthaler is arguably the best signing in the club’s history. His level of commitment and service to the club is unquestionable, but sadly his ability now is. Unfortunately, Hessenthaler’s game has always been based on energy and commitment – and the legs have now gone.
There are also some major doubts about his ability as a manager. The club’s worst run of results in seven years tells a story, as does the appointment of John Gorman. If Hessenthaler was capable of turning things around, would we have needed such an experienced addition to our coaching staff? I’d suggest not. Wayne Jones was sacked, but surely the decisions on team selection and tactics were the manager’s? The decision seemed very much like the club looking for a scapegoat to save the manager, or at least buy him some more time.
These names, Hessenthaler, Southall, Smith and Hope, have all been big players for us over the last few years, but the time has come to say goodbye and thank you to the ‘old guard’ and welcome in some new, fitter, more mobile, hungrier players to take us into the next stage of the club’s history. They are probably some of the club’s higher earners too, which means their departure will free up some much-needed money to fund the wages of new players.
At the moment, it seems the club is prolonging the career of players while seeing the club go downhill, which cannot be right. Gillingham Football Club cannot afford to carry passengers – and it’s time for the club to start looking after its best interests. For me, that must mean the end of the road for the old guard.
The notable exception
In terms of his age and the length of time he’s been at the club Barry Ashby could also be described as being part of the Gills old guard, but he is possibly the only player of those mentioned to actually improve and develop in this division, rather than deteriorate. Despite his limitations, he is still the best natural defender at the club. He is also a rarity in the Gills side, a talker – and his qualities should still be used by the club, initially as a player, then perhaps later as a coach.