Headley: The case for the defence…

Last updated : 24 January 2007 By Simon Head

Jepson: has struggled to organise the Gills' defence
As I'm sure most Gills fans are fully aware, Gillingham are in big trouble. Financially the club is at the mercy of a crippling debt - all £10m of it. That, of course, is the biggest problem affecting the club - but there's another problem that's rather more fixable that causes anger, frustration and pure disbelief week-in, week-out. Our defence.

Despite Ronnie Jepson coming in and steadying the ship last season, he's singularly failed to correct our biggest failing - our defence. Hopes were high that he might be able to instil a better work ethic and introduce some much-needed organisation to our beleaguered back line. His post-match press conferences tell regular tales of players being called in the day after matches to work on things, and being told plenty of "home truths". But has any of it actually worked? If you look at the facts of the matter, the answer is an emphatic and depressing "no".

Teams tend to perform better at home, as they're on the attack more, and opposition teams tend to be more defensive, so home defences aren't tested as much as they are away from home. The real barometer of how well a side's defence is performing is to look at the away goals conceded column - in Gillingham's case, it doesn't make pretty reading at all.

At the time of writing Gillingham have not just the worst away defence in League One - but the worst away defence in any of the English AND Scottish professional leagues.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this statistic is seen when you look at the away goals scored column. Gillingham currently have the joint second-best away goals scored record in League One, better than the top three, and equal with Oldham, who sit fourth.

Despite not having a striker featuring prominently in the division's top scorer tables, the Gills have still managed to create goals on their travels. Impressively, they've managed to score goals from all over the pitch, which shows that we aren't over-reliant on a single striker to net our goals.

But all the team's good work in attack is more than undone by the ineptitude of the defending. The side's inability to hold on to a lead is astounding, to say the least. Of the 28 games played so far, Gillingham have taken the lead in 15 of them. Not bad at all. In fact, when it comes to opening the scoring, we're the sixth-best team in the league.

However, if you looked at what actually happened in those 15 games after we took the lead, you'd be stunned at just how poor the Gills actually are.

Of those 15 games where Gillingham have taken the lead, they've managed to hang on to win just seven of them, drawing four and losing four. That's an average of 1.66 points per game from games we've taken the lead in - and that's the worst conversion rate in League One.  Only Torquay United of League Two have a worse conversion rate in English league football. In total, from the matches where Gillingham have taken the lead, they have managed to lose a total of 20 league points.

It seems that whatever work has gone on to organise the defence, it hasn't worked. Individual errors are an infuriating guarantee when you watch the Gills play. Whether it's missed tackles, non-existent marking or real basics such as failure to communicate with fellow teammates, it's there for all to see. Yet the selection of the back four has been surprisingly consistent.

When all are fit, Duncan Jupp plays right back, Clint Easton plays left back, and Ian Cox partners on-loan Ben Chorley in the middle. Fans have placed huge question marks over three of the four defenders, with Jupp being criticised for his lack of pace, Easton for simply not being a defender (more a midfielder played hopelessly out of position) and Cox for his error-strewn performances, culminating in two needless sendings-off in the space of three weeks

The biggest question being asked by fans at the moment is “what's happened to Danny Jackman?”.

Jackman: Gills' best outfield player last season has seemingly been left out in the cold
Some rumours suggest that because he's nearing 50 league starts for the club (he's currently on 48) a bonus clause in his contract will be triggered so he is being left out to save money. Others suggest that Jackman has fallen out of favour after he and Andrew Crofts lost their boots at Brentford last year. Interestingly, Crofts has been a mainstay throughout the season – and has generally performed well. Surely the same could have applied with Jackman, runner up in our Player of the Year awards last season (behind goalkeeper Jason Brown - oh how we miss him...)

Whatever the reasons behind Jackman's omission, the truth is Gillingham's outstanding outfield player from last season has barely had a look-in since Jepson brought Clint Easton to the club. Many fans feel that Gillingham's best side contains both Jackman AND Easton, with Matty Jarvis playing up front alongside Gary Mulligan. Indeed, that lineup saw Gillingham produce one of their best performances of the season, beating Swansea in a match packed with exciting, attacking, passing football. Watching the side now makes that match seem a very long time ago. But even then, Easton was preferred at left back, with Jackman playing in midfield – roles most fans would like to see reversed, with the better defender (Jackman) playing at fullback with the better ball-player (Easton) playing in midfield.

With a crippling debt of in excess of £10m hanging over the club and seemingly preventing any serious attempts to improve the quality of the squad (we don't even have a fit goalkeeper on our books), the onus is on the manager to get the best out of the players at his disposal – and while we're managing to score goals home and away, the biggest problem continues to be our defence. We're now 28 games into the league season - and there's no sign of sustained improvement.