5977732260_37e829e825_b-620x250Well who’d have thought it? Nine weeks on from the capitulation that was the Gills’ 2010-11 season and things appear rosy in garden Priestfield for the first time in many years.

A vicious cull of dead wood within the squad saw numbers heavily reduced, the ever elusive Mark McCammon was finally banished, along with the hapless Josh Gowling and both goalkeepers. Manager Andy Hessenthaler showed there was no room for sentiment as the club’s longest serving player Mark Bentley was also released.

News of a reduced playing budget left most fans fearing the worst, with a threadbare squad and no funds to rebuild, Gills fans could only look on in envy as League Two new-boys Crawley threw money around like it was going out of fashion. Of the players offered new deals, only Joe Martin agreed an extension, the rest deciding that a pay cut wasn’t what they were looking for.

Adebayo Akinfenwa bolted back to Northampton while utility-man Chris Palmer returned to his Midlands base with Burton Albion. Winger Andy Barcham did attain promotion of sorts with a move to League One Scunthorpe while Kevin Maher seemed happy to keep his options open.

Several weeks after the season-ending defeat at Chesterfield and Gills fans were growing increasingly despondent. Alleged targets had moved to other “lesser” sides, and aside from a rapidly growing pre-season fixture list, the club were staying resolutely silent. June came and went with no new arrivals and just when it seemed fan patience was beginning to evaporate entirely, the floodgates opened.

With the addition of prolific Dover striker Adam Birchall, Gills have registered eight new players in just two weeks. Of these, four required transfer fees to be paid before their services were secured, a situation not entirely consistent with the Gills’ reduced budget.

In goal, replacing the departed Cronin and Julian, comes Dover’s Ross Flitney (free). At present he is being touted as the club’s main keeper, but with ongoing rumours of a return for Jason Brown plus Argentine triallist Paolo Gazzaniga playing a part in pre-season, this is by no means a foregone conclusion. With certain sections of the Gills’ support becoming notorious for abusing players they deem lacking in ability, Flitney will need a solid start if he is chosen as Number One.

At the back, the third of the Dover triumvirate to have arrived is Matt Fish (free). Formerly of Crystal Palace, the youngster has been given another crack at the Football League and will be vying with club captain Barry Fuller for the right back spot. Andy Frampton (free from Millwall) may also prove to be an astute signing in defence, able to play both centrally or on the left. He brings some much needed steel and experience to a previously porous back four.

Midfield

The revamped midfield is the strongest it has been for years. The return of Peterborough duo, Charlie Lee and Chris Whelpdale (undisclosed fees) is rightly being touted as something of a coup for Gillingham, both players being more than capable of playing at a far higher level than League Two. Lewis Montrose (free) from Wycombe Wanderers also looks to be a very decent signing at this level, with many Chairboys fans disappointed their club chose to release him.

Up front, the two new boys notched over 70 goals between them last season, albeit at non-league level. Whether they can translate this to the professional game remains to be seen, but Messrs Kedwell (undisclosed but thought to be around £120k) and Birchall (undisclosed but thought to be £50-75k) are an infinitely sharper goal-scoring threat than Dennis Oli will ever be.

Danny Kedwell also has a head-start when it comes to winning fans over, by actually being one of them. His post-arrival interviews will surely have earned him an army of admirers; admitting he used to stand on the Rainham End terrace and belt out songs alongside his fellow supporters.

Optimism is rife amongst the more fickle Gills’ supporters, and even those hardened cynics amongst us have cracked a smile at the quality of new signings. Surely a push for promotion is a must with the talent at Hessenthaler’s disposal, but that’s not to say it will be easy, we’re not alone in having remodelled our squad this season.

In terms of League Two’s most likely contenders; Crawley, Oxford and Northampton have spent freely on both fees and wages, while Paolo Di Canio’s Swindon (*spit*) have brought in some interesting, but conspicuously foreign talent. Whether they will be able to cope with the rigors of a cold Tuesday night in Accrington remains to be seen. If Plymouth Argyle can resolve their precarious financial issues before the start of the season, they too could well be in with a shout.

With just over two weeks until the start of season 2011-12, Gills are seemingly in a stronger position than they have been in quite some time.

David Pope

Photograph (c) Steve Daniels

  • Posted on 9. January 2012
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