16 November ~ Gillingham's defeat to Crewe Alexandra on Saturday sent the club tumbling to within two points of the foot of the entire League, just five years after a sustained spell in the Championship. Given our away form (19 months and 30 games without success), three lame home defeats in ten days represents something of a crisis. We really could do without our home form disintegrating when the likes of Dover come to town in the FA Cup. It again leaves the frustrated home support seeking scapegoats, and undisputed Gills legend Andy Hessenthaler is already under fire.
In fairness, Hess has faced a farcical injury impediment, with 11 players who could reasonably expect to be in the first team absent for the Crewe game. We only scraped together a squad of 16 thanks to three loanees drafted in at the last minute and 17-year-old youth team captain Callum Davies making his debut in the centre of defence. After an accomplished start, the youngster was sent off in tears within half an hour, having committed a marginal professional foul, a decision which typifies recent fortunes.
Hessenthaler has pleaded for patience, claiming that it takes time to turn round a relegated side. True, but last season's demotion was an act of supreme carelessness, a result of a genuinely talented side (that beat both Leeds and Southampton in the run-in) claiming only six points away from Priestfield. With a fully fit squad the club will surely claw its way out of bother, the playing staff lacking only Simeon Jackson from the promotion-winning line-up of 2009. But Hessenthaler is going to have to eliminate the sort of idiocy that saw us score four times away from home twice in the space of a month and still lose both fixtures. Successful sides don't lose 7-4 at Accrington.
Hess is following in the stumbling footsteps of Neale Cooper, Ronnie Jepson and Mark Stimson in trying to stop the rot. Hundreds of instantly forgettable players have come and gone to little effect. The Priestfield crowd – many brought up on heady success unprecedented in the club's existence and yearning instant gratification – has turned spiteful. I've seen much worse Gillingham sides than the present one but enough is enough.
The one constant throughout the period of decline is chairman Paul Scally. The club's once-in-our-history position at the turn of the century was largely achieved by Scally's drive, commitment, bottle, inspiration – call it what you like. Many others played important roles but he was at the helm and he took the plaudits. This status has since been frittered away and Scally has overseen the mess. He admitted in his recent programme notes that in terms of divisional status the club has come full circle under his reign and that could be interpreted as a failure. The club is undoubtedly bigger than in 1995, with vastly improved facilities and a more substantial fanbase of season-ticket holders.
Scally rightly points out that there were no willing takers when he invested his £1 to take the club out of administration, and that he'll be gone as soon as a suitable buyer announces itself. Yet he chooses to gloss over the soaring debt of around £12 million run up during his tenure, which has been reduced to a more manageable level by the sale of the stadium to Priestfield Developments Ltd, wholly owned by Paul Scally. He asked that any flak should be directed at him rather than the team and management, yet when that flak became audible above 2,500 Dover fans cavorting in the away end, he reacted in a traditionally defensive and childish manner. He's in a no-lose position financially due to the ground ownership, yet he still polarises the supporters – a more united and radical following than Gillingham's would surely have held him accountable. Chris Lynham