Martin Allen has Gillingham hoping for glory
Gillingham v Aldershot, 3pm
13 October ~ Gillingham's best ever start to a League season has drawn comparisons with the achievements of the 1995-96 campaign, the last time the club won automatic promotion. Like then they certainly aren't playing picture-postcard football and the early red card count has brought back fond memories of Tony Pulis's uncompromising side. It has also been largely unexpected. Andy Hessenthaler stepped down as manager in the summer after missing the play-offs by one position for the second successive year.
Martin Allen wasn't embraced as a replacement and his pre-season acquisitions did little to fire the imagination. Hessenthaler was skilled at bringing in excellent signings but lacked the tactical versatility to mould them into a consistently successful side. Whereas Hessenthaler would persist with favoured formations or players, Allen might dismantle a side that has won handsomely in its previous fixture – five changes from game to game has become the norm and it's clearly working.
An additional concern was how Allen, a notoriously temperamental character, would gel with chairman Paul Scally who is never one to shun confrontation himself. So far all is harmonious. We said the same thing about Scally and Pulis before their acrimonious split but Allen really needs to settle somewhere and add a significant achievement to his CV.
With unprecedented windfalls in the summer – thanks to appearance-related income from Chelsea's Ryan Bertrand, a sell-on clause from Matt Jarvis's transfer to West Ham and the sale of Argentinian keeper Paulo Gazzaniga to Southampton – the club's finances have stabilised after a worrying decade. Scally has a reputation for backing his managers in the transfer market so if the early momentum wanes Allen will have other options. With Hessenthaler remaining at the club and acting as a buffer between chairman and manager, there is hope that Allen will see this project through.
One key difference from 1996 is the enthusiasm in the stands. Fifteen years ago Gillingham hadn't had proper success for decades and attendances tripled, carrying the club through the divisions on the back of a bear-pit atmosphere at Priestfield. This season crowds are down on last year – a result of economic reality and disillusionment – and rarely has the noise cranked up at home.
A new generation of fans won't remember the heady five seasons in the second tier and are understandably excited but many others will be aware that a club of Gillingham's size can only ever hope for a fleeting spell at that level. Yo-yoing between the two basement divisions brings a degree of ambivalence as supporters get older.
Today's visitors Aldershot are on a shocking run, stranded in the bottom two. After 20 years of success to recover their League place they are facing testing times as gates have plunged to the level that originally failed to sustain the club's professional existence. Dean Holdsworth is making defiant assurances but a trip to Gillingham is the last thing he needs. Maybe for home fans the belief is building and a large crowd will turn out but I fear some Gillingham supporters will expect a stroll and will be in a grump if it's anything but. Chris Lynham
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