Martin Allen's unorthodox approach restored the belief across the entire club and propelled them to a comfortable promotion
Sustained success at any club can rarely be attributed to a single individual. Martin Allen repeatedly ensured his players and backroom staff received their due recognition but his appointment was undoubtedly the catalyst that kick-started Gillingham's ascent from League Two underachievers to champions. However, Allen wasn't an overwhelmingly popular choice to replace Andy Hessenthaler.
Supporters were wary of his unorthodox outlook and some of his early decisions were not warmly embraced. Highly rated holding midfielder Jack Payne and young central defender Connor Essam were allowed to leave and both completed the season with higher-division clubs. His favoured squad rotation system appeared bloody-minded when everyone just wanted to see the strongest starting team, Allen often appearing to admit misjudgments by making first-half substitutions. The results emphatically proved that he knew exactly what he was doing.
He inherited a squad that missed out on the play-offs by one position in consecutive seasons. Both failures were a result of carelessness, too many anarchic defensive displays compounded by Hessenthaler's lack of tactical flexibility.
Allen addressed it in the simplest terms by recruiting a dependable goalkeeper in Stuart Nelson and a shuddering central-defensive partnership of Adam Barrett and Leon Legge. The acquisition of Deon Burton was even more astute – rescued from Azerbaijan, he belied his ageing limbs and worked relentlessly to score numerous vital goals. Allen's tactical awareness and fitness regimes brought a change in performance from the more unsung players and, after eight games, the club were six points clear at the top of the table.
Gills remained at the summit for all but two weeks and, despite a stumble in home form in the middle of the season, the lack of an effective challenge from even Port Vale meant that promotion was secured with three games to spare.
Nevertheless, it took more than some organisational tinkering to clinch the club's first title in 49 years. Allen initiated a culture change that instilled a togetherness not experienced since Tony Pulis's reign in the late 1990s. Not once did Allen criticise a referee or stoop to sneer at the opposition – even in a crucial victory at Rotherham, with a red-faced Steve Evans in full indignant flow, he sought to praise the sportsmanship of the home fans. His post-match interviews and programme notes were a surreal stream of consciousness and he invited random fans into the dressing room and on to the team coach. One even gave a team-talk. Letter writers in the local press received personal phone calls. His dog Monty enjoyed friendlies from the dug-out.
He had the full backing of chairman Paul Scally, both financially and emotionally, and he is settled for the first time in his managerial career. He was convinced Gillingham would win the title in pre-season and, thanks to a refreshing season-long charm offensive from the self-confessed "worst Allen in a multi-talented family", many soon learned to share his belief. Chris Lynham