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What next for Gillingham? An in-depth assessment of Andy Woodman, Steve Lovell and Neil Smith

Neil Smith has been hotly linked to his former club
Neil Smith has been hotly linked to his former club

Gillingham are in crisis.

Off the field, the fanbase has tipped over the last year from being divided over chairman Paul Scally to being almost uniformly against him for the lack of communication, investment and foresight.

On it, the team has suffered from a combination of the failure to address key areas in the summer and a horrific winter injury crisis, albeit one that has shown signs of easing up in recent weeks.

Steve Evans and Paul Raynor departed Gillingham last weekend, despite having delivered successive top-half finishes in their only two season in charge, leaving the next hot-seat incumbent the arduous task of pulling back the seven-point deficit to safety.

Betting was once suspended on Neil Smith being the next permanent Gills boss, returning to the club he played 213 games for in the 1990s.

That, though, was before former player and manager Steve Lovell was appointed on a caretaker basis plus, more recently, current Bromley boss Andy Woodman has been cut from 14/1 to 2/5!

We’ve looked at the requirements for the job...

Lean on experience

Ryan Jackson. Max Ehmer. Stuart O’Keefe.

Solid, reliable performers who have made valuable contributions to the Gills in previous seasons, and are capable of being at the core of the survival blueprint.

Midfield battler O’Keefe can bring excellent leadership qualities, while right-back Jackson and centre-back Ehmer will influence others in a more understated manner. 

Smith, Woodman or Lovell?

When at Bormley, Smith relied heavily on an experienced spine of players in their mid-to-late-20s.

Get lucky with Cumming

Whether it’s Tomas Holy and Jack Bonham from recent seasons, or Ron Hillyard and Vince Bartram going further back, Gillingham always seem to strike gold with goalkeepers.

A cynic might say they get a lot of practice!

That’s certainly been the case with Jamie Cumming, who has made 90 saves in 22 games this season – for context, Wycombe’s David Stockdale has made the second-most, five fewer, with three more games.

Is Cumming, as stats suggest, the best goalkeeper in League One? Or does he merely look better because of the volume of efforts aimed his way?

Either way, Gillingham would be dead and buried without the Chelsea loanee, who must maintain current performance levels to give them a shot.

Smith, Woodman or Lovell?

N/A. Almost impossible to second-guess Smith’s influence on goalkeepers, given that he’s a former midfielder, but the likes of David Gregory and Mark Cousins excelled under his leadership of the Ravens.

Keep fans wanting more of Oliver

Gillingham have taken 17 points from 19 league games when Vadaine Oliver starts, compared with one from five when he does not.

The other five games include supposedly winnable encounters with likely relegation rivals Cheltenham, Crewe and Fleetwood.

That is not to say Oliver’s presence would solve all the Gills’ problems – far from it – because the stats suggest they would still be in the drop zone had he been fit all season.

However, the Kent outfit are significantly worse off without their aerial reference point, whose consistent winning of headers is crucial to getting the team up the pitch.

Smith, Woodman or Lovell?

Smith. There were murmurs of discontent about the style of football at the back-end of his stint with the South-East Londoners, which implies direct methods – although Oliver should not be left too isolated up top. 

Lovell tended to mix things up in his first stint with the Gills, while Woodman replaced Smith at Bromley as part of a plan for a more progressive approach.

Pair Oliver with pace

We could have titled this “don’t put Robbie McKenzie up top”, with Evans having given the left-back by trade the nod to start in attack rather than give a debut to Tom Dickson-Peters – a penny for the Norwich loanee’s thoughts?! 

In reality, though, it’s not just about McKenzie, but also about John Akinde, who no longer has the explosive pace he possessed in his prolific Barnet days and is arguably an inferior target man to Oliver.

Seeing as Oliver cannot run in behind, him and Akinde does not work as a pairing, which puts the former Lincoln League Two title-winner in an awkward position.

Evans patently did not fancy Gerhard Sithole: there was a game at Bolton, for example, in which the Gills led by two goals, Akinde was flagging but still the 18-year-old was not entrusted with coming on to stretch the game and ultimately the team conceded two late goals.

Unless the new manager has a drastically more positive view on Sithole, then they will have to hope raw speedster Dickson-Peters can be the one to complete the attacking equilibrium.

Smith, Woodman or Lovell?

Lovell. He got the best out of Brandon Hanlan, who won Young Player of the Year in 2018-19. Smith favours either a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1, so the likelihood is he would start a forward playing just off Oliver.

Let Carayol express himself

Another player who can provide an injection of pace is Mustapha Carayol, who also has reasonable Championship experience from his time with Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest.

The Gambian is now 33, so cannot be expect to sprint around all game, but we saw in September’s 1-1 draw at Burton that he can still produce two or three explosive moments in 90 minutes that potentially change games.

Not long after the promising performance at the Pirelli, Carayol added himself to the increasingly congested treatment room.

If the new manager can manage his minutes shrewdly, sometimes bringing him off the bench to provide a spark later on in games, then Carayol can play a part in hauling Gillingham closer to safety.

Similarly, Ben Reeves has been part of good MK Dons and Charlton sides at this level, Danny Lloyd enjoyed a creative 2018-19 season with Peterborough, Elliot Lee has played Championship football with Luton and on-loan Daniel Adshead showed enough promise at Rochdale for Norwich to pick him up – all can play their part.

Smith, Woodman or Lovell?

Woodman. Lovell favoured the diamond at Gillingham, while Smith likes his wide men to dig in which isn’t always Carayol’s style. Woodman is looking to get the best out of more expressive operators like Luke Coulson and Corey Whitely.

Embrace the youth

Versatile defender Jack Tucker came through Gillingham’s academy and, after starting his career with a couple of solid seasons, is now considered an eight-figure asset.

Energetic right-back Harvey Lintott, cultured left-back Bailey Akehurst, midfielder Sam Gale and forwards Gerhard Sithole plus Joseph Gbode must be given the encouragement to try and follow suit.

Plus, if the Gills can promote homegrown talent, it can save much-needed funds in the wage bill to afford better quality in other areas of the field.

Smith, Woodman or Lovell?

Woodman. Smith did some good things for Bromley’s academy, which is in a better position because of it, but often leant on experience. Lovell took a slightly hard-line approach with enigmatic younger players, which may or may not have contributed to the scarcity of youth development under his leadership. This season, Woodman has handed nine or more league starts to three academy graduates at Bromley.

Build around Phillips

Daniel Phillips got himself into needless trouble when Gillingham were three goals down against Ipswich last time out, with two petulant bookings seeing the Watford loanee sent off and now suspended.

Although Phillips’ actions should not be desired, exactly, they do show a young lad that is not prepared to lie back and accept defeat which, if channelled correctly, is exactly the sort of attitude required over the next five months.

The Gills do not need gracious losers. They need fighters. Scrappers. Battlers. Players who would sooner bite an opponent’s head off than wave the white flag.

Phillips might have started his Kent career a tad nervously, but the 20-year-old has since come on leaps and bounds, growing into one of the best young ball-winners in League One.

Smith, Woodman or Lovell?

Smith. The former midfielder loves a battler, having leant last season on former Millwall and Wimbledon scrapper Liam Trotter. Phillips is in many ways a younger, more mobile and dynamic version of Trotter, with greater potential.

Young MacDonald has a charm

Alex MacDonald has been handed the role of assisting Steve Lovell as caretaker gaffer.

A cynic would say the former Burton midfielder has got the job because he’s currently injured and is on the wage bill, so Scally is looking to give him a non-playing role and in doing so, save the expense of hiring an assistant manager separately.

There may be an element of that, but the more generous outlook would be that MacDonald has always been a model professional and a strong influence in the dressing room.

From that perspective, it makes sense to pair a manager on the older side with someone who is more in touch with the modern, EFL dressing room.

MacDonald can provide a useful link between the players and the management team, which is something Smith or Lovell should look to make the most of.

Smith, Woodman or Lovell?

Smith. According to Ryan Deeney from National League Musings, “Smith certainly says it how he sees it, but more in an open, chatty sort of way than an aggressive way.” This implies he’s willing to bring other people into the decision-making process and will be open to taking MacDonald’s advice on board.

Use Dempsey funds wisely

Kyle Dempsey has been linked with Bolton and the Cumbrian midfielder could be forgiven for wanting to move closer to the north after two years with the Gills.

Dempsey has made a fantastic contribution to successive top-half finishes and has been in the conversation to be the best midfielder in League One for parts of that stint.

Charlton reportedly had a £200K bid for Dempsey turned down in July and given that his contract runs out in the summer, it seems unlikely that the eventual fee will be higher than that figure.

That money, although not game-changing exactly, should not be snuffed at either; they can use it towards the infrastructure, the scouting budget, or investing in top talent from the local non-league circuit.

Smith, Woodman or Lovell?

Either. Knowledge of and contacts in the local non-league circuit could be invaluable for Gillingham in their attempt at re-building the squad in the summer, when at least 14 players are out of contract.

Manage the club as well as the team

According to Gillingham’s official website, 27 non-players work for the club.

For comparison, Lincoln City – a similar sized club in the same division – have 94 non-playing roles, all of which held by different people baring occasional exceptions.

That makes the role of a manager at Priestfield very different to the role of a head coach at Sincil Bank.

At Lincoln, Michael Appleton is freed up to focus largely on the coaching aspect, whilst dovetailing occasionally with the recruitment team in some circumstances.

The Gills do not have the infrastructure to let the manager just get on with what he does best, and that will not change while Scally runs the club.

For that reason, it may suit the Kent outfit to appoint somebody with experience in the non-league circuit – and not just because of their contacts in that market.

If the club were to appoint a youth or Under-23s coach, somebody who has only worked on the training ground, the new challenges would likely throw them significantly off-kilter, hence why the club should steer club of those types of options.

Smith, Woodman or Lovell?

Smith. The 50-year-old has worked at Bromley for 10 years, five as an assistant and five as head honcho. That experience, especially from the time in step-two of non-league football, has entailed being something of a dogsbody as well as managing the team.

For that reason, Smith will not be daunted or unsettled by the idea of dealing with the imperfections of Gillingham’s infrastructure.

If the club had a takeover which led to a greater distribution and delegation of power, which meant the internal processes could run smoothly, then the Lambeth-born boss’ versatility would be less of an advantage.

With the current structure, though, Smith represents Gillingham’s best chance of beating the drop.

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