|(PIC: Stephen McCaskill)|
Gillingham 2-1 Shrewsbury
The last time the Gillingham played Shrewsbury, it was for a place in League One. That warm spring day at Wembley will live long in the memory as Simeon Jackson’s late winner catapulted The Gills back into the third tier of English football at the first attempt. Sixteen months later, they were back in League Two after a dismal 2009/10 which saw them relegated without a single away win to their name. Just one victory on the road would have secured their League One status for another season, and a lacklustre final day defeat to Wycombe, combined with other results going against them, sealed their fate. For a team that beat some of the bigger teams in the division at home, it was a depressing end for a season that promised so much.
This season has started the same way the last one ended. Gillingham hadn’t won in five league games and had crashed out of both the League Cup and the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Shrewsbury came to Priestfield top of the league which meant that this wouldn’t be an easy task for the Kent club. The arrival of the Shrews was always going to evoke memories of two seasons ago and perhaps further entrench the disappointment of relegation in the Gill’s fans minds. Former manager Mark Stimson paid the price for failing to consolidate the club’s position in League One and was replaced by Gillingham legend Andy Hessenthaler. ‘Hess’ managed the club between 2000 and 2004, leading the club to their highest ever league position of 11th in what is now the Championship in 2003. Hessenthaler’s return has done much to lift the mood at Priestfield, despite the club’s poor start to the campaign.
The contest took place in cool temperatures and in front of 4,815 spectators, a far cry from the sunshine of Wembley in front of over 50,000, but Gillingham started the stronger of the two sides. The cries from the Shrewsbury end of “League One and you fucked it up” were soon silenced by the Gills support. The fans were rewarded after Chris Palmer bundled the ball home after Jack Payne’s long throw wasn’t dealt with by the Shrewsbury defence. Gillingham were the better side throughout the first half, but failed to get the second goal that their play deserved and would settle the fans’ nerves. Shrewsbury were revitalised by the break and looked threatening at the start of the second half. Despite their opponent’s consistent pressure, Gillingham earned a penalty in the 50th minute after a handball decision. Adebayo Akinfenwa, a summer recruit from Northampton, saw his penalty saved and Gillingham hoped that it wouldn’t come back to haunt them. Fortunately, it didn’t as just nine minutes later, Gillingham were awarded another spot-kick after Danny Spiller was fouled in the area. Chris Palmer took this penalty and slotted home for his, and The Gills’, second of the afternoon. Shrewsbury almost pulled one back late on, but Lance Cronin, another summer signing, saved well from Mark Wright. Gillingham endured six minutes of injury time but Priestfield erupted when the final whistle was blown as it meant a first win of the season.
Despite the loss of Simeon Jackson to Norwich, there is reason for optimism at Gillingham this season. The Gills have a good squad and with Andy Hessenthaler they have a man who can inspire his players to an immediate return to League One. Eighteen year old Jack Payne looks like a prospect while Danny Spiller’s return is a real coup for the club. A former academy player, Spiller was linked with West Ham during his first spell at Gillingham before leaving for Millwall in 2007. Injuries plagued his time at the Den, while unsuccessful spells at Wycombe, Welling and Dagenham & Redbridge followed before he turned down a move to MLS side Chicago Fire to rejoin Gillingham (who wouldn’t). Spiller showed his class at times today and if he manages to recapture the form that made him a fan’s favourite in his first spell, then Gillingham have a potential matchwinner. Other positives included the lively Cody McDonald and possibly the world's least mobile striker, Adebayo Akinfenwa, who worked tirelessly throughout the game.
Gillingham should fear no one in this division and hopefully today’s victory will kickstart their promotion challenge. Now all they need is an away victory…