Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Gillingham cure travel sickness

PIC: Steve McCaskill

What a difference a few months have made for Gillingham. Back in November, the Priestfield crowd was baying for blood, calling for the resignation of Manager Andy Hessenthaler and Chairman Paul Scally, but after a turnaround in form, the Gills are firmly back in the promotion picture.

A defeat to Kent rivals Dover in the first round of the FA Cup combined with a home defeat to Crewe left the Gills hovering above the relegation zone. The club’s promotion hopes were looking bleak, while Hessenthaler’s second spell in charge of the club was looking doomed.

Gillingham’s misery was compounded by the fact that they hadn’t won away from home since May 2009, a record that now stretched to 34 games across all competitions. The likes of Leeds and Southampton had been defeated at Priestfield the season before in League One, but the failure to register a single away victory eventually sealed the Gills' relegation to the fourth tier of English football. The poor away form had been tolerated to a degree because of the results achieved at home, but now that source of precious points was running dry, such tolerance was decreasing rapidly.

It was with this unwanted away record that Gillingham travelled to the Kassam Stadium to face Oxford United, urgently requiring a win to relieve the pressure. The travelling support could be forgiven for possessing little optimism but somehow, Gillingham recorded a 1-0 victory, their first on the road since beating Rochdale 1-0 in the 2008/09 season. The monkey had finally been removed from Gillingham’s collective backs.

The joy of finally lifting the away curse acted as a catalyst for a remarkable run of form that has seen Gillingham win eight of their last eleven matches which has catapulted the club into the play-off places. After the doom and gloom of the autumn, the winter has given reason to believe that promotion could be achieved in the spring.

One of the causes of this change in fortune has been the goalscoring form of Cody McDonald. The striker, who is on loan from Norwich City, has now scored 14 goals this season including a hat-trick in the 5-1 demolition of Stockport. His contribution has gone some way to offsetting the inevitable loss of firepower from the Gillingham frontline when Simeon Jackson moved to Norwich in the summer.

Gillingham have also benefited from the return of several players from their extensive injury list and now only long-term absentee Simon King remains unavailable. The form of youngsters Jack Payne and more recently Luke Rooney have also lifted the mood around the club.

After a troubled return to League Two, Gillingham have finally turned the corner and will hope for a top three finish or a return to Wembley, a venue which has been the scene of two celebrations in the last decade. While the glory days of the Championship may now be a distant memory, there is now genuine belief that the club will return to where they feel they belong in League One. 

Deja Vu?: The Search for Edwin Van der Sar's replacement


Last week, Edwin van der Sar confirmed that he will retire from professional football at the end of the current campaign at the age of 40. Speculation that the former Dutch international goalkeeper was ready to hang up his gloves had been increasing over the last couple of the season and the announcement sees him bring an end to an illustrious and trophy laden career that has seen him win three Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues. Not many players, even goalkeepers, are able to play into the fifth decade of their life and it is testament to the ability and fitness of the man that he has been able to stay at the top for so long.

However accompanying the sadness that is inevitable when such a revered player decides to retire is a sense of déjà vu. Twelve years ago, Peter Schmeichel left Manchester United for pastures new and the club will hoping that the process of finding a suitable successor for Van der Sar will be less arduous than the one that followed the great Dane’s departure.

A succession of keepers arrived at the club in an attempt to fill the massive void left by his exit. Mark Bosnich, Fabien Barthez, Tim Howard and Roy Carroll all tried and ultimately failed to replace Schmeichel in a process that proved not only costly off the pitch but also on it. This was epitomised most spectacularly by the signing Massimo Taibi from Italian side Atalanta for a fee of £4.5m. Taibi just lasted four error-strewn games including a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Chelsea and ended with a 3-3 draw at the hands of Southampton during which he let a tame shot from Matthew Le Tissier slip underneath him. Only the signing of Van der Sar himself in the summer of 2005 brought stability to the position and set the foundation for the club’s success in the latter part of the last decade.

Van der Sar’s decision has not come as a massive surprise and moves had been made to prepare for his eventual retirement. Ben Foster arrived at Manchester United in 2005 and had been groomed as the long-term successor. He had been touted as the next England goalkeeper, but unfortunately for him and the club, Foster was unable to recreate the form that he had shown in loan spells at Watford and he was sold to Birmingham City in the summer.

Foster had been the most likely of Van der Sar’s understudies to inherit his Number 1 jersey with current second choice keeper Tomasz Kuszczak considered a rank outsider. Kuszczak joined the club in 2006 from West Bromwich Albion and although he has represented Poland ten times, he is unlikely to become first choice at United.

This points to an outside candidate taking the job and although the signing of Anders Lindegaard in the Janaury transfer window gave a clue to the plans of Van der Sar, it is still unclear whether the Danish Number 1 was signed as a replacement for the Dutchman or as a back up. Peter Schmeichel himself has said that Lindegaard is not ready to be United’s first choice goalkeeper, so it seems likely they sign another player in the summer.

A number of goalkeepers have been linked with Manchester United over the last twelve months or so as speculation over Van der Sar’s future has grown. Schalke stopper Manuel Neuer has been strongly linked with a move after his impressive performances at the World Cup for a youthful German side that reached the semi-finals, while Atletico Madrid’s David de Gea and CSKA Moscow’s Igor Afinkeev have also been mentioned.

However in recent days, Dutch Number 1 Maarten Stekelenburg has emerged as the favourite to succeed his compatriot at Manchester United. First team coach Rene Meulensteen is reported to have told Dutch Radio that Stekelenburg is United’s top target this summer.

Whoever replaces Van der Sar, it is clear that United have to handle this changing of the guard far better than they did back in 1999. All signs point to the club signing a relatively young goalkeeper, but if this is to be the case then any new recruit should be given time to settle into the role and avoid the constant chopping and changing that occurred six years ago.

Whether United opt for a new keeper or promote from within, it is going to be a tall order to replace the giant Dutchman that has protected the home goal at Old Trafford for the last five and a half years. Edwin Van Der Sar brought stability and presence to a position that had been a problem since Schmeichel left in 1999. Hopefully the transition will not be as difficult as last time.