|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.