Gillingham went into their final festive fixture with just one point from their previous two matches – coming in the 1-1 draw at Peterborough United on Boxing Day – and having narrowly lost on Friday to Millwall on the road, despite being down to nine men that night, the Gills were looking to start the new year on a positive note as they welcomed mid-table outfit Oxford United.
The sending offs veteran defender Paul Konchesky and midfield starlet Bradley Dack received at The Den meant they would miss the first game at Priestfield of 2017, which meant manager Justin Edinburgh had to adjust his starting eleven. So in came Mark Byrne and Deji Oshilaja, two players who have struggled for game time recently, to a new formation with seemingly five at the back. Striker Cody McDonald had to settle for a place on the bench after starting the final match of last year against Millwall.
Gills XI: Nelson, Jackson, Ehmer, Oshilaja, Cargill, Wagstaff, Wright, Hessenthaler, Byrne, Emannuel-Thomas, Nouble.
Subs: Hadler, Herd, Donnelly, McDonald, Knott, Osadebe, Oldaker
The game got off to a stop-start beginning within the first ten minutes but the visitors were enjoying much of the possession as they looked to get a foot hold early on. It would be the away side who got the first opportunity at goal, Oxford’s Rob Hall was able to create space 20 yards out but could only shoot wide from his right foot. Just moments later in the 12th minute Michael Appleton’s team would get another chance to take the lead. Ex-Scotland international Chris Maguire got past goalkeeper Stuart Nelson with ease on the left side of the box but struggled to gain any sort of composure, striking his effort into the side netting. In the same sixty seconds, the first booking of the afternoon went to Oxford United as Alex MacDonald was penalised for a foul on Gillingham full-back Ryan Jackson.
It would be a difficult opening twenty minutes for the hosts as The U’s continued to pile the pressure. A corner on the near side found Ryan Taylor six yards out, but failed to comfortably connect with the ball and allowed Max Ehmer to clear. The Gills would be allowed to get their first shot at goal, eventually, as Frank Nouble, despite being fouled in the build-up, got away and registered an effort on target but ‘keeper Simon Eastwood was able to deal with it.
Oxford had the best opportunity of the first-half, but it wouldn’t have been from one of their players. A cross from the right would be dealt with by defender Oshilaja, although his clearance nearly ended up in the top corner of his own goal – the resulting corner was headed wide.
Gillingham slowly allowed themselves into the game and registered another chance in an attempt to take the advantage before the interval. Nouble got on the end of a clearance by the away team’s defence, latching with a volley but could only put it over the bar. The final notable moment of the opening 45 minutes went to the hosts, Jackson was able to turn the defender on the edge of the box before having a bid to sneak a goal with his left foot. The 26 year-old could only afford a tame effort but forced Eastwood to dive on the safe side. It was heading to be a goalless draw as the two sides went into the dressing rooms.
Edinburgh’s men would be looking to improve on their dismal first-half performance but it would be Oxford United to come out from the interval on the upper hand. After good moments of pressure from them, Scott Wagstaff and Oshilaja of the Gills would both be putting their names in the referee’s book having committed unnecessary fouls. The trend continued ten minutes into the second-half as winger Rob Hall would give himself a yellow card for tripping Wagstaff.
The former West Ham player then tried his luck from 18 yards but loanee defender Baily Cargill was able to block for Gillingham. On the hour mark Justin Edinburgh took a more attacking approach to this encounter by bringing on forwards Cody McDonald and Rory Donnelly to improve the threat going forward, replacing Nouble and Wagstaff. Despite the positive switch for the on-looking home supporters, it left the defence vulnerable as they were unable to deal with a low cross into the six yard box as Chey Dunkley slid in to give his team the lead.
Twenty minutes from time and the U’s made their first substitution, Rob Hall going off for promising youngster Tyler Roberts, on loan from Premier League club West Bromwich Albion. Moments afterwards and Oshilaja received his marching orders for a second bookable offence after fouling Ryan Taylor just outside the area. In the 79th minute, with Gillingham chasing the game it meant midfielder Darren Oldaker would come on for the struggling Josh Wright – giving the captain’s armband to Nelson.
Following a couple of half chances, and poor free-kicks, from the Gills, Michael Appleton’s side were able to hang on and clinch all three points despite the home team’s desperate attempts to saviour a point.
Full-time: Gillingham 0-1 Oxford United
Scorer: Chey Dunkley ’66
Attendance: 6,414 (1,238 Away Fans)
I honestly do not know where to start when it comes to commenting on that Gillingham performance. Unlike on Friday where we deserved a point after a terrific second-half display, it’s the completely opposite story this time around. We did not look like ever scoring during the whole ninety minutes of this game, even when McDonald came on (giving us some hope), the team never really got forward and looked likely to put the ball in the back of the net.
Justin Edinburgh stated that we knew what he was getting when signing Jay Emmanuel-Thomas on loan from Queens Park Rangers in the summer. If this is true, then why did he sign him? The ex-Arsenal youth shows glimmers of hope every now and then but those occasions are far and few between. The wages he must be on, the exact figure is unknown, I am sure we would be able to afford a half-decent Championship striker who is more consistent that him.
Cargill, in my opinion, had his worst performance since making his debut for the Gills back in November. The AFC Bournemouth defender looked out of depth, just like most of that squad this afternoon. Whether he has been told to, but the 21 year-old doesn’t know when to clear his lines – sometimes this can be said about Max Ehmer. When it comes to Cargill’s attacking threat as well, there is none. In the second-half, after going a goal behind, he went further forward as we averted to a three-at-the-back formation, and his delivery into the box was non-existent. I don’t expect to a defender to have a perfect pass into the box in him but at the very least he should be keeping it in play to put pressure on the defenders. His loan has actually expired as of the end of this match against Oxford United, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll stay at the Gills until the summer. Perhaps I am being a little too critical off such a young footballer, but overall it was an appalling performance.
We are currently in the January transfer window, with the likes of Josh Pask and Jonathan Bond going back to West Ham United and Reading respectively, Justin Edinburgh needs to bring in the right personnel. It looks likely it’ll be an opportunity for more loan deals at the club, which I have no problem with but it shouldn’t just be the first players the boss lays his eyes on – he needs to think about the players who arrive at Gillingham over the next 30 or so days. I think a new left-back is definitely required. Paul Konchesky is past it and with his lack of pace, fairly obvious from his sending off away at Millwall, that is a large part that opposition will look to take advantage of. Bradley Garmston, on the other hand, has been out since suffering an injury against Brackley Town in the FA Cup. The fans have had no update on his progression but it seems to me as if it’s another long-term spell on the sidelines.
Anyway, there’s now two weeks before our next fixture, on the road at Oldham Athletic, so there’s time to get confidence back up and I hope the management team will be working on that because that is one of the key issues I can identify on the pitch. Rather than sulk and be despondent over this result, hopefully Gillingham can come back and pull together a late play-off push but I’m really optimistic about a promotion push at the moment.