Sideways Sammy 2016/17 Season Review

It’s that time of the year again! Strap yourselves in, have someone close with a pipette to moisten your eyeballs, as it’s time for a bit of the old ultra-analysis – the Sideways Sammy Season Review.

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Featuring 74 Pages of:

Club-By-Club Reviews, Squad Reviews, Jack McBean Memories, Manager Reviews, The Player of the Year, The Young Player of the Year, What and an Exhaustive Account Of The Coventry City Season.

Another Manager

There can be no defending of Russell Slade’s record as manager at Coventry City. He was supposed to come in and quickly grind out the results required to keep us in the division, he won one of 13 league games in charge. What’s more, the performances were of a low standard and offered little hope that things could improve to an acceptable enough level to merit entrusting him with rebuilding the club over the summer.

However, we’ve Slade wasn’t really sacked for the results and performances, per se, he was sacked because his replacement had already been sourced. As shambolic as it is to sack a manager after 13 games, having the replacement already lined up at least partially demonstrates the kind of decisiveness behind the scenes that has been lacking over the past 18 months.

It begs the question of why this kind of move couldn’t have been made when there was still a realistic chance of survival? It’s not only looking back in December when Slade was appointed, but also the months beforehand when Mark Venus was in caretaker charge of the club, or even the period at the start of the season where it looked like Tony Mowbray was unable to get results with this team. It was the right decision to sack Slade, but it’s one that had to be made after a series of more meaningful poor decisions.

The upshot of it all is that we’ve appointed a new manager to oversee the rebuilding of the club in a lower division, where there’s the conceivable threat of dropping into non-league. Not only that, but the lack of leadership and a sense of a vision at the club this season has led to acrimony between the club and the fans, which has further put the club’s future in jeopardy. It’s why it’s hard to congratulate the club on bringing back a manager who was statistically our best ever.

It’s also worth considering that we’re not bringing back the Mark Robins who left the club so acrimoniously four years ago. Back in 2013, he was someone who had earned a job at an up-and-coming Championship club on merit. In 2017, after two failed managerial spells at Huddersfield and Scunthorpe, he’s exactly the kind of manager a struggling League One club would appoint.

Not only that, but there were clear signs towards the end of his first spell at the club that a collapse in form was imminent. Robins’ cautious approach tended to work well away from home when we hit teams on the counter-attack, against teams looking to the same against us at the Ricoh Arena, we were starting to run into issues. The sense that Robins is a short-term manager who struggles to maintain consistency over the course of a league season has been backed up by his two previous managerial postings.

That being said, Robins has tended to be a canny operator in the transfer market, having laid the foundations not only for the team that started the season at Sixfields so well but also putting together the team at Scunthorpe that are currently pushing for automatic promotion (save for two or three key players). Given that we’re expecting another big turnover of players over the summer, I have more faith in Robins to build a team than I would any of our previous managers.

In the grander scheme of things, the identity of the manager right now probably counts for very little. It’s not pessimistic to suggest that attendances next season could be around 5,000-6,000, at best, that there’ll be a major exodus of talent over the summer, and that the squad will be strung together via a mixture of raw youngsters, loans and veterans.

At best, Mark Robins may help bring a sense of stability to the club as we head into a really difficult time. However, if we find some form next season, the club is set-up to lose talent without being able to replace it and it feels like any upturn will be short-lived. At worst, if Robins cannot make a reasonable impact at this club, it could really put the club in serious jeopardy.

Being manager of Coventry City is a high stakes game where the rewards are small and the pitfalls of failure are massive. Like in the game of Russian Roulette where you’re reward for surviving not shooting yourself in the head, is another chance to maybe not shoot yourself in the head. As a fan, there’s always a part of you that hopes that the next manager really changes things – maybe winning at Wembley or winning promotion from League Two would achieve that – but at this stage, we really need someone to show us first that they can do that before we believe in them.

What Difference Has Slade Made?

10 league games in to Russell Slade’s reign and we’ve finally managed a league victory, and although survival seems like a long distance away, it seems worth asking the question now whether Slade has actually improved the team and ultimately, whether we can expect further improvements between now and the end of the season.

10 league games is a good point to assess Russell Slade’s reign, as it’s more-or-less, the same amount as Tony Mowbray and Mark Venus had in charge – well, exactly the same amount as Mowbray, Venus had 12 games in charge. It allows us to take a look at how did the best with the squad, and who might be most accountable when relegation happens (aside from the owners, but this article isn’t about that).

The concisest way to look at this is to count how many points we’ve earned under each manager. Mowbray and Slade both took six points from the ten games they had in charge, while Mark Venus’ spell saw us take 13 points from 12 games. In that regard, Venus has been our best manager this season by some distance.

However, that doesn’t take into account underlying performances. There have been several occasions this season where it’s felt like we haven’t taken what we’ve deserved from games, while we’ve also helped ourselves to a few wins that we didn’t really have a right to, such is football. So the question then is which of our managers got performances that deserved to win games.

To calculate this I’ve taken the difference between the shots on target we’ve had in games versus the shots on target we’ve conceded. The games in which we’ve had more than one shot on target compared to our opponents is deemed a game we should have won, any game where it’s been even or one either way is deemed to have been a game we should have drawn.

It’s not a perfect metric to calculate whether a team deserved to win a game, considering that an effort that trickles into a keeper’s arms is considered a shot on target while a sitter smashed onto the post is considered not to have been on target. However, over a period of several games, it goes some way to representing how well a team has played.

Shot Difference Under Each Manager

Shot Difference Under Each Manager

During Mowbray’s ten games in charge, we should have taken eleven points. In particular, the Northampton and Shrewsbury home games both deserved wins, considering we took four and three extra shots on target than our opponents. We over-performed under Mark Venus, taking 13 points when we deserved 11. We’ve also over-performed under Slade, taking six points when we’ve only deserved three.

That stat should be particularly concerning regarding our chances for survival. We’ve consistently been out-shot by our opponents, and, by metric, we haven’t actually deserved to win a game under Slade. If we are to find the eight or nine wins we realistically need to survive under Slade, we’re going to have to improve by a significant amount.

Those stats also show how costly our inability to convert chances into goals under Tony Mowbray have been for our survival prospects. Overall, we should be on 35 points, which isn’t great, but would have meant we would currently be outside the relegation zone.

It’s a philosophical question more than anything. Is it better to be consistently unlucky in football, or is it better to nick points that you don’t deserve?

Over the short-term, it is probably good to be able to scrape results from bad performances, which is maybe a reason to be somewhat encouraged by Slade’s football. However, luck tends to even out over a longer period and you need to make sure you’re putting the odds in your favour.

Some other interesting shots stats to point out in comparing our three managers this season is looking at the individual attacking and defensive performances. Mowbray managed 0.6 goals per game, Venus 1.1 and Slade a round 1 goal per game. Not getting a goalscorer in early in the season seems to have been one of the biggest reasons why we didn’t get the points we deserved under Mowbray and thus, why we’re struggling now.

Attacking and Defensive Performances Under Our Three Managers

Attacking and Defensive Performances Under Our Three Managers

In terms of the amount of shots overall we’ve had per game, Mowbray managed 12.5, Venus 13.5 and Slade sticking out with just 7.2. However, we’ve been far more clinical under Slade than Mowbray or Venus, nearly 40% of the shots we’ve taken under Slade have been on target, which is nearly 10% better than both Mowbray and Venus, and 36% of the shots on target we’ve had under Slade have gone in, more than double what it was under Mowbray. This is probably why we took more points than we’ve deserved under Slade and why we didn’t under Mowbray, by creating better quality chances and then going on to take them.

Defensively though, we’ve gotten worse with each manager. Mowbray’s team conceded 1.2 goals per game, while Slade has us conceding a costly 1.9 per game – which is significant considering we’re only averaging one goal per game. For a defensive manager, that should have been where Slade made a real difference and if he’d been better able to tighten our defence. On the other hand, if we can quickly improve defensively, we have a formula for survival given our clinical nature in front of goal since Slade’s arrival.

Ultimately, Slade’s arrival has seen us become a worse team – we create fewer chances and we’re incredibly leaky defensively. We would do well not to read too much into the win over Gillingham, a game that could easily have lost given the number of chances we conceded. We’ve been a team that’s pretty much deserved to be around the relegation zone all season and we’ve gotten worse.

If we do survive, it would be truly remarkable, and not just because of our position in the division. On the bright side, there is a formula for survival, it just depends on our defence being able to consistently hold firm.

Half-Way Review

Overview

The season felt like it was starting several weeks too early for us with our opening game against Swindon Town feeling more like a pre-season friendly than a competitive fixture, given how many key spots in the starting XI needed to be filled. That lack of preparedness in time for the opening day was compounded by a grueling run of fixtures in August, as well as a series of transfer targets appearing to slip through our fingers.

Tony Mowbray almost seemed content to declare the first month of the season as a false-start, but the problem was that when this supposed actual start to the season came round in September, we still didn’t seem anywhere near ready. It quickly became apparent that we had an inexperienced team lack in a presence in every area of the pitch. Despite some fairly decent performances at times, that determination and nous to ensure the ball went into the opposing net rather than ours was clearly missing.

It was apparent long before Tony Mowbray resigned after the 2-2 draw with AFC Wimbledon that he had no idea how to mould the set of players he had assembled into a winning team. His refrain upon his resignation of ‘you can’t build a club off loans’ felt a dire warning about the state that the club was in, but was, at least partially, also an indictment of his his over-reliance on loan players during his 18-month spell at the club.

With no process seemingly in place to appoint a new manager, Mark Venus shuffled awkwardly into the fray as caretaker manager. His position on the board and lack of prior managerial experience meant that a sizeable number of fans were going to struggle to warm to him, but a convincing win away at Port Vale was a promising early sign.

Despite an improvement in results, it was only the performances away at Port Vale and at home to Oxford that truly merited victories. The home wins against Rochdale and Chesterfield were particularly unconvincing, with the opposition spurning some excellent chances before we managed to snatch a few chances on the break. Nevertheless, Venus’ decision to stick with a settled line-up looked to have allowed the team to build the understanding required to win narrow games.

However, that improved form was emphatically proven to be something of a mirage. A narrow loss at home to league leaders Scunthorpe saw Venus begin to tinker unnecessarily with the starting line-up, leading to a heavy defeat away at Oxford, before narrow, but dispiriting, defeats against Bolton and MK ‘Dons’ to end any sense of optimism that we might avoid a relegation battle this season.

An utterly embarrassing 4-0 to Cambridge United in the FA Cup was probably the end of Mark Venus’ prospects of landing the job on a permanent basis and December played out with a series of lacklustre and lifeless performances with the team devoid of confidence and in the knowledge that their manager didn’t want to be there.

The appointment of Russell Slade as Tony Mowbray’s replacement looks to have provided a lift, with the losing streak ended at Peterborough and 2-2 draw against Bolton in our last game that we were unfortunate not to win. Time will tell whether the improved performances will augur to a run to survival, but things are already looking more optimistic than they were a couple of weeks ago.

Who’s Played Well?

The only player who stands out as having played consistently well this season is Ben Stevenson. I remember watching him in in pre-season, the technical ability was clearly there but he struggled to cope with the physical side of the game and I thought he probably wasn’t quite ready for the first-team. Every game he’s played since then has defied that initial impression I had of him. It’s not just that he’s so technically adept, but it’s that he’s been able to screen the defence so well with his reading of the game in a physical division that has been especially remarkable. It’s been apparent that he’s simply a class above, and sadly it seems he’ll almost certainly leave this month with barely 20 first-team appearances to his name.

As for the others, no-one’s been anywhere near as convincing as Stevenson has been. Gael Bigirimana looked like a completely different player to the one he was last season when he came back in August, but he has reverted to type somewhat over the past few months and is now out of the team under Russell Slade. The since-departed Marvin Sordell was better than the modest pre-season expectations most had of him, but not to the degree that his departure is that much of a blow to the team.

Elsewhere, Andy Rose did really well when he returned from injury but hasn’t replicated that impact over the past month or so. He seems to be at his best when given licence to make late runs into the box, but Russell Slade appears to be playing him as the deeper-lying midfielder in a central two, which may limit his effectiveness. Jordan Willis seems to have gotten a lot of praise this season for a few decent performances, but I find it hard to believe many Championship clubs would be as keen on signing him as many seem to believe.

Who’s Been Rubbish?

If we do go down, the single biggest on-field decision to have contributed to it will have been Tony Mowbray’s call to replace Aaron Martin with Jordan Turnbull. He doesn’t dominate physically and he’s nervous on the ball, Turnbull has consistently cost us points with a series of basic errors. Mowbray let a solid and reliable League One centre-back go to bring in someone who, and this is being nice to him, still has a lot to learn.

The three key players that I identified in my season preview as being key for us heading into this season have all disappointed in different ways. Reice Charles-Cook was dropped from the side by Mark Venus having failed to build on some excellent performances towards the end of last season, and appears to be second-choice under Slade too. Jodi Jones looks a threatening player but makes poor decisions in the final third and is going to have to work hard to get back into the side. Then there’s Vladimir Gadzhev, a Bulgarian international who’s played in the Champions League, who just hasn’t looked up to the pace of English football.

What Do We Need To Survive?

It would be dangerous to read too much into a single performance, but the showing against Bolton, just one day after Russell Slade had made his first few moves in the transfer market, was highly encouraging. There seemed to have been an increase in intensity and the work-rate of the team, with Stuart Beavon in particular seeming to demonstrate the qualities Slade wants to bring to the side. That being said, Bolton’s two goals came from sloppy pieces of defending, which signals that there is still plenty of work still to be done by Slade.

With only one point, with a game in hand, separating us from safety, the improvements Slade needs to make shouldn’t have to be too drastic to ensure survival. If Nathan Clarke and Kevin Foley’s experience help tighten up the defence, that will go a long way to making the task ahead for us more straightforward. In attack, Stuart Beavon’s work-rate looks like it’s going to be a major asset, especially if he can sustain 90 minutes on a consistent basis, but we probably need a few reliable players in front of goal to benefit from Beavon’s selflessness.

With Ben Stevenson and Cian Harries looking likely to be sold, as well as the loan players returning to their parent clubs, we’re witnessing a very quick transformation in the identity of this team. We’re going from a very young team that, had Mowbray got his summer transfer business right, would have attacked this division with style and panache, to a more experienced and cautious set-up. Mowbray’s set-up had a thinner margin between success and failure, while Slade’s should at least ensure survival for a year or two, but not much better.

Slade’s appointment and machinations in the transfer market thus far seems to be an acceptance that we’re going to, hopefully, be a League One team for several years to come. It’s encouraging in the short-term of this survival battle and depressing for the longer-term that we’re selling our most talented youngsters at the earliest possible opportunity to bring in older players who’ll be of use for a season or two.

The focus right now at this football club is clearly not on the long-term, there is no plan to get out of this division, we don’t know where we’ll be playing after next season, and there’s a realistic prospect that there won’t be a club to support in a few years’ time. We should survive, and hopefully there’ll be some memories of good performances to be made along the way, but there’s this feeling in the pit of most Sky Blues fans’ stomachs that this might be some kind of last hurrah.

Preview: Port Vale

It was sad to see Tony Mowbray go, but a 10-game winless run to start the season should speak louder than sentiment. Even if you think he was let down by the owners, it was clear that he just couldn’t get results with this team. Whether anyone else can is a legitimate question, but it’s better to try something else than to stick with something that wasn’t working.

It took some honesty and integrity from Tony Mowbray to walk away from a job that he would seemingly have been able to hold onto despite the results. The worry is that the lack of leadership behind-the-scenes that meant Tony Mowbray had to make the decision to leave may make the search of his successor a difficult, and unsuccessful process. Mark Venus has a massive job right now as both caretaker manager and also seemingly in identifying a new manager.

Wednesday night displayed the immediate challenges that Mark Venus and Tony Mowbray’s eventual successor will face. This current squad lacks the edge in both penalty areas to take advantage of dominating games for spells and withstand pressure when it comes. The new man is not only going to have to instil a defensive rigidity but also a killer touch at the other end if we’re going to move up the league.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Having failed to beat the teams 20th, 22nd and 23rd in the table, serious and immediate improvements are required to get this team out of trouble. With Mark Venus having had just two days to work with the players, he is going to have to produce something remarkable to get anything out of a clash against one the division’s strongest teams at home this season.

Unless Mark Venus has something radical up his sleeve, I doubt there will be many changes from Wednesday night. Not only because Venus has had such little time to work with the team and is close to Tony Mowbray, but also because we pretty much played our strongest team on Wednesday night, barring Jodi Jones. Maybe though, some consistency in team selection is just the thing this team needs right now.

Last Time We Met

A defeat to Port Vale in our last meeting back in February may have brought Tony Mowbray’s time at the club over sooner than it eventually unravelled. Off the back of three defeats and the sale of James Maddison that began our slide from promotion contenders to relegation candidates, Tony Mowbray set the team out in as cautious a manner possible to prevent a fourth consecutive defeat. With Jacob Murphy and Adam Armstrong to call upon in attack, we always had a chance of snatching something, which is what we almost did when Jacob Murphy scored midway through the first-half, only for Port Vale’s Sam Kelly to score a screamer past the otherwise impressive Reice Charles-Cook.

How Are They Doing?

Port Vale chairman had grown frustrated with ex-manager Rob Page’s dull-but-effective brand of football and decided to go for something completely different after Page’s departure for Northampton Town over the summer. The Portuguese manager Bruno Ribeiro was plucked from relative obscurity (although he did play for Leeds and Sheffield United), along with a raft of unknown foreign players with no experience of English football. It seemed to be a classic case of over-correcting that seemed to spell disaster for Port Vale.

Instead, Vale have started the season in impressive form and seem to be getting better as their new-look squad gels. However, few of the foreign players have made that big an impact thus far for Bruno Ribeiro’s side with several English players stepping up to the mark and Vale posing a big threat from set-pieces, as well as well-executed counter-attacks.

Nathan Smith in central defence has been the star performer this season, returning from a loan spell last season at Torquay United with a series of assured defensive performances. Standing under 6 foot, Smith isn’t the most physically dominant of defenders but commands the back-line with authority and also poses a threat from set-pieces. Alongside former Newcastle youngster Remie Streete, who spent much of last season either injured or on the bench, Port Vale have one of the best central defensive partnerships in the division.

The other stand-out performer for Port Vale this season has been Birmingham City loanee Alex Jones, who leads Vale’s scoring charts with six goals. Jones had been banging the goals in last season for Birmingham’s under-21 side, and has shown he has the pedigree to score at senior level this season, despite often being deployed on the wing by Ribeiro. Former Blackburn youngster Anton Forrester has proven an effective target-man up front, Jerome Thomas has been a threat on the wings and Bruno Ribeiro has even gotten Martin Paterson scoring goals after a lean few seasons for the former Burnley man.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

With five assists already this season, another big threat that Port Vale pose is Sam Foley in midfield. Via a combination of pin-point set-piece deliveries and some accurate passes, Foley has stepped up to the mark as Vale’s chief creator. With the brilliantly cynical Anthony Grant as the midfield enforcer, Port Vale have a mix of technical quality and a physical edge to impose themselves on the game.

Of the foreign signings, it’s only really been left-back Kjell Knops, striker Rigino Cicilia and midfielder Paulo Tavares who’ve been first-team regulars. Of the three, Knops has made the biggest impact despite being deployed out-of-position from his preferred centre-back role at left-back. Cicilia has been a useful physical presence when deployed, although mainly from the bench. Tavares has been somewhat inconsistent but has shown signs that he could really stand-out if he can find some form.

Prediction

As mentioned earlier, Port Vale has been particularly strong at home this season and this doesn’t really seem like a presentable opportunity to get that first win of the season. Our main hope is the old ‘dead cat bounce’ – something which saw us beat eventual promotion winners MK ‘Dons’ at the Ricoh Arena after Pressley’s departure – but there is no rational reason to believe that we can get something from this game.

Port Vale look a better team in pretty much all areas of the pitch right now, so it should be little surprise that I’m tipping them to beat us 2-1.

Preview: AFC Wimbledon

Another game, another loss as the rudderless ship Coventry City gets cast adrift at the bottom of League One. It’s now nine games without a win to start the season and with Tony Mowbray looking increasingly like he doesn’t know what he wants from this team, this upcoming game against AFC Wimbledon is looking set to be one of those painful midweek games at the Ricoh Arena, an experience we had nearly forgotten about last season.

Despite the woeful start to the season, the only way it seems Tony Mowbray will lose his job is if he chooses to resign. In a sense, it’s commendable that we’re sticking by a manager, but with the club in a state of chaos at the moment and relegation to League Two looking a more-than realistic prospect, but it would be preferrable if there was more of a determination apparent to get ourselves out of the on-the-pitch mess that we are in.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

At this stage, it’s almost pointless to try and guess which players Tony Mowbray will pick for this game and what formation he’ll play them in. The shift to a 3-4-3 at the end of last season was because teams had figured us out in that 4-2-3-1 system, but now Tony Mowbray can’t seemingly get that 3-4-3 right and he’s vacillating between two formations that aren’t working. It’s a tactical problem that’s made worse by a lack of consistency in team selection, which means players aren’t allowed time to build an understanding to make a system work.

Chris McCann and Andy Rose are close to full fitness but seemingly won’t be involved in this game, which leaves this team seriously lacking in a physical presence. Given AFC Wimbledon can be a fairly direct side, I would imagine that the 5 ft 5 Dion Kelly-Evans won’t continue at right wing-back, which will either mean a return for Jamie Sterry or the use of Jordan Willis or Sam Ricketts at right-back with the other at centre-back. But as I wrote in the last paragraph, it’s nigh-on impossible to accurately speculate on Mowbray’s thinking.

Last Time We Met

This is our first league meeting with the reincarnated AFC Wimbledon, who possibly provide a case study of where our future may be, but it isn’t our first competitive game because we played them in the FA Cup back in the Sixfields season. Back then, Steven Pressley’s Sky Blues were in their best run of form of the season but had to draft Adam Barton into the side following a suspension to John Fleck, although we were able to welcome Cyrus Christie back after a spell out injured.

Without Fleck, we struggled to find out rhythm and probably deserved to fall behind to a Michael Smith goal early in the second-half. AFC’s goalkeeper Seb Brown dropped a clanger that fell at the feet of Callum Wilson for the equaliser and we quickly gained the lead when Carl Baker tapped in a Franck Moussa cross. Another defensive error sealed the win when AFC Wimbledon’s left-back inadvertently diverted Carl Baker’s free-kick past the helpless Brown.

Just writing some of those names makes me feel a bit sad.

How Are They Doing?

AFC Wimbledon were last season’s League Two play-off winners after finding form towards the end of last season to sneak into that final play-off spot. For a club on fairly limited resources, adapting to the third-tier was always going to be a difficult task but Neal Ardley’s side have shown, after a difficult start, that they’ll at least be competitive at this level this season.

AFC Wimbledon are almost the parallel opposite to us in terms of their squad, we’ve used the most players in League One, they’ve used the fewest. We have the second-youngest squad in the division, they have the oldest. It could very well be a battle of men against boys.

Lyle Taylor is the most obvious threat that AFC Wimbledon have, not only was he their top-scorer last season and is joint-top this season, but he has scored three goals in his past two appearances against us – those three goals represented 60% of his tally at this level before this season. Taylor is a penalty area presence who formed an effective partnership with target-man Tom Elliott last season, with AFC Wimbledon deploying a ‘Crazy Gang’-esque style of approach-play at times last season.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Neal Ardley has however made moves this summer to broaden AFC’s attacking threat beyond long balls and set-pieces. The ultra-quick Dominic Poleon, along with Andy Barcham, offer pace on the counter and have scored five goals between them. Jake Reeves and summer signing Dean Parrett offer quality on the ball in the centre of the park, although both also provide quality from set-piece deliveries too.

With two brutes at centre-back in Paul Robinson (the former Millwall one) and Darius Charles, AFC Wimbledon possess a physical presence at the back and from set-pieces. There is uncertainty in goal at the moment though after summer signing Ryan Clarke left the club after some poor performances and last season’s back-up James Shea has had to step up in recent weeks. However, Shea impressed in a win at Charlton and trained with the England senior team once when he was on the books with Arsenal.

Prediction

It’s hard to summon up any positivity heading into this game and I can only really consult the law of averages that we must soon be due a win rather than actually believing in this side. AFC Wimbledon are going to be a physically assertive side, a threat from set-pieces but also with pace on the counter – an effective formula for beating any Coventry City side at the Ricoh Arena, not least one completely bereft of confidence.

I’ve got nothing else to write, other than I think we will lose this one 2-1.

Preview: Gillingham

This week has seemingly marked the point where a whole series of frustrations against the owners has come to a head, falling bottom of the division and the departure of much-beloved football academic Chris Anderson seemed to have tipped things over the edge. Although we’re in a desperate situation both on and off the pitch, some fervour among the Sky Blues fans is at least better than the apathy that has sucked the life out of this club over the past 15 years, even if it seems unlikely that SISU will be forced out by fan pressure.

The attention on off-the-field matters has deflected some of the pressure that would otherwise be on Tony Mowbray after such a poor start to the season. While he may not be working with a squad capable of challenging for promotion, a manager of his calibre should be capable of coaxing something out of this group of players. The decision last week to go with a one-man midfield against Oldham in the second-half was bizarre and suggestive of a man desperately trying things at random rather than someone using their experience to eek performances on limited resources.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

After that failure to score against an Oldham side who looked there for the taking, Tony Mowbray will once again make radical alterations to his attacking line-up in the hope that something falls into place. It’s likely to mean a recall for Dan Agyei, a player who’s been used sparingly despite an impressive debut against Bradford, with Andre Wright possibly coming into the line-up too. After a brace for the under-23s, George Thomas could be back in Tony Mowbray’s thinking, but it might be a thought to also include one or two players who can create chances.

Jamie Sterry will seemingly continue at right-back despite being stretchered off in concerning fashion in the Oldham game, although Dion Kelly-Evans seemed to offer more attacking thrust in Sterry’s stead. The Jordan and Jordan partnership of Willis and Turnbull in central defence should be given more time to develop after some promising, if not fully convincing, signs last week. There is also the chance Chris McCann could return to the side to offer more of a physical presence alongside Gael Bigirimana in midfield, if not, hopefully Ben Stevenson will be given the nod ahead of the off-the-pace Vladimir Gadzhev.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting against Gillingham came at the Kent club’s hospitable Priestfield Stadium with the hosts looking to avenge the 4-1 hammering back last November, a result that looks increasingly like the zenith of Tony Mowbray’s reign. Gillingham weren’t in spectacular form but looked to be easing along comfortably towards the play-offs while we were in the final throes of an implosion that had ended our own hopes of making the top six.

We managed to drag Gillingham down to our level in a tedious 0-0 draw defined by a lack of chances and poor quality finishing. We seemed to contaminate Gillingham with our torpor for the rest of last season, to the extent that Justin Edinburgh’s side somehow managed to finish below us in the final standings.

How Are They Doing?

Gillingham were expected to be picked apart in the summer transfer window not to be seen in the upper echelons of League One for several season at the least. Instead, they managed to hold onto star man Bradley Dack while adding proven quality to their squad in the form of Paul Konchesky, Jamie O’Hara and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas. Crucially, with bright young manager Justin Edinburgh still in place, Gillingham have ended up looking better equipped for a tilt for promotion than they were last year.

However, things haven’t quite clicked thus far with Gillingham balancing out their considerable attacking threat with ineptitude at the back. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas has predictably been the mercurial battering ram that he was during his time at Bristol City at this level while Bradley Dack has remained a key source of creativity after returning to full fitness over the past month. However, a lack of consistency in selection at the back due to injuries, along with some shocking errors, have undermined what looks to be a powerful attacking unit.

Aside from the bigger names, Justin Edinburgh has added strength in depth to Gillingham’s squad from last season, particularly in midfield with Scott Wagstaff and Billy Knott adding proven League One quality to their ranks along with Mark Byrne having made the step up from League Two in comfortable fashion. With the security blanket of Josh Wright in front of the back four and the energetic and improving Emmanuel Osadebe too, Gillingham have so many high-quality options to call upon in the centre of the park.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Someone we really need to be keeping an eye on is the lightning quick right wing-back Ryan Jackson. In addition to his pace, Jackson’s crossing and long throws have been a key source of creativity for Gillingham this season with three assists in just five appearances. If we can keep him quiet, it will probably have been a good afternoon for us.

Gillingham do have a very prominent Achilles’ Heel, their defence, and are currently in possession of the division’s worst defensive record. Uncertainty in goal has played a part, with the fairly reliable Stuart Nelson having dropped some notable clangers this season which led to Justin Edinburgh signing the slightly less error-prone Jonathan Bond on loan from Reading, only for Bond to pick up an injury prior to Wednesday night’s 5-0 defeat to Spurs. Moreover, injuries and suspensions have led to inconsistency in selection at the back, along with the loss of the dominant John Egan on a free transfer over the summer.

Prediction

Although Gillingham present clear and present danger to our soft back-line with the squad they have, this is a team we can beat if we execute a well-drilled game-plan. Gillingham’s own defensive brittleness is there to be exploited and we should either be looking to press them high to force errors or hit them on the counter to give ourselves a chance of winning this game. If Tony Mowbray is the manager that so many believe him to be, he should be looking at this away trip as an opportunity to secure a morale-boosting victory.

Despite Gillingham’s obvious threats, an optimism that goes against all logical evidence has swept over me heading into this fixture. For some reason, I think this will be the game we’ll register our first league win of the season in a 2-1 win. This winless run has to come to an end at some point, why not this game?

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