Running out of steam
Momentum: a priceless commodity at any stage of the season, and even more so now. Not downward movement, of course – the sort of inexorable slither towards the relegation trapdoor exemplified by Wolves – but the unstoppable force of a Reading, hitting full stride and storming past rivals on an irresistible rise to the top.
Momentum is something that two sides who met in League 2 on Saturday afternoon, Oxford and Gillingham, appear to have lost, and not just temporarily down the back of the sofa. The home side went into the match clinging desperately onto the final play-off place, without a win in four games, while the visitors’ last outing saw lowly Dagenham & Redbridge complete an embarrassing double, the 2-1 defeat at Priestfield threatening to frustrate promotion ambitions for another season.
The fact that the Gills are the division’s top scorers and yet sit in ninth underlines exactly where their problems have lain all season. Manager Andy Hessenthaler’s team selection suggested a belief in the old adage that attack is the best form of defence (or a lack of faith in those charged with repelling Oxford’s efforts, depending on how you look at it). No fewer than four forwards – Danny Kedwell, Joe Kuffour and loanees Rowan Vine and Gavin Tomlin – took their places in the starting line-up. A goal frenzy awaited, surely?
Not so, sadly. Tomlin lasted just a quarter of an hour before retiring injured, and – aside from solitary efforts from Kedwell and Chris Whelpdale and a brief first-half flash of inspiration from Kuffour – Gillingham contrived to look as toothless as a crack addict after a few rounds in the ring with a heavyweight boxer. Time and again, passes were missed and opportunities to advance swiftly were spurned. “If you stood still, Gills, you’d move a bit faster“, opined one wry wag in the away end.
The absence of urgency in Gillingham’s play was mystifying, particularly given that their next fixture pits them against Paulo di Canio’s super soaraway Swindon. (It’s not as if the Gills supporters didn’t remind their team of the identity of their next opponents, either; a chant of “Stand up if you hate Swindon” was subsequently adopted with equal gusto by those in the home ends, a hand of comradeship and solidarity across the divide, before the rivalry was promptly reasserted with the blue-clad away following boasting “We hate Swindon more than you“.) All is not rosy in the Garden of England, and enthusiasm for Hessenthaler – a club legend poached back from Kent rivals Dover in what became acrimonious circumstances – appears to be on the wane and could evaporate entirely should the promotion push again end in failure.
As for the hosts, Chris Wilder’s men were hardly possessed of fearsome gnashers either. Paulo Gazzaniga had to be at his very best to claw away a well-struck Asa Hall volley, while Connor Essam (twice) and Matt Fish made critical interventions to prevent the visitors’ net from bulging. Damian Batt and Cristian Montano (the latter enjoying his fifth loan spell of the campaign) got some success down the Gillingham left, but the West Ham youngster was hauled off with half an hour to go. His replacement Oli Johnson thought he’d won a stoppage-time spot-kick, but was instead immediately booked for diving by the referee. James Constable also appeared from the bench, but remains strangely out of sorts. All the more galling, no doubt, for Oxford to see AFC Wimbledon’s Jack Midson, whom they let go in the summer, heading the league’s scoring charts.
When the final whistle blew on a 0-0 one of my companions declared so bad that “both sides should be docked points“, the boos rang out from all three sides of the Kassam. It was a result that left no one satisfied. Sixth-placed Cheltenham had motored to a handsome 4-1 win over Accrington, though at least relegation-haunted Macclesfield did the two stalemates we’d witnessed a favour, coming from behind to restrict eighth-placed Crewe to a single point.
Drifting off to seek solace in the form of a cider festival and Wurzels tribute band at a nearby pub, we were left to reflect on the fact that, due to an ongoing dispute over policing costs, Gillingham fans might not actually be allowed to attend the Swindon game, currently set to take place in an empty stadium. On the evidence of Saturday’s showing, they should perhaps be thankful for small mercies.