Key player: Vadaine Oliver
If you’d asked me my thoughts on Vadaine Oliver at the start of last season, then reflecting on them right now would be a touch embarrassing to say the least. Fair to say that he proved me wrong – I thought he was a League Two player at best, incapable of double figures at League One level. Then he netted 17, 20 in all competitions.
It wasn’t just his goals, it was his dynamism and play without the ball that enabled Gillingham to create chances too. I will not be surprised if Oliver fails to make double figures this season, as players often do fail to match their previous heights after the best seasons of their career, but that doesn’t take away from him as key player. No, if anything it might serve to highlight just how important he is to the way they play. If he fails to click, Gillingham might come to see just how important he is to their team (not that they don’t know already).
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Manager: Steve Evans
It would be generous to describe Steve Evans as marmite, because it’s only disliked by 37% of people… Of course he’s just another brash footballing personality in a long line of polarising football managers, but I’ve never been a fan.
Evans’ star is definitely fading after his early successes with Boston, Crawley and Rotherham, including four promotions in four seasons with the latter two from 2010 to 2014. Since then, he failed at Leeds (he wasn’t the only one around that time) and disappointed at heavily backed Mansfield and Peterborough.
He came to Gillingham two seasons back but after his early transfer window activity last season some were backing his side to get in the play-offs last summer – for reasons I was never sure of. He promptly failed to deliver, going into 2021 in the bottom half of the table and eventually finished comfortably short of sixth place.
Not that his efforts should be looked down upon last season, just I couldn’t see why there was as much excitement as I seem to remember there being back in August 2020.
Playmaker: Kyle Dempsey
Kyle Dempsey is a player with plenty of experience in the lower leagues, and after identifying him as potentially “just what Gills” in last year’s preview, he didn’t fail to deliver as he went on to win their player of the season award as their captain.
He was brilliantly deployed as an engine at the heart of midfield, drawing the best out of him as he ran the show in the middle of the pitch, worked hard to protect the defence, and added 8 goals plus 4 assists at the other end of the pitch.
Still only 25, he already has 274 professional appearances and is quietly emerging as a leading player in League One. Yes, he fell out with Joey Barton, leading to the end of his Fleetwood Town career, but thus far he’s been able to get on with another controversial manager in Steve Evans.
Key transfer: Max Ehmer
Gillingham have lost a few key players over the summer, with goalkeeper Jack Bonham, defender Connor Ogilvie and winger Jordan Graham all leaving on free transfers. Though the loss of Graham will no doubt hit them hard, Gillingham are now going to have to reshape key elements of their defence.
Therefore, the arrival of Ehmer is important, as a leader but also an established central-defender at this level. Ehmer is hardly the best defender at this level, but as a former captain and standout centre back for the Gills at this level, including Evans’ first season in Kent, this is a shrewd piece of business to help add some stability to the back line after a year away in Bristol.
Target: Top half
Gillingham aren’t going to be strong enough to make a run at the play-offs, just as they weren’t last season, but they can still aim to finish in the top half. Evans is far from a League One specialist, save that one season with Rotherham a relatively long time ago.
Their squad is definitely weaker that it was last season, so they’ll no doubt be looking for a few smart signings after the season is under way, but I think they’re going to just be part of the group that hovers around the 60 point mark at the end of the season.
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