It seems like a long time ago now during those Halcyon days of last August, when the red and white half of the steel city were torn to pieces by Edinburgh’s young charges in the blazing Kent sunshine, propelling us to the summit of League 1.
That opening day win was only the first 90 minutes of a long season ahead, but you couldn’t help but believe back then that after such a statement of intent against the League 1 title favourites, that there was no barrier as to what this current Gillingham team could go on to achieve over the course of the next nine months.
A lot has happened to both clubs since that glorious opening day victory for us and crushing defeat for them, and you do wonder whether they (Sheff Utd) ever fully recovered from such an early blow? The story of this season now has just six games left to play out, but it very much looks like the Blades will be suffering yet another season languishing in the third tier whereas we’re still clinging on by a thread in a bid to go up automatically. That thread seems to be getting thinner with each passing week mind you.
The month of March has never been kind to Gillingham teams in the past, and looking back at the previous month it has certainly been another interesting thirty one days in the life of a Gills supporter. The loss of our two best players at the worse possible time was a crushing blow, but credit must go to Justin Edinburgh for at least steadying the ship and losing just the once at a very wet and windy Fleetwood Town. Managers often say if you can’t win then don’t get beat and that’s what the players have been doing for the manager.
After we had escaped what seemed like the siege of the Alamo at Scunthorpe’s Glandford Park, that particular match now looks to have been the turning point in our season, after having suddenly looked very vulnerable after we lost three in a row against Oldham, Chesterfield and Fleetwood. A first during the Edinburgh regime.
When the final script of this season is written, however, and we all hope it ends with promotion glory, we might just look back at February and March as the defining period when this team learnt to overcome adversity and gained mental strength, something that is required in bucket loads especially in the red hot atmosphere of the playoffs. Just ask Stoke City fans after their semi-final against us in 2000.
Talking of the play-off positions, it now looks distinctly likely that’s where we will finish come what may, despite the recent wobbles of League One’s surprise package Burton Albion. If you’d have given us that option back in August most would have snapped your hand off and taken it.
09:04:2016 – League 1 – Sheffield United 0 – 0 Gillingham – Bramall Lane – Att 18,152 (522 away)
Prior to kick-off this game felt very much like a must win for Sheffield United to keep alive their slim hopes of gate crashing the play-offs, whereas for us it felt like a ‘must not lose’ game given the form of other teams in and around us in the race for the play-offs and automatic promotion.
The recent return of Bradley Dack and Cody McDonald almost feels like two new signings with hopefully John Egan to follow in the next week or so. On the pitch whilst we have stopped conceding goals, up the other end the goals and creativity in the team have seemingly dried up especially without Dack in the team.
However, if the travelling fans thought Edinburgh were going to thrust Dack straight back into the first team action they were mistaken, as the manager named the midfielder as a substitution alongside McDonald. The match began with the forward line of Donnelly and Norris as we attempted to blunt the blades for a second time this season.
A bright start from the home side was always on the cards as the majority of the near twenty thousand crowd inside Brammall Lane demanded their team start on the front foot. They nearly had something to celebrate after just 60 seconds as Che Adams smacked the cross bar with a shot after a storming run into the box when unchecked.
The three centre backs of Deji, Adam El-Abd and Max Ehmer (the latter complete with face mask the latest injured footballer assessory) have recently stuck up a good partnership together, but they were made to work hard in the opening half as the lively Billy Sharp seemed hell bent on pulling the three apart and opening us up with the help of the lively Che Adams.
A flurry of shots at our goal were saved with relative ease by Stuart Nelson, but it was the United keeper who was almost left red faced as Donnelly just failed to hook the ball into the net after he dropped the ball in front of our striker up the other end of the pitch. It was a guilt edge opportunity.
It was end to end and often frantic play during the those opening exchanges, but it was the home side doing the majority of the pressing with our players happy to soak up the pressure and break when the United players lost possession or over hit a pass as they often did.
On his 100th appearance for the club Jake Hessenthaler left the field around the half hour mark with George Williams replacing him. It didn’t alter the formation or approach from Edinburgh as he stuck to the 532 formation that he began the game with.
Either side of half time but teams had big shouts for a penalty turned down. The United claim was up the other end of the field and too far away to judge, but the Gills claim was right in front of the away fans and we were left baffled as the ref somehow awarded a free kick right on the edge of the area when it was clear Crofts was upended well inside the box. That was the first of several questionable decision by the referee in the second half that seemed to favour Sheff U.
Attacking their own fans in the second period United stepped up the pressure further on our back five, but vital blocks by Ehmer and the bandaged El-Abd keep our clean sheet in tack. United’s best chance in the second half came from a near post header that just went wide of Nelson’s post.
Cody was brought on with an hour of the match played, and he did he well to hold the ball up and run into the channels which helped ease the pressure on the defence at times. The introduction of Dack came later in the 82 minute but it was too little too late to really affect the outcome of the match.
As the minutes ticked down to the full time whistle, the Gills players were happy to settle for a hard won point as the unbeaten run was stretched to six games. Edinburgh and the players had got what they came for and all but mathematically ended the home side’s fading play-off hopes. If we do go up I’m sure the red half of Sheffield will be happy to see the back of us.
Next up for us is a humdinger of a contest at Priestfield as fellow promotion candidates Walsall visit Priestfield for what could be special night under the lights at home on Tuesday night. If we have any chance of snatching automatic promotion this is a must win game. Time to turn the volume levels inside Priestfield up to maximum.