After nine years in the third tier, Gillingham have been relegated to League Two, but they go down with perhaps a glimmer of hope based on the resurgence under Neil Harris.
The 44-year-old boasts an excellent managerial CV, having led Millwall to successive League One play-off finals – winning the latter in 2017 – before a surprise eighth-placed finish in their first season back in the Championship.
Harris also led Cardiff from 14th spot in the second tier, at the time of his November appointment, to fifth in the 2019-20 campaign, with his reputation ever growing.
So it’s fair to say that a few eyebrows were raised when he rocked up at Priestfield in January with the Gills languishing in 23rd in League One after 7-2 mauling by Oxford.
There was a significant upturn in form with the Kent club picking up 21 points from 18 games – sitting 16th in the form table since Harris’ appointment – but nevertheless, Gillingham were relegated on goal difference.
Matt from Gills In The Blood, though, says the ultimate outcome does not hurt as much as it might have done had they not been 10 points adrift at the start of February.
“In all honesty I’m not really sure in terms of my own emotions.
“Of course, watching your team struggle all season and ultimately get relegated hurts, but I think because I had resigned myself to it prior to Neil Harris replacing Steve Evans.
“I had almost made peace with it a while before it actually happened. Bottom line though is that the table doesn’t lie and we were generally woeful over 46 games.”
Matt, though, praises the efforts of Harris, who is committed to staying on as manager for League Two next season.
“He’s had a bigger impact than I certainly envisaged; even taking it to the final day was something of an achievement in itself.
“It’s frustrating that his longest winless run since arriving happened to be our final six fixtures of the season, because our points per game over his first dozen games (1.5) would’ve been good enough for 12th over a full campaign.
“Looking at it now with the dust having settled, I personally think he had just eked pretty much everything out of a very small and very poor squad to even give us a chance and we ended up running out of steam.”
After relegation was confirmed, Harris took to his post-match interview to vent his frustrations, calling the club’s standards a “disgrace” while adding that the fans had been “neglected” throughout the season.
Asked how much change the boss would be able to implement while Paul Scally remains chairman, Matt was a little coy.
“That’s the big question isn’t it, and only one person [Scally] ultimately knows the answer.
“The early signs are promising with the appointments of Deren Ibrahim (goalkeeper coach) and more specifically Nicky Shorey (head of recruitment) to start to give us that structure in a footballing sense.
“It won’t be an instant thing though, and I guess the question can only be truly answered over the summer window and through next season. To coin the old saying, the proof will be in the pudding.”
🎙 “We’ve got seven players under contract, all seven won’t be here.”
“The standards have been a disgrace. It has to change and the fans have been neglected.”
One hell of a post-match interview from Neil Harris after #Gills’ relegation to League Two…
— FansBet (@FansBet) April 30, 2022
As well as calling out the structural issues at the club, Harris has also said that some of the seven players who are under contract – Max Ehmer, Olly Lee, Alex MacDonald, Stuart O’Keefe, Ben Reeves, David Tutonda and Henry Woods – are not part of his plans.
Jack Tucker and Robbie McKenzie have been offered deals but Matt is pessimistic about Gillingham’s chances of retaining the out-of-contract defenders, the former of whom having previously been linked with MK Dons.
“McKenzie is one who could have earned himself a good move elsewhere and unfortunately, I can’t see us keeping Tucker.”
With nine players released, Matt sees a big rebuild ahead.
“Harris’ comments over recent weeks – and particularly on the final day – make it clear he’s not happy with what he’s walked into, and I’m sure he will be desperate to build a squad in his own style.
“Let’s be honest, these players have hardly helped their own cause in terms of getting new deals, with only a handful of them at least maintaining their reputations over the course of the entire campaign.
“Looking at those who featured in 2021/22, I think the senior players who I would want and think we could realistically start next season with are Stuart O’Keefe, Ben Reeves and Alex MacDonald.
“On top of that, Max Ehmer may be able to do a job in League Two, but back-to-back relegations (the other with Bristol Rovers last season) may count against him.”
Gillingham have much work ahead after relegation, but they do at least have a manager who will call out problems and fight for higher standards across the board.
Harris alone cannot change Gillingham: but he does have the character and credentials to spark a stagnant club into life.
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