• Adam Stubbings

Rovers v Gillingham: ITEN Match Preview

A tortuous, arguably torturous pre-season is finally at an end. All the rumours, debates and arguments about a managerial change, about players coming and going, catering woes and a coat of paint for the stadium dovetail into certainty at 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon. The whistle will blow, 11 men in red and white hooped shirts will set out to try and win a football match and fans will be shouting, cheering and groaning from their seats once again.

Gillingham are the first visitors to the Keepmoat Stadium to face Doncaster Rovers in league action in 2019/20, so what should we expect from the side now managed by Steve Evans? And what can we hope to see from a significantly different Rovers side now under the stewardship of Darren Moore?

Rovers in Transition: A Game Too Soon?

There’s no getting away from it, Darren Moore does not have his squad where he wants nor needs it to be heading into the curtain raiser. An appointment made after the start of pre-season owing to a thorough recruitment process in the wake of the surprise departure of Grant McCann to Hull, Moore hasn’t had as much time as he might like to craft his team. Whilst five players have arrived this summer to date, a higher number departed and Wednesday night saw a huge hole carved out of our attack as John Marquis joined Portsmouth for a fee approaching £2 million.

Marquis is a huge loss, albeit an expected one, joining a divisional rival on the eve of the season. Moore will have to move fast to find an adequate replacement in time for the season, and at time of writing it appears he will have to make do with existing squad options for the time being. Kieran Sadlier led the line in our final pre-season friendly against Hull, and the team as a whole performed excellently and were unfortunate not to come away with a win against a strong Championship side. The money acquired from the sale of Marquis should be utilised to strengthen several areas of the squad but we will probably have to maintain an air of patience with a month of the window still to run.

Darren Moore has opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation for most of pre-season, with the combination of playmaker Ben Whiteman and Arsenal loanee Ben Sheaf at the heart of the midfield. The defensive line picks itself owing to a lack of depth, with early summer signings Reece James and Brad Halliday in at full back and Joe Wright, if fit, partnering Tom Anderson in a capable looking quartet. Seny Dieng has joined to challenge Ian Lawlor for the role of first choice goalkeeper, and indications at this stage are that the Senegalese stopper will get the nod. Up front, Sadlier will likely lead the line, supported by James Coppinger and two from three attacking midfielders: Matty Blair, Alfie May and new signing Madger Gomes, who impressed in pre-season outings against both Huddersfield and Hull.

Gills an Unknown Quantity?

There has been plenty of change for our opponents this off-season too. Gillingham dispensed with popular former player Steve Lovell at the end of a tough season that ultimately ended with comfortable survival in midtable, opting to bring in one of the most disliked men in English football: Steve Evans. Evans, well known to Rovers fans from his time in charge at Boston United and local rivals Rotherham United, is someone who has built a recent reputation as something of a brow-beating wheeler-dealer, and his first foray into the transfer market as Gillingham boss has seen him stick to type.

A dozen new players are through the door, meaning it will be tough to glean much in advance as far as the visitors’ playing style and chief threats, but one thing is for certain: Gillingham are dealing with the loss of key players just as much as Rovers are. Their own top marksman, Tom Eaves, has left to join Grant McCann at Hull, whilst highly rated shot-stopper Tomas Holy has moved on to join Ipswich. In Jack Bonham, Evans has moved quickly to replace Holy with a player possessing plenty of qualities, but the new striking options are largely wait-and-see options.

Mikael Mandron is the obvious candidate, owing to his size, but failed to find the net more than a handful of times in League Two for Colchester last season, whilst young recruits Alex Jakubiak and Mikael Ndjoli are yet to demonstrate goalscoring form at senior level. The energy of veteran midfielder Stuart O’Keefe should be an asset in front of a well-drilled defensive core, whilst Brandon Hanlan is the Gills’ most exciting attacking spark, but new signing Mark Marshall is very much a player on the decline. Elliott List is poised for a break-out season after solid progression over the past couple of years, and either he or Regan Charles-Cook seem the most likely of the younger talents to push on and become Gillingham’s star asset now Eaves has gone.

View from Priestfield Stadium

Don’t take my word for it though, as we put some questions to Matt from Gills In The Blood, a terrific Gillingham fan group that you can find on Twitter @GillsInTheBlood and on their excellent GITBTV YouTube channel.

ITEN: After a midtable finish last season, a change in manager and a high squad turnover, what shape do you think the Gills are in ahead of the season opener?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the work we’ve done so far this summer, and there now seems to be a positive atmosphere around the whole club. Early reservations about the new gaffer seem to be dispersing, and the signings we’ve brought in seem to be an improvement on what we’ve had before. The obvious big miss will be Tom Eaves, but if we can find a replacement or share the goals amongst the squad I’m confident of a relatively decent campaign.

ITEN: This game sees a new manager in the dugout for both clubs, with Darren Moore going up against Steve Evans. Is the controversial Evans a popular appointment among fans, and do you think he’s a good fit for the club?

I had my concerns about Evans prior to his appointment, but in fairness he’s done nothing but good things since arriving (obviously I’m aware he won’t be talking negatively in the press, which manager would?) so I think all we can do as a fan base is back the players he selects on a match day. I know some still aren’t on board with him, but no two people have the same opinion do they.

ITEN: Much like ourselves, you’ve lost some key players from last season’s squad, notably forward Tom Eaves and goalkeeper Tomas Holy. Which departing player do you think you’ll miss the most?

Eaves without doubt. I think Evans was very quick to replace Tomas Holy, and in Jack Bonham we have someone who excelled at this level last season with Bristol Rovers. Clean sheets though only stop you losing games, whereas goals win you games, so I think we’ll do very well to find another player (especially on a free) who will net the volume of goals Eaves did in his two years with us.

ITEN: Finally, what are your hopes and expectations for Gillingham in the 2019/20 season?

I am not going to sit here and say we will get automatically promoted or anything like that, but I do think we will have a decent season where we won’t be looking over our shoulders concerned about relegation. I have predicted us to finish 9th with the current squad, but if we start well then who knows. We are all generally positive at this time of the season though aren’t we ha-ha?!