THE WREXHAM ANGLE
With 4 consecutive wins under our belts, and 7 wins from our last 8 games, Wrexham will go into this match with a great deal of momentum.
Those results have been achieved despite a string of injuries and suspensions which have shown the value of Phil Parkinson’s focus on squad depth this Summer.
Adding to those absences, Parkinson will have to wrestle with two suspensions for the visit of Gillingham: Paul Mullin and James McClean have each accumulated five yellow cards and will miss the match. Their combined efforts off the bench in the midweek victory over Port Vale illustrated their importance to Wrexham’s attacking plans.
The injury Andy Cannon picked up from a late tackle at Field Mill will almost certainly rule him out too, so there are likely to be at least 3 changes from the side which dispatched Mansfield Town so impressively.
As I mentioned, though, Parkinson has consciously assembled a squad with quality in depth. The midweek win showed that he has plenty of viable options to step in as replacements. Luke Young and Jordan Davies have been in good form this season, while Max Cleworth and Will Boyle showed they are ready to step in at the back if Parkinson decides to replace Cannon by pushing George Evans or Tom O’Connor into midfield. Up front, Jake Bickerstaff reminded us on Tuesday of the huge strides he has taken over the last 18 months.
THE OPPOSING VIEW
Gillingham have had an oddly tumultuous start to the season, starting off with a string of notable wins but removing their manager when results began to deteriorate. They arrive at the Stok Cae Ras with a new man at the helm, and an ambition to not only climb back up the table, but bring a more fluent style of football to Priestfield.
Neil Harris was dismissed after 20 months in the Gillingham hotseat. His departure came as something of a surprise after a promising start to the season: his side had suffered two defeats in the 3 games before we was sacked, but had won the 3 preceding games and were sitting in 8th place, 4 points off the top of the table. Indeed, just ten days earlier Gillingham sat at the summit of the league, having starting the season with a remarkable string of 4 consecutive 1-0 wins.
However, perhaps that was the problem for Harris. His sides were perceived as being overly-defensive, and when the clean sheets dried up a lack of cutting edge up front was exposed.
The run of binary wins was halted abruptly by a 3-0 home defeat at the hands of Colchester United, and another struggling side, Grimsby Town, beat them in their next outing. Harris’ final six matches yielded 3 wins, 1 draw and two losses, but the owners decided that wasn’t enough.
Keith Millen took over on an interim basis and kicked off with a 2-1 home win over MK Dons, but things fell away badly after that. Heavy losses at the hands of Portsmouth and Walsall saw The Gills’ once watertight defence leak 9 goals in 2 games, and although a win at Swindon punctuated the gloom, they accumulated just 6 points out of 15 under Millen.
The search for a new boss ended a fortnight ago when Gillingham appointed Stephen Clemence. Although this is the ex-Spurs midfielder’s first stab at management, he has accumulated a great deal of experience as working under Steve Bruce at Sunderland, Hull, Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday, Newcastle and West Brom, as well as being credited as a mentor to Jack Grealish.
This will be Clemence’s first league match in charge of The Gills. An FA Cup victory at Hereford United on Saturday was followed up by a midweek defeat at home to Fulham Under-21s in the Bristol Street Motors Trophy, as he took the opportunity to get to know his squad.
“I am really looking forward to getting involved in the league,” he told Kent Online.
“Of course you want to get into the next round of the FA Cup and we have done that after a couple of days of training.
“[Tuesday’s] game was a good opportunity to get minutes into people, but from my point of view it is about how we do in the league this season.
“It almost feels like it is going to be my first game this weekend and that is what I am really looking forward to.”
“It will be a very tough challenge. They have done very well for a few years now, [have] a very good manager who is highly respected and rightly so. They have a really good squad.
“I believe they have one or two issues with injury and suspension but whoever they put out it will be a very tough game.
“They have a good home crowd and they will be right behind them so the boys are going to have to be ready for it.
“I have a real opportunity now to get two days’ work into the boys this week and we will be fully prepared. We will have a plan going into the game. It is a club that seems to be on the up, but there is no reason why we can’t go there and take them on. We aren’t going to go there and roll over.”
It’s a hard place to go, they have had a great few years at Wrexham.
-Gillingham manager Stephen Clemence.
A visiting player who is bound to receive a warm reception from the Stok Cae Ras crowd is Jonny Williams. A popular player for Wales, whose impact was sadly limited by injury, Williams is a class act who is excited by the prospect of helping Gillingham climb the leagues, and he told Kent Online that he’s excited at the thought of playing under Clemence.
“We have a new manager [which is] always an exciting time as a player. [It’s a] fresh start for everyone and we are in a good position to push on in the league. We are a together group and we have been in teams that have been promoted and the one thing that stands out in those is that the groups have stayed together no matter what, win lose or draw. You can see that in this group.
“He said he wouldn’t have come here if he didn’t believe this squad was able to achieve something special. He has full belief in the players and wants us to achieve some things along the way.
“It’s not going to happen overnight. He will want to change certain aspects and we are a group that will listen and take that onboard and give 110% for him and his coaching staff and see where we end up. We need to find the right balance and trust each other a bit more with the football and make things happen. He wants us to create, sustain pressure in games, which we haven’t done too well. If we can stay on top and lock teams in and keep constant attacks and be exciting to watch, I am all on board for that. I want to be on the ball as much as I can, making things happen. I am excited.
“I am not playing at my full tilt yet, there is a lot more to come, hopefully with goals and assists. I am excited to be working with him and I think he will improve me again. It’s settled us down now we have a manager that’s signed and sealed. The boys seem happy and content.”
Midfielder George Lapslie is also encouraged by the impact Clemence has had on the changing room:
“There is nothing more refreshing than before a game the gaffer saying that the only way he would get annoyed with us is if we don’t try and play. If he is giving us those kind of messages so early on, we are only going to go one way.
“The gaffer is spot on in terms of getting the ball on the ground and if we can outplay teams in League 2, like teams have done to us, like Notts County, if we can play in a similar way or control the ball more then I think the future is bright.
Williams sees parallels between his club and Wrexham:
“It is a club that are having a right go, changing a lot of things, it is an exciting project but, likewise, I think the same about Gillingham here, with the owners and the goals and the dreams they have for this football club. It is exciting to be here and to be part of our own project.
“I joined the club to be part of that journey and it will be fantastic if we can get promoted and be a part of that.
“We want to be exciting to watch and get the results. It will be amazing if we can replicate what they are doing, but we have our own journey here that we want to focus on and do well for the team and the fans and everyone involved.
“Everyone is ready to go and attack Wrexham.”
“I have fond memories of playing there as a kid and I am looking forward to it. Everyone wants to beat them, but fair play to them, they keep at it and they have proven a lot of people wrong and won a lot of football matches.
“They have got a very prolific goalscorer as well and it is a game that excites us and for it to be our manager’s first league game, it will be a spectacle I am sure.
“I am sure we will have a great following, as we did at Swindon, and that makes a massive difference to the players when we have their backing.”
Gillingham have the sixth best defensive record in League Two, having conceded just 20, two of which were penalties. Their string of 1-0 wins at the start of the season leaves them with the equal most clean sheets in the division, although 4 came in their first 4 games, so since then they’ve kept just 2 in 12 games.
|SHOTS ON TARGET AGAINST||SAVES||SAVE %|
|5||Jon McCracken||Acc'ton Stanley||27||20||74.1|
|7||James Belshaw||FG Rovers||32||23||71.9|
|8||Alex Bass||AFC Wimbledon||61||43||70.5|
|9||Owen Goodman||Colchester Utd||81||57||70.4|
|10||Harvey Davies||Crewe Alexandra||80||55||68.8|
Unsurprisingly, Jake Turner is high up the goalkeeping stats, with the equal third best ratio of clean sheets per game, although top of that list is Arthur Okonkwo, who has kept 3 shut-outs in 7 league games (he’s got another to his credit in the Bristol Street Motors Trophy too). Okonkwo also has the best saves percentage in the division, stopping 81.3% of efforts on game. That’s not just a testimony to his quality, but also to the work done by his defence in restricting the number of chances created in the penalty area. Turner is sixth in this metric, with 73.5%.
|Forest Green Rovers||15||18|
At the other end of the pitch, Gillingham are the lowest scorers in League Two, with 13 goals from their sixteen matches. They are pretty average in terms of the number of shots they make, but have the worst percentage of goals scored per shot taken, level with Harrogate Town, as 0.07 of their efforts have gone in so far this season.
HEAD TO HEAD
Gillingham have won just 2 of their 17 games in North Wales, whereas we’ve won 11.
Their last game at the Sto Cae Ras was in May 2000, and it was perhaps the most significant clash between the two sides.
Gillingham arrived knowing a win would secure promotion to the Championship for the first time, while Wrexham were finishing the season in fine form, with 4 consecutive wins under their belts.
The bumper crowd of over 8,000 was swollen by Burnley fans who were unable to get tickets to watch the Clarets and had ventured over the border to egg Wrexham on, as a slip-up by The Gills would open the door for them to go up instead.
In the 12th minute Wrexham scored the only goal of the game, a remarkable 30-yard strike by Mark McGregor which won the goal of the season award.
Gillingham’s fans were buoyed by the news that Burnley had also fallen behind, but the Lancastrians fought back to win, so McGregor’s screamer condemned The Gills to the play-offs.
There was a happy ending though: Gillingham came from behind in extra time to clinch victory at Wembley at Millwall’s expense.
Jordan Davies’ 150th career appearance.
Anthony Forde’s 50th Wrexham game.
Tom O’Connor’s 125th league appearance.