Gillingham Ladies hosted a pre-season double header, welcoming over 100 fans to see the Reserves and First Team in action at Chatham Town FC.
First up on a sunny Sunday afternoon, Gills Ladies Reserves faced Ebbsfleet United. The Gills team comprised of a whole host of new faces – graduates from the Gillingham Ladies Centre Of Excellence – made their debuts in senior football.
The young team enjoyed a strong opening spell, enjoying the share of the possession and playing the ball around well as they got to get to grips with their new home.
Ebbsfleet’s strenghs began to filter through after 20 minutes, with the side turning up the tempo to test the Gills. The Fleet took the lead, opening up the Gills defence effectively before putting the ball past Imogen Alabaster, who had marshalled her defence flawlessly until that point.
Gillingham sought an immediate response with Rhea Vale and Annelle Massey linking well in midfield to create pockets of space for Gills to attack.
Maddison was causing problems for Gills down the left hand side, and on one of many attacks down the wing, skipped past several players to delivery a testing cross to the far post. Bex Stroud was in the right place as the right time but was unable to convert the opportunity.
Emily Lyons was next to test the Fleet goal with a long range shot from 20 yards but the Ebbsfleet keeper was well positioned to get behind and gather easily.
The Gills went two down before the break with Ebbsfleet demonstrating their clinical edge, seizing space in the box to extend their lead.
Gillingham’s Director of Football, Bill Long oversaw both teams for the afternoon and was delighted with the way the Reserves teams stepped up to senior football.
“Ebbsfleet came with their first team and they were a very good, mature side for our youngsters to face. The girls equipped themselves very well and when we came in at half time, we were pleased with the way they’d taken training on to the pitch. In the second half it begun to tell a bit but the girls took all we said on and did brilliantly for their opening senior games”
The Gills Reserves team came out for the second half looking to press. Encouraged from the sidelines to be more confident in front of goal, Massey looked to make the most of the space afforded to her to launch an effort from 20 yards out.
With a back five, including goalkeeper Alabaster, made up of girls trained or graduated at Gillingham’s Centre of Excellence; the girls began to jel well with Bonnie Long and Hollie Muschei proving to be a difficult force for Ebbsfleet to break down.
However, defensive frailties were exposed when Ebbsfleet scored their third, with the away side’s lead striker being given time and space to pick her spot.
Brown was pushed forward in a more accustomed attacking role as Gills began to make their attacking pressure more considerable. Gills enjoyed a difficult pre-season battle but came unstuck after a mazy run and finish made it four.
“The girls have come off the pitch with a big smile on their face despite the result” said Bill. “They know they’ve battled against a good team and have enjoyed their first taste of senior football. No doubt for some of them it’s really shown the difference and the level of expectation. Whereas before a clash of bodies wouldn’t have meant much they’re bouncing off! But I’m really impressed as it truly reflects what a great Centre of Excellence we have to provide these players.”
Gills then went on to face their next opponents of the day, Women Super League 2 team Millwall Lionesses.
“It was a brilliant run out against Millwall today” said Long after the 90 minutes, “A tough test as of course they’re half way through their season but it was good to see where we are at. And whilst I felt we were a bit nervy in the opening 15 once we got into our stride I though we did a good job.”
Indeed it was a nervy opening for the Gills who was forced to show their resilience to defend against a confident Millwall side who pushed the ball across the pitch well.
Courtney Shanly performed well for Gills between the sticks, showing composure to dampen any attack on goal. Shanly was called upon to make a smart save after a powerful shot from distance was launched on goal, the Gills keeper getting down to push the ball to her left and away.
Whilst Gills found their footing in the game, they began to enjoy a larger share of possession and displayed their favourited passing style of play that served so well last season.
And the Gills could have got the lead when a Ashlee Hincks delivery enforced a corner and the following delivery found Charlotte Long. The centre midfielder was denied a goal by a brilliant reactive save from the Millwall goalkeeper.
However it was Millwall Lionesses who took the lead before half time, a smart finish a few yards out and the ball went past the outstretched glove of Shanly.
Millwall could have extended their lead shortly into the second half after a defensive mix up saw the Lionesses in on goal, however the opportunity passed and it was Gills who got the game’s next goal.
Hincks opened her Gills Ladies account and drew Gills level with a treat of goal for the fans who made it down to enjoy the free afternoon of football.
Spotting the keeper yards off her line, Hincks took one look up and placed the ball over the top and into the back of the net from 25 yards out.
“It was a great goal” said Long. “Ashlee is a quality player with finesse and showed something today that we might have even missed in our team last year. To look up for that split second and spot the keeper and take advantage was brilliant. It was a shame we couldn’t hold onto the draw; I felt we may have even pinched it towards the end.”
The pre-season friendly continued with both teams looking to press. The Gills conceded late on as Millwall galloped down the right hand side before slotting the ball past Shanely.
Despite the defeat Long said: “It’s been a brilliant afternoon, to have the two teams here and get valuable minutes under the belt. The pre-season the girls have had so far has been top class. To be trained by ex-pros like Andy Hessenthaler, Steve Lovell, Darren Hare and Mark Patterson has been great.”
Long added: “Undoubtedly, the move to come under the men’s umbrella has been a great one. We’ve clear got a small base to work from but with the facilities at hand and the girls beginning to get to know and gel with one another, we’re looking forward for the season to start.”