Gillingham have finally got their man. After nearly two months, the club have filled the giant gap left by James Marrs’ move to Brighton, bringing former Gills player Simon Ratcliffe back to the Priestfield Stadium.
He takes charge with less than three weeks to go before the start of the new season, their depleted squad already well into their pre-season programme.
Ratcliffe, who has been coaching female footballers in Norfolk, will run not only the ladies’ team but also the newly-formed girls’ academy, as well as providing the main link between the club and the boys’ academy at North West Kent College.
But he faces a daunting task, taking over a team that went so close to winning the FAW Premier League last season but now reeling from the loss not only of Marrs but of several of the side that missed out on the final day of the season.
With a play-off for a Super League place now at stake for this coming season’s champions – something the club might have been among the favourites to achieve had it not been for the upheaval caused by Marrs’ departure – Gillingham acknowledge they might now have to set their sights lower.
In a frank assessment of the situation, Darren Hare, Gillingham’s academy head, who has been holding the fort during the long wait for Marrs’ replacement, told the club’s website: “There’s [been] a lot of change for the girls – and a lot of change for the club – so I see this season as one of transition rather than progression, if I’m honest.”
However, he is confident the former Manchester United apprentice, who played for Norwich and Brentford as well as Gillingham – where he made more than 100 appearances – will inherit an impressive, enthusiastic bunch of players.
He added: “The girls have come back and been absolutely fantastic in pre-season. I’ve been taking them in readiness for Simon, and their attitude and enthusiasm has been quite rewarding.”
Ratcliffe said of his appointment: “It’s great to be doing it… The fact that it’s a multi-faceted role intrigues me, because I will be ever so busy.
“I’ve been coaching in Norfolk for the past year, and the girls there are ever so keen and polite. I really am looking forward to it.”
While the 47-year-old FA-licensed coach takes up the reins with the team, if not in turmoil, then certainly in a state of flux, it is also an exciting time, with Gillingham about to embark on their first season since being taken over by the town’s professional men’s club.
Gillingham’s fabulous season
• Premier League runners-up
• Kent County Cup winners
• Ryman Cup winners
• Club-record FAW Cup 5th Round
During the two-month hiatus since Marrs’ departure, the transformation of the women’s teams has continued behind the scenes, with administrative and structural changes.
Since the players have returned to training, they have been using the same facilities as their male counterparts, with access to the same training and medical facilities. They will play home first-team games at Priestfield.
And while the clock has been ticking, the men’s coaching staff have been helping Hare bring the women up to speed – men’s assistant manager, Andy Hessenthaler, taking one of the sessions.
The Gills now have a couple of pre-season friendlies under their belts, and Ratcliffe’s first game in charge is set to be at Chichester City on Sunday, a fortnight before the new Premier League season starts with a visit to Tottenham Hotspur.
Their second league fixture comes 11 days later – at Brighton, Marrs’ new club.