Gillingham have been left reeling by yet another high-profile departure, with Nikita Whinnett moving to local rivals Charlton Athletic less than a month after re-signing for the Premier League strugglers.
— CharltonAthletic WFC (@CAFCWomen) November 7, 2014
It’s another big blow to the Kent side, who have been forced to rebuild their entire squad after last season’s Southern Division runners-up disintegrated when manager James Marrs moved to Brighton, taking 11 players with him.
Gillingham have declined to comment on Whinnett’s departure, but it must be especially devastating coming just four weeks after the midfielder rejoined the club after quitting in the summer – a decision she described just a week or two ago as “the biggest mistake of my life”.
She had played just three games since returning, in mid-October, scoring one goal.
But Charlton announced today that Whinnett had signed for the club and would join the squad for Sunday’s visit to Plymouth Argyle.
The move appears to have been quite sudden – only 10 days ago the 23-year-old told Gillingham’s website she had decided to return to the Gills because she missed the club.
But today, on Charlton’s club’s website she said: “I’ve been playing for 17 years and not really getting anywhere, and now all of a sudden I’ve got big clubs who want me.”
Whinnett, who scored six goals in 18 games for the Gills last season – including three in 11 league games, as Gillingham enjoyed a brilliant season, only for it to end in heartbreak on the final day – joins a club who are in with a great chance of capturing the title after a sparkling start to the season.
Before last week’s shock 5-1 defeat at title rivals Brighton, Charlton had won five league games in a row, and have scored 38 goals in their 10 league fixtures.
They currently lie fourth but are just a point behind leaders Cardiff City, and the signing of one of the key figures in Gillingham’s surge to the brink of the title last season represents a fine coup for the ambitious club.
Whinnett told Charlton’s website: “I’m buzzing, pretty ecstatic. I didn’t expect an opportunity like this. I’m going to grab it with both hands and go for it.”
She added: “I want to win the league. It was heart-wrenching to come second with Gills last year because we really thought we’d done it.”
And yet a week or two ago it had seemed so different.
I missed the team, missed the club, missed the fans – Nikita Whinnett talking on October 28 about her return to Gillingham
Whinnett had provided Gillingham with a double boost, not only bringing her considerable attacking skills back to the club but providing a much-needed boost of enthusiasm and confidence for a very young side left to pick up the pieces following the exodus of so many senior players to Brighton during the summmer.
In an interview for the Gillingham website last month she said: “After last season, with all the girls leaving, I found it a bit tough to stay on my own.
“I went away and made the biggest mistake of my life. I missed the team, missed the club, missed the fans. Everything about the team is the reason I came back. Other clubs I’ve been at have been very cliquey, Gills isn’t like that.”
Whatever Gillingham are or are not, one thing they do seem to be is unlucky. Losing so many talented players in the summer was a devastating blow, and the transition to a younger, more inexperienced side has been every bit as difficult as those realists in the club feared.
They are currently 10th in the 12-club division, having lost all but their two fixtures against the two teams below them in the league.
Sunday’s match at the Priestfield Stadium against Lewes is crucial: defeat would be likely to increase the gap between them and mid-table safety, while victory would drag the likes of Lewes into the fight to remain in the division.
Centre of Excellence graduate
After putting the impact of the summer’s events behind them, the club would have been viewing the Lewes game as an opportunity to move on.
The psychological effect of Whinnett’s second departure in four months remains to be seen.
However, the club can at least point to the emergence of another young talent following Georgia Reece’s first-team debut in the league match against Spurs at the Priestfield last Sunday.
Reece, 17, is a product of the club’s Centre of Excellence and played the entire second half of a game Gillingham eventually lost 4-2 after being 3-0 down at half-time.
The teenager told the club’s website she soon overcame her nerves and admitted: “It kind of helped that [Gillingham] were already losing because I felt I couldn’t really make it worse.”
Manager Simon Ratcliffe said Reece did very well and deserved her chance.
The youngster was full of praise for how her team-mates welcomed her and spoke fondly of the experience of playing in front of yet another crowd of 250+ – a notable positive in a season of negatives for the club.