by Paddy von Behr
LEAGUE One side Gillingham may have lost their pony-tailed talisman, but captain Doug Loft knows just the man to step into his shoes.
Bradley Dack has been a revelation at Priestfield this season, graduating from promising youngster to manager Justin Edinburgh’s ace in the pack – his flowing locks the scourge of defences across League One.
The spearhead of a diamond midfield, the 22-year-old has honed his eye for goal, matching last season’s tally by November and moving onto 15 for the campaign with the winner against in-form Barnsley last month.
That is why last week’s news – that Dack, who was the subject of a £2m offer from Bristol City in January, will miss six weeks with a hamstring injury – came as such a hammer blow for the Gills.
For Loft, however, the replacement is ready in waiting in the shape of George Williams, the 20-year-old Welsh international who joined from Championship Fulham last month with a point to prove.
“After about three training sessions with the club I looked at Dackie and said ‘he is going to be some player’,” said Loft, who joined Gills in the summer of 2014. “He hasn’t let me down.
“Bradley’s ability is frightening and he just needed to play in a system that suits him – and the diamond is just that. You just need to build a team around him.
“You can’t replace him like-for-like but we signed George on loan from Fulham and he is a great player.
“He looks like he will be a great addition. In training he looks brilliant and once he is fully fit, he will be a great player for us. He can create and score.”
That is not the Gills’ only injury problem of late, however, with instrumental centre-back John Egan (knee) out until mid-April with a training-ground injury and long-term absentee Cody McDonald (metatarsal) still sidelined.
Loft himself suffered a scare when a heavy tackle from Oldham’s Matt Palmer left him on crutches last month but the skipper returned last weekend to feature in the goalless draw at Scunthorpe.
“We have got good strength in depth in our squad,” he said. “We signed Adam El-Abd and I have played with him before – he will bring great experience to the squad. He is a good tackler and a good organiser in defence.
“My ankle is still a little bit big but I was up for playing last weekend. It was quite a bad tackle and I thought I had broken it, it was that painful, but I’m quite a quick healer anyway.”
That draw left Gillingham five points behind second-placed Wigan heading into the weekend, while top-spot Burton’s 2-0 midweek defeat at Bradford1 prevented them from easing even further clear.
And Loft, who helped Port Vale to promotion from League Two in 2013, admits it is all to play for in the race to the Championship.
“We have got quite a young squad and there are only a few of us who have been promoted before,” he added.
“It is up to us to lead by example – guys like Josh Wright, Stuart Nelson and Adam El-Abd.
“Burton lost on Tuesday night, so that is good for us. Any team that can put a run of two or three wins together can catch them and be up there. It is a long season and I still think it’s wide open.”