Despite scoring two cracking goals through Chris Whelpdale and Danny Jackman, the Gills were beaten by the odd-goal in five as Exeter, one of League Two’s other away day specialists, took the points home from a wet and windy MEMS Priestfield Stadium.
Just when it looked like the Gills may take a deserved point after Stuart Nelson saved a late penalty, City still managed to grab an even later winner.
After the game, which saw the Gills lead reduced to four points, manager Martin Allen said he was “disappointed but not down-hearted” after his side had given everything
The Gillingham boss had made three changes to the team that had started Saturday’s hard-fought victory over Morecambe, with Charlie Allen, Charlie Lee and Deon Burton replacing Andy Frampton, Romain Vincelot and Danny Kedwell.
Matt Fish had already struck the top of Artur Krysiak’s bar with a dipping volley before the Gills took a fourth minute lead. Lewis Montrose played a superb defence-splitting pass straight through the City rearguard enabling Chris Whelpdale to run on and poke home his fourth goal of the season beyond the advancing keeper.
Exeter seemed to recover from the setback quite quickly and began to pass the ball around, in the windy conditions, reasonably well.
The next chance fell to the home side, Lee rising at the far post but he couldn’t direct his header goalwards. Unfortunately his next contribution proved costly at the other end.
Referee Darren Deadman adjudged him to have fouled Alan Gow from behind and the Scot took full advantage to expertly find the top left-hand corner of the stretching Stuart Nelson’s net from the resulting free-kick to level matters.
Craig Woodman went into the book for a challenge on Fish before Burton, just six yards out, failed to get a clean header on a neat Danny Jackman cross from the left.
Lee was involved again with two good headers in quick succession just before the 40 minute mark. The first was a back-header from Whelpdale’s long throw which Pat Baldwin cleared from almost under his own bar. From Allen’s corner Lee glanced the ball goalwards through a ruck of players but Tommy Doherty was in the right-place to hack off the line.
In the 42nd minute the Gills went close again, Jackman swung in another cross from the left but a stretching Ben Strevens was inches wide with his header.
Burton was the next to have a go but the striker failed to make the keeper work with an angled shot from the edge of the area.
As the half came towards it’s end Fish had another go from distance, this effort thudding into the chest of Krysiak.
There was a change at the break for the Gills with Lee, who had picked up a first-half yellow card being replaced by Myles Weston. The Gills winger was quick to get at the City defence and attracted a lot of close attention.
The second-half began as the first 45 minutes had ended with the Gills creating yet another opening, Strevens heading wide a Burton cross.
Then at the other end, with the wind and rain now at their backs, Exeter’s Gow put an inswinging corner on the roof of the net before Fish made an important block to deny Jamie Cureton.
However the Grecians leading scorer didn’t have to wait long for his next opportunity, from Gow’s resultant corner, the 37-year-old stole in to smack a shot into the roof of the net. The 144 supporters from Devon may have been a bit wet but they were certainly happy.
On the hour a second Gillingham change took place as Frenchman Romain Vincelot took the place of Montrose and moments later the home side went close again, Jackman’s ball in found Weston but the winger fired across the face of goal on the turn.
With 20 minutes remaining a third and final switch was made by the Gills management, leading scorer Danny Kedwell replacing Strevens.
Callum Davies put a header from an Allen corner just wide but then at the other end on an increasingly rare counter-attack Cureton’s snap-shot was straight at Nelson. The veteran striker was proving to be a pain in the proverbial and got in another shot at the keeper not long after.
Eleven minutes from time the Gills were level, Jackman went in for a challenge and the ball ran nicely for the left-back to thump home a cracking effort from around 25-yards. He became the 17th different scorer for the Gills with his first of the campaign.
At this point the Gills were still surging forward in search of a winner but they were made to pay by some clinical counter-attacking.
In the 86th minute Exeter had a great chance to go back in front when referee Deadman pointed to the spot following a challenge by Vincelot, who was booked, on substitute Keohane – however Nelson guessed right and kept out Cureton’s effort low to his left.
However within a minute the visitors did lead once more, Secombe crossed from the right and there was Cureton, unmarked in the six yard box, to nod home from close range – the majority of the big crowd of 6,852 were stunned into almost silence.
In the four minutes of added time the Gills went close yet again, Allen’s deep corner found Whelpdale and his looping header bounced off the top of the bar and over.
The final whistle went soon afterwards, Exeter had completed a sixth away win but the Gillingham crowd recognised their team’s efforts by applauding the home side off.
Gills – Nelson, Fish, Jackman, Barrett, Davies, Whelpdale, Montrose (Vincelot 60), Lee (Weston H/T), Allen, Strevens (Kedwell 70), Burton Unused subs: Essam, Frampton, Birchall, Forecast
City – Krysiak, Tully, Woodman, Bennett, Baldwin, Coles, Sercombe, Oakley, Gow, Cureton (Chamberlain (90+2), Doherty (Keohane 85) Unused subs: Amankwaah, Nichols, Dawson, Evans, Moore-Taylor
Attendance: 6,851 (144 Exeter City fans)
Referee: Darren Deadman
Assistant referee’s: Ryan T Atkin & Nicholas Cooper
Fourth official: Dave Bushell