Alfie Potter’s late strike gave Oxford United all three points in a 1-0 win during a hard fought contest at MEMS Priestfield on Tuesday night.
After an even contest which saw both sides have good opportunities it was the visitors who broke the deadlock in the last five minutes to take all three points from Martin Allen’s side, who will consider themselves unlucky not to have got anything from a game which they controlled for long periods.
The midfielder slotted away from a tight angle inside the box and the Gills had limited time to register a response – a half chance from new signing Antonio German and a blocked shot from Bradley Dack the closest the hosts got to an equaliser.
The result keeps Gillingham at the top of the league but the squad will be disappointed not to have made the most of a similar slip up from chasing rivals Port Vale.
Martin made two changes to the side that beat Chesterfield on Saturday, both of which enforced on the Gills Manager.
Cody McDonald was recalled by parent club Coventry City on Monday so Adam Birchall replaced him in attack. Matt Fish was ruled out due to an ankle injury so Deon Burton took his place in the team with Chris Whelpdale deputising at right-back.
And despite being out of position it was the Gills number seven who had the first opportunity of the game.
Supporting Charlie Lee down the right hand side, Whelpdale received the ball on the corner of the penalty area and unleashed an effort which Luke McCormick had to be alert to and tip over the bar.
The resulting corner was cleared with relative ease, and the visitors very nearly capitalised on that missed chance when Adam Chapman’s free kick on eight minutes caused a scramble inside the penalty area and a number of Gillingham players were required to hack the ball clear.
In doing so Birchall gained possession near the half way line and tried to play in Myles Weston through the middle. The keeper attempted to play himself out of danger, but the winger hassled his every move and the Oxford stopper was only just able to concede a throw.
Twelve minutes later and Weston again used his pace to good effect – he beat a couple of players before producing a powerful right foot effort. Although well struck it wasn’t as accurate as he might of hoped and it was only the side netting that prevented the opening goal.
On 23 minutes the visitors were close to getting a fortuitous lead. Sean Rigg’s initial effort was deflected by one of his own players and Stuart Nelson had to back pedal quickly to ensure the ball stayed out.
With just eight minutes until the break Birchall was close to marking his return to the starting line-up with a welcome goal. Joe Martin got to the byline on the left hand side and picked out the striker as he approached the six yard box.
With two players marking him however he had to resort to using clever footwork via a back flick and he was unable to get a proper connection as the defence eventually cleared.
Seconds later Weston was replaced by Dack – an earlier challenge had given the lively midfielder a knock and, despite his best efforts, was unable to shake it off and was substituted.
Without a good save from McCormick it could have been described as an inspired change with Dack latching on to a neat Burton pass, his strike was clean but it was a decent height for the goalkeeper and, with decent reactions, palmed it wide.
With half time quickly approaching Chris Wilder’s side looked for a timely opener and Potter should have produced it on 41 minutes. A Liam Davis cross was well placed and the pacey midfielder just couldn’t set himself and the ball came off his lower leg and in to the grateful hands of Nelson.
The first 15 minutes of the second half passed without incident, although Dack did pick up a nasty knock inside the Oxford penalty area and had to leave the pitch before deciding to continue.
The home side were having the better of the play but were unable to force their way through a stubborn defence. Bodies were put on the line when a thumping shot from Steven Gregory was blocked well with McCormick looking certain to have to make a save.
Gills fans got their first glance at new signing Antonio German, who only signed for the club earlier in the day on loan from Brentford, when he entered the fray in the 74th minute. Danny Kedwell had to wait an extra minute for his return with Gregory and Birchall departing in their place.
With time running out both sides looked to steal all three points – Rigg first went close with a chip shot from just over 20 yards before German nearly made the perfect start to his Gills career, but his effort lacked power and McCormick made a comfortable stop.
With just five minutes to go Oxford took the lead. Potter burst in to the penalty area via a long ball down the left hand side from Tony Capaldi – his control was impeccable and his finish was clinical in to the bottom corner to snatch the advantage.
The Gills gave everything in the dying moments to respond, but the visitors held on to secure victory.
Gills: Nelson, Whelpdale, Legge, Barrett, Martin, Lee, Robinson, Gregory (Kedwell 75), Weston (Dack 37), Birchall (German 74), Burton.
Unused subs: Forecast, Davies, Richardson, Williams.
Oxford: McCormick, Batt, Raynes, Wright, Chapman, Heslop (Duberry 87), Smalley (Constable 73), Rigg, Potter, Capaldi, Davis.
Unused subs: Constable, Worley, O’Brien, Parker, Craddock, Crocombe.
Attendance: 4,928 (137)
Referee: Mr F Graham
Bookings: Heslop (50)