Gillingham were desperately unlucky to lose an enthralling match at Broadfield Stadium as five goals were scored and two red cards shown in an gripping second-half display.
Martin Allen made three changes to the side that started the midweek Johnstone’s Paint tie with Leyton Orient. Bayo Akinfenwa and Danny Kedwell replaced McDonald and German up top, while Charlie Lee came in for Michael Harriman, who is on international duty.
The Gills set up in a 4-4-2 formation, with Lee taking the right-back role, and found themselves under pressure in the fourth minute as Sadler found space to cross from the left but Gary Alexander couldn’t connect with the ball as it sped across the face of goal.
Three minutes later the visitors fashioned their first opening of the match, Bayo Akinfenwa helping Leon Legge’s ball through to Danny Kedwell, he in turn headed through to Chris Whelpdale who flashed a rising drive over the cross bar from just outside the area.
Adam Barrett headed a James Hurst corner behind, under pressure from Alexander, before the home side went very close indeed on 16 minutes, Nicky Adams intercepting Lee’s clearance, fortunately Legge was alert to the danger and bravely flung himself in front of the winger’s finish, taking the ball full in the face.
Stuart Nelson did well to keep out Alexander’s close range far post header, four minutes later, then Mark Connolly dropped a ball over the Gills defence, Billy Clarke was sent clean through, only to see his effort denied by a superb diving save from the Gills No.1
Danny Kedwell earned his side’s first booking on 26 minutes for an overzealous challenge on Clarke and was followed into the ref’s notebook a minute later by Charlie Lee who brought down Nicky Adams on the left touchline.
Nelson was called into action again on 29 minutes to keep out an Adams drive to his bottom right corner and with the Gills under pressure Martin made a change, taking off Akinfenwa to put Myles Weston into the midfield and switch to a 4-5-1.
Chris Whelpdale collected the Gills third booking on 37 minutes for a tackle on Drury and the visitors almost broke the deadlock two minutes before the break as Lee pushed forward, finding Kedwell who teed-up Weston to blast a low drive just wide of Paul Jones far post.
The game sparked into life in the first minute of the second-half as the Gills were handed a golden opportunity to seize the advantage after Kyle McFadzean tripped Danny Kedwell in the box, the centre-forward picked himself up and buried his spot-kick into the roof of the net for 1-0.
Crawley were dealt a further blow, four minutes later, as Gary Alexander, who had already been booked, was shown the red card for a foul on Leon Legge. Just a minute later he was followed down the tunnel by Charlie Lee as the Gills right-back earned his second yellow for a trip on Adams.
From the resulting free-kick, from the right side of the box, the home side pulled level as Clarke flicked the set-piece to Kyle McFadzean at the back post and the defender lashed into the top right corner to equalise.
Martin Allen reorganised his troops, dropping Whelpdale to right-back and Bradley Dack to the right of midfield to shore up that side of the defence, as the home side grew in confidence. Clarke and Simpson both fired wide, when well-placed, prompting another change and the arrival of Amine Lingnazi for Danny Hollands on 63 minutes.
Two minutes later the home side took the lead, after a foul by Dack gave them a free-kick just outside the penalty area. Nicky Adams hammered his delivery against Nelson’s right hand post and the rebound fell kindly for Billy Clarke to slot his side in front from six yards out.
Then on 68 minutes the Gills found a route back into the game, as Dack sent a wicked centre from the right to the near post, Adam Barrett helped it on for defensive partner Leon Legge to poke the equaliser into Paul Jones bottom left corner and send the 1000 travelling fans berserk.
Clarke and Simpson both missed further good openings for the hosts as the game ebbed from end to end with both teams searching for the winner. Then Gills were forced to make another change as Devante McKain replaced injured goalscorer Leon Legge at centre-half.
With ten minutes to go the home side regained the advantage once more with a stunning individual goal from Billy Clarke who ran at the visitors defence and found space to shoot, sending a powerful drive past Nelson from 20 yards out.
Nelson was in action again moments later with a double save to deny first Simpson and then Bulman before Myles Weston’s 85th minute cross from the left was diverted onto his own post by McFadzean as the visitors continued to attack the Crawley goal but a deserved equaliser just wouldn't come.
Attendance: 3984 (Gillingham 998)
Gillingham: Stuart Nelson, Joe Martin, Leon Legge (Devante McKain 76), Chris Whelpdale, Danny Kedwell, Bayo Akinfenwa (Myles Weston 32), Steven Gregory, Bradley Dack, Charlie Lee, Danny Hollands (Amine Linganzi 63), Adam Barrett
Subs not used: Charlie Allen, Antonio German, George Howard, Stephen Butcher.
Crawley: Paul Jones, James Hurst, Mat Sadler, Mark Connolly, Kyle McFadzean, Billy Clarke (Emile Sinclair 90), Gary Alexander, Andy Drury (Jamie Proctor 71), Josh Simpson, Dannie Bulman, Nicky Adams (Sergio Torres 87)
Subs not used: Connor Essam, Luke Rooney, Jonathan Maddison