A brace from Cody McDonald helped the Gills end the year with a draw against Walsall at MEMS Priestfield Stadium
Peter Taylor made three changes to the starting XI that was unfortunate to lose 2-1 to a late goal from Leyton Orient on Boxing Day. Top scorer Danny Kedwell returned up front with Chris Whelpdale and Craig Fagan restored to the midfield, Akinfenwa, Dack and Lee all dropping to the bench.
Walsall got the game underway in gloriously unseasonable sunshine and created the first opening of the half in the third minute. Right-back Ben Purkiss delivered a wicked cross to the centre of the Gills penalty box, it was met by Ashley Hemmings but the visitors forward headed wide of Stuart Nelson’s top left corner.
Hemmings was off target again soon after, following good hold-up play from Craig Westcarr, while Nelson did well to parry Romaine Sawyers’ shot on the turn as the visitors enjoyed the better of the opening exchanges.
On 22 minutes the Saddlers threatened again from an Andy Taylor free-kick from wide on the right touchline, Westcarr met the delivery with a firm header but finished wide of the mark. And it was another Taylor set-piece on the half hour that fell kindly for Paul Downing, but sadly for the visiting fans he blazed over the bar from close range.
Moments later the Gills should have taken the lead as Cody McDonald left Andy Butler on his back-side before cutting in from the right flank, he took his time and picked out Danny Kedwell at the far post, but the striker’s finish hit the side netting.
The hosts enjoyed the better of the closing period of the half but their only further chance of note was an Adam Barrett header, from a Nelson free-kick, that was comfortably gathered by Richard O’Donnell in the Saddlers goal, as the sides went in all-square at the break.
Whatever Peter Taylor said to the Gills squad at half-time had the desired effect as the home side took the lead straight from the kick-off. A ball into the Walsall area sat up perfectly for Cody McDonald to rifle home a stunning overhead kick that will surely be a goal of the season contender.
On 52 minutes Gillingham were desperately unfortunate not to extend their advantage as McDonald saw his angled drive blocked by the Walsall keeper, the loose ball fell to Chris Whelpdale who chipped O’Donnell, only to see his effort come back off the cross bar.
Nine minutes later the host paid the price for as Romaine Sawyers put the Saddlers level from point blank range. A ball from the left was allowed to carry to James Baxendale who centred for Sawyers, his initial effort was cleared off the line by Leon Legge but he found the bottom corner with his follow up header.
On 67 minutes Kedwell went close to restoring the Gills advantage with a looping header from Whelpdale’s long throw that dropped onto the crossbar. Moments later the Saddlers almost found the net as Nelson pushed Hemmings effort out to Sawyers, he rounded the keeper but hit the side-netting with the goal at his mercy.
Seven minutes later the visitors threatened again as Hemmings got on the end of a Baxendale cross from the right but headed across goal and wide of the far post before Taylor brought on fresh legs in the form of Bayo Akinfenwa and Callum Davies.
Craig Westcarr fired into the side netting from a tight angle on the right of goal as both sides went in search of a winner. While Gills were forced to make a final substitution after Whelpdale took a knock, Charlie Lee coming on in his place.
Two minutes from time skipper Adam Barrett connected with a Charlie Lee throw but his glancing header was hacked off the line before Walsall grabbed what looked to be the winner in the last minute of the match, Gills failing to clear their lines, allowing sub Julian Gray to rifle home from inside the area.
But in the second minute of time added-on Cody McDonald
popped up to grab the Gills a precious point, scampering back to his feet after having a penalty appeal turned down to stab home while the Walsall defence ball-watched.
Attendance: 5,394 (168 Walsall)
Gillingham: Stuart Nelson, Joe Martin, Leon Legge, Chris Whelpdale (Charlie Lee 80), Danny Kedwell, Cody McDonald, Steven Gregory, Michael Harriman, Adam Barrett, Craig Fagan (Bayo Akinfenwa 74), Jake Hessenthaler (Callum Davies 74)
Subs not used: Bradley Dack, Antonio German, George Howard, Donervon Daniels
Walsall: Richard O’Donnell, Ben Purkiss, Andy Taylor, Andy Butler, Adam Chambers, Sam Manton, Craig Westcarr, Ashley Hemmings (Julian Gray 85), Paul Downing, James Baxendale (James McQuilkin 88), Romaine Sawyers
Subs not used: Nicky Featherstone, Malvind Benning, James Chambers, Troy Hewitt, Shane Lewis