Richard Day reports from the MEMS Priestfield Stadium
Three first-half goals saw Gianfranco Zola’s young Watford side end the Gills unbeaten pre-season run at MEMS Priestfield Stadium.
A much-changed Gillingham line-up named by manager Martin Allen, which included new signing striker Deon Burton who had joined the club earlier in the day, were worryingly opened up far too frequently by the classy visitors in the first 45 minutes.
Just four players from the team that beat Charlton Athletic on Saturday remained, the latest skipper Joe Martin, Tom Flanagan, Callum Davies who started the game in an unfamiliar defensive midfield role and Charlie Lee.
Former Chelsea legend Zola named a mixed side with the ‘old head’ of Chris Iwelumo captaining them. None of the Championship outfit’s players that had started against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday were included at the start although three or four were said to be possibilities for their Capital One Cup tie at the weekend.
After Tommy Forecast made an early save the Gills responded in the fifth minute when Lewis Montrose crossed from the right which Lee met sweetly on the volley but the ball flew straight at Jonathon Bond in the visitor’s goal.
It was the Hornets that opened the scoring in the 12th minute, Craig Forsyth found the space to cross from left and it was met by Matej Vydra who planted a downward header past Forecast.
Lee fired wide from distance before Watford scored a fortunate second in the 15th minute. A block tackle between Connor Essam and Vydra some 20-yards out saw the ball loop over the stranded Gills keeper and bounce into the net. The Czech Republic youngster was credited with the goal.
Four minutes later and the Gills had a let-off, Forsyth escaped down the left again and crossed low but although the onrushing Lee Hodson got to the ball he could only manage to clip the outside of the post with a rising shot from close range.
Vydra, on loan at Vicarage Road, could have had a hat-trick inside the opening half-hour but smacked a low effort inches wide but Watford did go three-up in the 30th minute. A quick break opened up the Gills rearguard and Connor Smith ran through to slot a low shot past the exposed Forecast.
On 33 minutes Jack Evans weaved his way into the area down the right and was unlucky to see his low shot fly across the face of goal and just wide of the far post.
Shortly afterwards it was Charlie Allen’s turn to break down the right, he found Burton but the experienced forward found Bond with a neat shot on the turn. The Gills were soon threatening again and a cross-field move ended with Evans cracking effort being parried by Bond.
Smith was given a stern talking to by referee Gavin Ward in the 40th minute for a lunging challenge on Lee. The Gills midfielder was quickly replaced by Jack Payne.
There were three more Gillingham changes at the break when Chris Whelpdale, Danny Kedwell and Ben Strevens were introduced for Essam, Brown and Burton.
Early in the second-half Allen put a long range strike over the bar, Forecast denied Scottish international Iwelumo at close range effort before a Flanagan tackle on Hamilton-Forbes earned him a strong talking to from the match official.
While the Watford physio’s did their work Payne seemed to limp off – he was replaced by Bradley Dack and Matt Fish took over from Evans.
Gillingham were far better after the break and after the substitutions settled in they began to create a number of chances.
In the 63rd minute Kedwell’s right-wing cross deflected off a defender to Dack, he nodded the ball forward and Strevens had his shot blocked for a corner. From the resultant corner Kedwell was just off target with a header.
Whelpdale fired a shot high onto the Town End and Strevens was denied by Dale Bennett at close quarters as the Gills continued their search for a goal.
Fish had a fierce drive blocked but as the 82nd minute move continued Montrose curled a low cross into the area from the right and it was met by Dack with a neat flick but the ball dipped the wrong side of the bar.
With four minutes remaining the Gills were gifted a great chance, Fish blocked Forsyth’s attempted clearance with his rear and the ball found the unmarked Kedwell. The striker took a touch and although he placed the wide of Bond he and the crowd stood open mouthed as his side-footed effort struck the base of the post.
The Gills certainly kept going until the final whistle and in time added on Dack found Whelpdale with a ball from the right but his strike cleared the bar.
Gills – Forecast (Hawkes 88), Evans (Fish 59), Martin ©, Flanagan, Essam (Strevens H/T), Davies, Allen (Miller 87), Montrose, Brown (Whelpdale H/T) Burton (Kedwell H/T), Lee (Payne 43 - Dack 58)
Watford – Bond, Hodson, Tumwa, Thompson, Iwelumo © (Massey 78), Forsyth, Jenkins, Bennett, Vydra (Whichelow 54), Smith (Hamilton-Forbes H/T), Mingoia (Anya 54)
Unused subs: Stack, Doyley, Murray, Buaben,
Refereee – Gavin Ward
Assistants – Paul Harris & Lee Venamore
Fourth Official – Saul Kay