Richard Day reports from MEMS Priestfield Stadium
A tremendous ‘backs to the wall’ performance saw 10-man Gillingham record another League Two victory at a rocking MEMS Priestfield Stadium.
Substitute Bradley Dack was dismissed by referee Phil Gibbs towards the end of an extraordinary first-half that saw 11 minutes of injury time added on much of which came after Southend goalkeeper Paul Smith had to be stretchered off.
After the break Paul Sturrock’s side laid siege to the Gills goal and the team, brilliantly backed by a majority of the crowd of 4,920, were forced to defend deeply for much of the time.
It was a battling performance that manager Martin Allen said afterwards that he was proud of as the players put their bodies on the line time after time to keep the visitors out.
The Gills boss made one change to the team that had started Saturday’s emphatic win over Bristol Rovers, Chris Whelpdale replaced Jack Payne and with Myles Weston not amongst the substitutes, the two new faces on the bench were Adam Birchall and Bradley Dack.
There was a lively start from the Shrimpers but the momentum of the game was not helped by early injuries to first Gills midfielder Charlie Lee, who had to limp off in the fourth minute, and then United keeper Paul Smith.
It was in the ninth minute that Smith seemed to land awkwardly following an aerial challenge from Deon Burton and after almost nine minutes of on-field treatment he had to be stretchered off and was replaced by 19-year-old Daniel Bentley.
In between the two injuries, three consecutive Charlie Allen corners put the visitors rearguard under pressure, Mark Phillips and keeper Smith cleared the first two over their own bar before the third was cleared.
David Martin didn’t help his sides cause when he was booked, on the say so of assistant referee Richard Kendall, for a challenge on Matt Fish in the 22nd minute, he was joined in the book by Michael Timlin six minutes later, Fish was again the recipient this time of a rash tackle.
That came moments after on loan Watford forward Britt Assombalonga had missed a sitter for United, heading a Kevan Hurst cross wide from close range with the goal at his mercy.
Southend had two more great chances to open the scoring just after the half-hour with Hurst the architect for both. Ex-Gill Gavin Tomlin was the first to be denied, Stuart Nelson pulling off a brilliant save low down to his left then the keeper had to help over a powerful header from Phillips.
The visitors had two penalty appeals waved away by referee Gibbs, the first when Ryan Cresswell seemed to go down theatrically in the 36th minute and then when the visitors thought skipper Adam Barrett, who was phenomenal against his former side, had handled as he cleared.
It wasn’t all one way traffic though, Callum Davies had a header cleared off the line while Whelpdale twice went close. The first followed good work from Danny Kedwell but unfortunately the midfielder side-footed wide, his second effort flew high onto the Town End.
There were further penalty appeals in the 42nd minute when Timlin went down in the box as he was accidentally caught by Allen as he cleared. The visitors were certainly incensed but it has to be said that the referee was well placed.
Because of the early injuries there were nine minutes of time added on at the end of the first-half and substitute Bradley Dack, who had looked lively having replaced Lee earlier, drilled his effort wide.
Dack was involved again just moments later, he was sent crashing to the turf by John Spicer and this time referee Gibbs was left in little doubt and pointed immediately to the spot. Kedwell put the ball on the spot and confidently crashed home his eighth goal of the campaign.
That wasn’t the end of the controversial opening 45 minutes from the official, Dack went into a challenge with Phillips that the referee adjudged worthy of a straight red card and the Gills were reduced to ten men.
H/T: 1 – 0
Despite Dack’s dismissal the Gills kept two up front at the start of the second-half but a 54th minute reshuffle saw Andy Frampton replace Deon Burton.
Chances were initially at a premium after the break with the Gills having to rely on counter attacking.
Whelpdale put a shot wide before Gavin Tomlin fired over the top from a shot on the turn following another decent Hurst ball in that bounced off Fish invitingly. The former Gills forward then cut in from the left but saw his deflected strike fly straight at Nelson.
The third Gillingham change came in the 73rd minute when Ben Strevens took over from Allen just before Whelpdale cracked a shot at Bentley from distance.
Three minutes later a neat move by the visitors, switching the ball from right to left, ended with Martin playing a low ball in to Assombalonga who again failed to hit the target from close range.
Nelson was called into action again in the 78th minute when he saved an angled header from Ryan Cresswell who was now playing as an auxillary striker for Southend. The keeper then saved low down to his left to deny both Assombalonga and Sean Clohessy from the edge of the area.
With the Rainham End in full voice, appreciating the hard work and commitment that their heroes were putting in with Kedwell in particular running himself into the ground, the Gills kept going until the final whistle finally went and when it did blow the crescendo of noise would have lifted the stadium roof had it got one.
The result sees the Gillingham remain top of the League Two table three points clear of second-placed Port Vale with the two sides meeting at Vale Park on Saturday.
Gills – Nelson, Fish, Martin, Whelpdale, Lee (Dack 6), Kedwell, Allen (Strevens 73), Davies, Burton (Frampton 54), Barrett, Wright Unused subs: Flanagan, , Montrose, Birchall, Forecast
United – Smith (Bentley 17), Clohessy, Cresswell, Timlin, Martin (Benyon 76), Hurst, Phillips (Straker H/T), Spicer, Assombalonga, Tomlin Barker Unused subs:, Coughlan, Eastwood, , Woodyard, Njie
Attendance: 4,920 (538 from Southend)
Referee: Phillip Gibbs
Assistant referee’s: Adrian Gillett & Richard Kendall
Fourth official: David Rock