Brave Gills shut out Walsall at Banks's Stadium in committed display.
Conor Wilkinson’s first league goal of the season helped guide ten-man Gillingham to their third straight league win with a hard-working, stubborn display against a strong Walsall side.
The Saddlers enjoyed the majority of the possession and created a number of chances, but Gills, who had Max Ehmer sent off for a second bookable offence with 15 minutes to play, somehow held out to record maximum points in a gutsy and determined 1-0 win.
In Steve Lovell’s first game since being made permanent manager it was Wilkinson’s goal that proved the difference when a low ball from Eaves was played into the path of the forward as a Walsall defender tried to intercept.
The hosts dominated for large periods in the second half but couldn’t find a way through.
Steve Lovell made two changes to the side that drew at home to Bury with Mark Byrne and Elliott List making way for Gabriel Zakuani and Conor Wilkinson. Ben Nugent returned to the squad as a substitute with Byrne and List alongside him for company.
Walsall made the brighter start to the game with Luke Leahy heading Oztumer’s cross narrowly wide of the target following good work by Zeli Ismail on the left hand side. And it was another corner four minutes later that nearly gave the hosts the lead.
Oztumer delivered another low ball to the front post, Clare was unable to clear and the final touch came off a Walsall player before Holy somehow got low to his left to keep the ball from crossing the line.
The Saddlers continued to press without making too many chances; a low drilled effort from Bakayoko missed the target before Clare and Kieron Morris also had efforts which failed to trouble the respective goalkeepers.
On 28 minutes it was Morris again with an opportunity; Ismail spotted the winger in space on the left hand side and his cross field pass was inch perfect before the resulting shot was comfortably dealt with by Holy.
A change of formation, which saw Parker and O’Neill move to wing-back, had a more positive impact on the Gills style of play and progressively Walsall struggled to exert as much pressure as they had done in the previous half an hour.
As a result the Gills enjoyed more possession and just before half-time took the lead. Eaves received the ball wide on the right and after a couple of good touches was able to drive into space; his pass to Wilkinson was intercepted by a defender but the loose ball was played into the path of the Gills number ten and he clinically placed the ball under Liam Roberts and into the net.
The hosts started in exactly the same way as they had started the first, on the attack, but Gills continued to be a stubborn defensive unit with Holy making a magnificent save inside the box with Ehmer and Zakuani also making important blocks at crucial times.
Kieron Morris and Amadou Bakayoko saw efforts miss the target but with bodies going forward it allowed Gills the chance to counter. Wilkinson did well to find Eaves in space and in turn he played in Martin but Kory Roberts got back to prevent the skipper from driving into the penalty area.
Walsall continued to threaten and were very much in the ascendency when the Gills were reduced to ten men on 75 minutes. Substitute Daniel Agyei used his pace to drive at the visiting defence and Ehmer stuck out a foot to try and win the ball, the striker went down and the referee had no hesitation in producing a second yellow, and then a red.
Naturally this gave Walsall even more of a threat but Gills continued to put bodies on the line to prevent an equaliser as a succession of corner-kicks were won by the Saddlers.
With four minutes left Agyei had chance to test Holy but his connection inside the box was poor and the Gills keeper had a simple save to make.
Five minutes were added on at the end of the second half as Walsall threw the kitchen sink at the Gills defence. Right at the death Wagstaff, on for Wilkinson, could have made it two but Liam Roberts made the save moments before the full-time whistle sounded.
Walsall: L Roberts, Edwards (T Roberts 60), Leahy, Guthrie, Chambers, Oztumer, Morris (Flanagan 60), Kinsella, Ismail, Bakayoko (Agyei 70), K Roberts.
Unused subs: Gillespie, Devlin, Donnellan, Kouhyar.
Gills: Holy, Ehmer, Zakuani, Ogilvie, Clare, O’Neill (Nugent 87), Hessenthaler, Parker, Martin, Wilkinson (Wagstaff 82), Eaves (Byrne 60).
Unused subs: Nelson, Oldaker, List, Cundle.
Attendance: 4917 (355 Gills)
Referee: Mr A Haines