Gillingham delivered arguably the best performance of the season at home to hold League One table-toppers Wigan Athletic to a 1-1 draw under the lights at Priestfield on Tuesday night.
The opening 15 minutes were all Wigan, as the league leaders showed the sort of class you’d expect from a team that had won its last four games. The Latics dominated possession, stretched the Gills across the pitch and probed for openings.
But, unlike previous Gillingham performances, the Gills’ defence, led by Gabriel Zakuani and the outstanding Max Ehmer, held firm with goalkeeper Tomas Holy only being called into action to make a few routine saves.
But as the game headed into the second quarter, the Gills started to claw their way into proceedings. The midfield began to break up Wigan’s play and the occasional loose ball started to fall the home side’s way.
By halftime, the Gills were well and truly in it.
A fascinating contest ensued in the second half as Gillingham began to push forward, forcing Wigan back towards their own goal, while the Latics were a constant threat on the counter-attack, breaking at pace and looking dangerous around the penalty area, with Nick Powell a constant threat.
But when the breakthrough finally came, it was the home side celebrating the lead. Sean Clare and Jake Hessenthaler worked an opening on the right and the young loanee from Sheffield Wednesday swung in an inviting cross that big striker Tom Eaves met with a perfectly-placed downward header. 1-0 Gills.
Refreshingly, Gillingham didn’t sit back to defend their lead. They went for the jugular, looking for a second. Eaves, transformed by his goal, was playing like a man possessed and, after turning two Wigan defenders inside out, he played an inch-perfect through-ball for Josh Parker, who frustratingly shanked a golden opportunity wide of the near post when a goal looked more than likely.
Elliott List was denied by a last-ditch block and Billy Bingham’s low shot was well held by Wigan keeper Jamie Jones with Gills players closing in for the rebound.
The Gills were left to rue those missed chances as Wigan finally produced a moment of genuine quality to level the scores. With Wigan exerting an extended period of pressure on the Gills’ back line, Latics captain Sam Morsy took aim from 20 yards and found the top left hand corner with a beautifully-struck shot, leaving Holy grasping at air.
Gillingham pressed forward in search of a late winner, but their best chances had been and gone. But as the final whistle blew, the feeling was one of satisfaction and pride in a spirited performance under a caretaker manager who seems to be able to get more out of the players than either of his two predecessors.
Indeed, the last 20 minutes featured chants of “Stevie Lovell’s barmy army” as the fans paid a vocal tribute to the caretaker boss.
The question now, of course, is whether Lovell has shown enough to be given a chance at the helm, at least until the end of the season. The club have already has an unsuccessful approach to Mansfield Town to talk to their boss Steve Evans, while Cambridge United’s Sean Derry was also strongly linked. Most recently, Graham Westley moved into pole position in the betting list.
But with the Gills experiencing a significant turnaround in form, Gills chairman Paul Scally might just pump the brakes on a new external appointment in order to assess whether Lovell might be more than just an able caretaker boss.
Lovell remains in charge for now, however, and victory against fellow strugglers Northampton Town at Priestfield on Saturday might swing the balance in the Welshman’s favour.
Watch this space…
Gills XI vs Wigan
Holy, Ehmer, Zakuani, Ogilvie, Clare, Parker, Bingham, Hessenthaler, Martin, List (Wagstaff 78), Eaves (Cundle 83)
Unused subs: Nelson, O’Mara, Oldaker, Chapman, Wilkinson