City returned to the top of the League One table this evening with a resounding looking victory against Steve Evans’ Gillingham.
The result ensures a relatively trouble-free Saturday for the Imps, with the hard work already done. We can sit back now and watch our rivals hopefully slip up, knowing a potentially tough tie has been navigated with some success.
City were unchanged from the side which lost 1-0 to Doncaster Rovers last weekend. Lewis Montsma, James Jones, Harry Anderson and Anthony Scully all got starts against Hull in midweek, but all dropped to the bench for this tie. The Gills had former Imp Vadaine Oliver up top, with John Akinde on the bench, and were expected to simply launch long balls forward. That was a simplified version of what they did, and if we expected a battle then we certainly went prepared.
In the first minute, Jorge Grant let Southampton loanee Callum Slattery know he had a battle on with a tough-looking challenge, which set the scene for the rest of the encounter. There were some tough challenges, very few that were outright dirty, and we matched their aggressiveness where we needed to, maybe even instigating some of it ourselves. Let’s not be under any illusions, we’re not a soft side and there was no repeat of last season, where they stopped us playing and intimidated our young side.
If we expected an easy ride in terms of chances, and by we, I mean supporters, then we soon got a taste of what Gillingham can do. Grant loosely gave the ball away on five minutes, which led to Alex MacDonald driving an effort at goal, which Palmer saved. We began to edge our way into the game, but certainly had less possession in the opening exchanges. Our first half-chance came courtesy of Tom Hopper, who played a decent cross in on 11 minutes, but it evaded Morgan Rogers running in.
Our first shot on target of the half brought the opening goal of the game. It was classic Michael Appleton football, with a nice build up and fancy flick. Grant played a delicious backheel into the path of Rogers, who in turn put the ball in the right area. Brennan Johnson had a go at collecting it but couldn’t quite get it out from his feet, allowing Conor McGrandles the space to stride in and stroke the ball into the back of the net. 1-0 City, and perhaps a little against the general run of play.
Despite taking the lead, it couldn’t be argued that we were the better side by a long way. Gillingham are good at what they do, and every opportunity they got the ball into the box. Whether it was a long throw, a delivery from one of any number of free kicks they got within fifty yards of the box, or simply through a passage of play, their mandate is simple. Look for the big man, all the time. That put huge emphasis on Adam Jackson and Joe Walsh, but neither shirked their responsibilities. When called upon, they did the sort of defensive work we haven’t had to do much of this season, and they did it well. If the ball strayed closer to the six-yard box, Palmer was on it like wasp is on a beer on a warm summer day.
A few typical chances were Olly Lee’s header on 20 minutes, following a good free kick from Jordan Graham. I liked the look of Graham, direct and skilful, always wanting to get in behind. I heard a rumour from a Gills fan that we might have looked at home in the winter window and he would certainly suit our style of play, no doubt at all. It was him getting in on goal on the half-hour mark too, a teasing ball found him in the channel with Walsh getting across to block what looked like a certain goal.
When he wasn’t looking to get in goal himself, Graham was delivering for other and barely a minute elapsed between his blocked effort and a teasing cross for former Imp Oliver. He has never impressed me when he’s played against us, and I didn’t want to tempt fate by saying it before the game, but thankfully that run continued as his effort was tame at Palmer.
Lee Hendrie felt Oliver could have been sent off for a challenge on Grant shortly afterwards, but it would have been harsh. It might have looked tasty from the commentary position, but on the television screen there wasn’t a hint of a foul, even though he came out of the challenge with his studs showing, they weren’t up when he went in. Credit where it is due to referee Sam Barrott, who did get that decision right.
After the goal, we seemed almost intent on sitting back and seeing if the Gills could break us down, but they couldn’t. they did manage a flurry of half-chances before half time, a free-kick was sent over the bar, before Kyle Dempsey broke through the centre, saw the ball sit up nicely, and yet he let a weak shot go wide of Palmer’s goal.
The general consensus from the people I message during the game was that we had done okay in the first half, we’d made them work, let them have possession that at times they didn’t know what to do with and when they did have half a chance, defended well. Despite having more efforts at goal, they hadn’t created anything that could be described as clear-cut and it did feel like another solid 45 would see us back to the top of the table.