Mark Perrow reports from Priestfield
City were made to rue a flurry of squandered second-half chances as their wait for a first league win of the season continued at Gillingham.
The hosts broke the deadlock midway through the first period when Adebayo Akinfenwa helped Charlie Lee’s long throw into the net with a glancing header, but Marvin Elliott replied with a header seconds before the interval.
But Gills keeper Stuart Nelson kept his team in the contest after the break, saving three times from Sam Baldock as City were left frustrated on their second visit to Priestfield this month.
Having impressed in the midweek Capital One Cup win over Crystal Palace at Ashton Gate, winger Joe Bryan was unable to shake off a hamstring complaint and missed out on a place in the squad.
Marlon Pack took his place in midfield, while Frank Fielding returned in goal and new signing Nicky Shorey took a seat on the bench.
The contrasting styles between the sides were clear from the first whistle. City’s easy on the eye, patient build-up was a far cry from the Gills’ ‘up and at them’ approach, but it was the hosts applying the greater pressure early on.
Neither team registered a notable attempt at goal until the 20th minute, when Baldock threatened to catch out keeper Stuart Nelson with a quickly taken free kick that just whistled past the post, before City succumbed to the softest of openers.
Lee’s long throw from the left touchline was hurled in towards the six-yard box, and only required a glancing touch from Akinfenwa to beat Fielding.
A largely uneventful first half in terms of goalscoring chances had played into the hands of the home team, whose hassling and harrying was having the desired effect with City struggling to penetrate the backline.
After a change in the middle when injured referee Mick Russell had to be replaced by fourth official Barry Holderness, a typical Joe Martin surge from left-back culminated in a cross to the back post for Danny Kedwell, whose header just eluded the near post.
Talking of left-backs, City’s Greg Cunningham soon found himself in unfamiliar territory, letting fly with a sweetly struck half-volley which had to be beaten out by Nelson, while Pack tested the shot-stopper’s handling from distance with a shot that bounced awkwardly just in front of the keeper.
But having finished the half strongly, City were back on terms just in the nick of time, as Pack’s clipped ball down the left flank freed Scott Wagstaff, who turned back before sending a right-footed cross on to the head of Elliott.
It was a trademark late arrival in the box from the midfielder, who planted an excellent header down and back across the rooted Nelson for the equaliser.
With the wind in their sails, City began the second period full of intent. Quiet up to this point, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas forced a corner from Nelson when a stinging 25-yard drive had to be turned aside, before Bobby Reid’s delivery was headed over by Aden Flint at the near post.
Reid was involved again when fed by Brendan Moloney shortly after, but opted to shoot towards the near post with Baldock lurking in tap-in territory to his left.
But City remained vulnerable to set plays, and breathed a collective sigh of relief when towering Gillingham defender Leon Legge sent a free header wide from Chris Whelpdale’s corner.
Suddenly the Gills’ were buoyant. Another Whelpdale dead ball caused confusion as Fielding flapped and the ball trickled wide, while substitute Cody McDonald thrashed a shot into the sidenetting.
When the hosts failed to make the most of their flurry of chances, it was City’s turn to pepper the opposite goal.
Baldock was guilty of a horrible miss when picked out by Wagstaff, but his contact from six yards was not sufficient to beat Nelson, who somehow smothered his effort.
Shorey was introduced for his debut on the hour, and immediately spurned a chance to score his first goal when he could not keep his shot down from 12 yards under no pressure.
The former England international, plying his trade on the left side of midfield having replaced Reid, was involved again when his teasing cross towards Wagstaff was only cut out by a last-ditch toe poke to safety, by which time Baldock had already been denied by Nelson for a second time.
Latching on to Moloney’s pass, City’s top scorer made sure he connected sweetly this time with a powerful shot impressively turned aside by the busy Nelson.
With the visitors finishing strongly, a Shorey surge towards the penalty area was halted just short, before Baldock drilled the resulting free kick low and hard but straight at Nelson, who uncomfortably shovelled the ball away.
The Gills keeper, surely man of the match, produced another important stop to keep out Emmanuel-Thomas, but the decisive blow proved elusive right to the end.