Mark Perrow reports from PriestfieldCity were full value for the victory that sealed their progress into round two of the FA Cup despite a nervy finale at Priestfield.
The visitors were in complete control throughout a first half in which Greg Cunningham headed City into a deserved lead five minutes before the interval.
The second period would prove a closer affair, although Jay Emmanuel-Thomas’ placed shot from distance looked set to kill the game as a contest 13 minutes from the end.
Danny Kedwell’s ruthlessly dispatched penalty four minutes later left City temporarily on the back foot, but a late storm was weathered to ensure a safe passage into the second round at the first time of asking for Steve Cotterill’s side.
Cotterill lived up to his promise of shuffling his pack in the middle of a two-week break from league action, making five changes to his starting XI.
There were recalls for Adam El-Abd, Scott Wagstaff, Marlon Pack, Cunningham and Emmanuel-Thomas, with Derrick Williams, Joe Bryan, Korey Smith and Aaron Wilbraham for once sitting on the bench.
Mark Little was absent from the 18-man squad with a hamstring strain not considered serious by his manager.
It was to be a first half full of City possession but lacking clear-cut chances.
Plenty of the football being played by the visitors was pleasing on the eye, although only occasionally quick enough to open up a home team without a league win to their name since September.
Emmanuel-Thomas tried his luck speculatively from distance, while Gillingham’s threat from crosses was apparent but not especially threatening.
City’s possession was dominant and Ayling set about increasing the tempo with an impressive burst out of defence and quick one-two with Emmanuel-Thomas to engineer space inside the penalty area.
Ayling initially turned down the opportunity to shoot, instead cutting inside the sliding challenge of Leon Legge before driving the ball against the legs of defender John Egan just as the chance looked at its most inviting.
Then Wagstaff broke free down the right and pulled the ball back from the byeline for Kieran Agard, who swivelled to shoot but could not muster the necessary power to trouble goalkeeper Stuart Nelson.
City were firmly in control and Gillingham’s apprehension was evident when Legge slashed a leg at a Wade Elliott cross and was only inches away from diverting the ball into the bottom corner of his own goal.
The Gills were increasingly reluctant to commit bodies forward and only succeeded in inviting pressure, ultimately leading to the opening goal five minutes before the break.
Wagstaff’s energy took him to the byeline again, this time producing a floated cross towards the back post begging to be attacked.
It was an opportunity Cunningham
was not willing to pass up, as the Irishman showed no lack of desire to launch himself in front of his man and head the ball into the unguarded net with Nelson taken out of the equation by the quality of Wagstaff’s delivery.
It was just reward for the level of dominance enjoyed by the Robins in a first period in which they never looked troubled, and nearly doubled their lead through Luke Freeman’s rasping right-footed strike pushed to safety by Nelson.
Gillingham old boy Freeman, who made his debut for the club in an FA Cup first round tie at the age of 15 seven years ago, was at the heart of things again when Cunningham spurned a glorious opportunity find the net for a second time.
When Freeman’s cross from the right was not struck cleanly by Agard, the ball dropped kindly for Cunningham six yards out only for the wing-back to sky his shot. It had fallen to him quickly and unexpectedly, but was still a gilt-edged chance.
Gillingham, meanwhile, had found a spring to their step. The introduction of right winger Jermaine McGlashan had seen the hosts switch from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2 and carry a much greater threat.
From one low McGlashan cross, top scorer Cody McDonald could only send his shot high over Frank Fielding’s crossbar as he reached for a ball only fractionally behind him. It was by far the Gills’ best chance to date.
It would prove a costly miss from the home side’s point of view, as Emmanuel-Thomas
struck the killer second 13 minutes from time.
Ironically the striker had just dropped back into a midfield role following the introduction of Wes Burns to partner Agard up front.
But when a long ball forward dropped kindly into his path, it was business as usual for Emmanuel-Thomas, who picked his spot to score with no more than a casual placed shot from all of 25 yards which just crept inside Nelson’s right-hand post.
At this point City’s progress seemed assured, but Cotterill’s side would make things hard for themselves after Aden Flint was adjudged to have handled Antonio German’s header, prompting Kedwell
to crash home the resulting penalty nine minutes from time.
Gillingham bombarded Fielding’s penalty area with a late barrage of corners, but City held firm to complete a job well done in Kent.