A remarkable individual performance from Matt Smith left City on the verge of Wembley at the end of a pulsating Johnstone’s Paint Trophy southern area final first leg at Gillingham.
Fulham loanee Smith struck all four goals, three of which were spectacular, in a game in which City could easiy have scored twice as many if not more.
Gillingham’s Cody McDonald had put the hosts in front but City led 2-1 at half-time courtesy of two Smith headers.
The striker added a cute backheel to his collection shortly after the break before McDonald rifled the Gills back in contention 20 minutes from time.
But City and Smith in particular would have the final say, as a dipping volley from the left corner of the penalty area gave his temporary club a commanding advantage at the midway point in the tie.
Steve Cotterill reverted to the same side comfortably victorious over the same opponents in league action only nine days prior – a total of four changes from the FA Cup tie at Doncaster Rovers last time out.
Scott Wagstaff, Greg Cunningham, Marlon Pack and Luke Freeman were all recalled, with Mark Little, Joe Bryan and Wade Elliott dropping to a five-man bench without a seat for Todd Kane.
City have played some of their best football on the Priestfield pitch this season, particularly in the first half of games, and flew out of the traps in similar style.
Twice the visitors should have been in front before McDonald struck against the run of play inside six minutes.
First a Freeman corner was flicked on by Pack and sat up perfectly for Aden Flint, who could hardly do more than smash the ball goalwards from six yards but was somehow denied by an instinctive Stuart Nelson save.
Moments later Flint was well placed to meet a Cunningham cross from the left, although perhaps just stretching a touch as his diving header flew a fraction wide of the far post from close range.
City could hardly have asked for a better start without scoring, but suddenly found themselves a goal down as McDonald raced on to a hopeful ball forward and drove a low shot between the body and left arm of the helpless Frank Fielding.
If anything the shot was hit too close to the keeper as it crept underneath his arm. Such was the pace of the strike, there was little City’s number one could do to keep it out.
There was a brief moment where Cotterill’s men could have been staring a two-goal deficit in the face six minutes later.
The lively McDonald took Flint out of the game with a clever nutmeg before Bradley Dack raced on to the loose ball but could only shoot tamely into the grasp of Fielding with time and space to pick his spot.
These may have been times of concern for the travelling fans but they need not have worried.
Despite defensive frailties City never stopped posing a threat going forward and soon turned the tie on its head.
The warning signs were there for Gillingham when another Cunningham cross was just too far beyond the sliding frame of Smith for the striker to hook the ball on target.
Having caused so many problems down the left, City ultimately broke through from an attack down the right side of the penalty area to level things up.
It was the first of many flashes of brilliance from Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, who skipped beyond two challenges before his cross deflected kindly up on to the head of Smith to score with a well-directed header inside the far post.
Smith was at it again nine minutes later to score for the fourth time at Priestfield in only 117 minutes, and in quite brilliant fashion.
Again Emmanuel-Thomas was the creator, picking up possession on the left this time before providing a cross towards Smith who had peeled away towards the back post.
As the striker stretched for the ball it seemed impossible to hit the target, but somehow he angled his tall frame to crane his neck around the delivery and divert a stunning header back across the stranded Nelson.
City now had the lead their dominance merited and threatened to increase the advantage before Gillingham finished the half strongly.
Marauding full-back Gavin Hoyte broke free one on one with Fielding but could only shoot against the keeper’s legs before Cunningham concluded a breathless first half by striking the underside of the crossbar with a sidefoot volley from a difficult angle.
The wide open nature of the contest continued after the interval. Emmanuel-Thomas dragged a shot wide at the end of a long run from just inside the Gills half, while Smith was only beaten to a Cunningham cross by a crucial last-ditch clearance from John Egan.
That was before Smith completed his hat-trick in stunning fashion on 50 minutes. The impressive duo of Luke Ayling and Wagstaff combined before the latter cut the ball back for Smith to control with his back to goal and finish in style with a cheeky backheel to bamboozle the rooted Nelson.
Still Smith was not finished, as he connected with a cross from the left with a powerful header brilliantly clawed away by the left hand of Nelson and cleared before Wagstaff could eat up the seconds.
The Smith show had been all about Matt, but captain Korey joined in with a burst from midfield and slide rule pass on to Freeman’s left foot before City were only denied a fourth by another late defensive intervention.
Chances continued to come City’s way as Emmanuel-Thomas was denied by Nelson and Flint headed over the bar before McDonald scored against Cotterill’s men for the third time in two games by running on to another high ball to finish emphatically into the roof of the net.
Suddenly it was a different game. Doug Loft, McDonald and Dack all came close in quick succession as the home crowd sensed an unlikely comeback.
But City would do to Gillingham what Gillingham had done to City twice already, scoring a quite brilliant fourth goal against the run of play courtesy of the imperious Smith.
His second header was remarkable and the backheel brilliant, but Smith’s dipping volley to complete his quartet of goals was easily the pick of the bunch to leave the hosts clutching at straws in the tie once again.