City survived a spirited effort from rank outsiders Gillingham to book their place in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final at Wembley.
The Gills, fighting against relegation in a league City have their sights set on winning, trailed 4-2 before a ball was even kicked at Ashton Gate, and were left needing a miracle when Matt Smith continued his happy habit of scoring against the Kent club with a typically ruthless 18th minute header.
At this point it was party time in BS3, but any plans the home side had of inflicting further pain on a team they will face in five consecutive months were extinguished when Jermaine McGlashan equalised against the run of play later in the first half.
For 15 minutes either side of the break Gillingham were the dominant team, but Frank Fielding saved well from Doug Loft and McGlashan before City found their feet in the tie again, ultimately playing out a satisfactory draw on the night to ensure a day out under the arch with Walsall on March 22nd.
Steve Cotterill made three changes to his side beaten only by a late Diafra Sakho header in Sunday’s FA Cup fourth round tie with Premier League high-fliers West Ham United.
James Tavernier, Greg Cunningham and Marlon Pack were recalled with Joe Bryan dropping to the bench, while Mark Little and George Saville were absent from the 16-man squad altogether.
City may have had a two-goal advantage to protect but had no desire to sit on their aggregate lead, taking the game to Gillingham in typically explosive style.
The Gills were sick of the sight of Smith long before the first leg had run its course on a night when the towering frontman struck all four goals to leave his temporary employers on the brink of Wembley.
But the striker on loan from Fulham was nearly at it again inside three minutes, as a Jay Emmanuel-Thomas long throw was flicked on by Aden Flint and headed goalwards by Smith, who was only denied by a full length dive from goalkeeper Stuart Nelson.
Smith had another sight of goal soon after, blazing a shot over the crossbar from namesake Korey’s knockdown.
Gillingham were making life difficult for themselves by going all out to reduce the deficit and leaving gaps at the back, with City enjoying picking holes in an unusually wide open defence.
Luke Freeman was put through only to overhit his final ball to Tavernier, while Smith was only blocked a clear route to goal by a last-ditch John Egan tackle.
But the hosts would not have long to wait to extend the overall advantage with the opening goal after 18 minutes.
Freeman’s corners had terrorised West Ham in the first period four days prior and the Gills would have similar troubles dealing with the physical presence of Smith – twice denied by goal-line clearances against the Hammers.
An outswinging delivery from ex-Gills midfielder Freeman invited a bullet header against the crossbar from Smith, who was perfectly placed to gobble up the rebound as the ball skipped back up off the turf for the big man to guide beyond the stranded Nelson at the second time of asking.
There was a real freedom about City who seemed determined to inflict a beating on the Kent club, already defeated three times in three different competitions by Cotterill’s men this season.
But the dominant hosts were caught cold with 13 minutes left in the half when McGlashan showed his pace to score.
Midfield creator Bradley Dack played a killer ball between Flint and Derrick Williams for the winger to chase.
Even then, Fielding looked favourite to get there first only for McGlashan to slide in and lift the ball over the City stopper, who took the full brunt of the goalscorer’s momentum.
Suddenly Gillingham had a new lease of life, and the party atmosphere inside Ashton Gate had given way to an eerie silence by the time Loft forced Fielding into a stunning save high to his left from Joe Martin’s cutback.
City’s frustration at the turning of the tide was summed up by Freeman’s ugly lunge on Gavin Hoyte, which might easily have been punished by more than the yellow card brandished by referee Scott Graham.
City would have a hard time redressing the balance after the interval, as the visitors smelled an unlikely comeback.
Fielding had to be alert to keep out McGlashan when he was put through by Cody McDonald, parrying away a curling shot destined for the far corner of the net after City were caught on the break.
Then Jake Hessenthaler’s disguised free kick across the box was hit goalwards by Josh Pritchard, whose shot was only just missing the necessary whip to beat Fielding high to his left.
It was wide open stuff, and McGlashan showed Flint a clean pair of heels to race towards goal before shooting far too early with McDonald well placed to his right.
At the other end, City looked set to cash in on the Gills’ eagerness to send bodies forward when Emmanuel-Thomas slid the ball down the left flank for Cunningham to cross low towards Smith, who was only denied an eighth goal in three games against the same opposition by a brave piece of defending from the recovering Joe Martin.
Smith inadvertently collided with the post in process, requiring lengthy treatment, but recovered to glance a Tavernier cross just wide after beating Nelson to the aerial duel.
The supply of home debutant Tavernier was proving fruitful, as another accurate centre was sent slightly deeper for the onrushing Cunningham to head only inches past the post.
City were creating chances but Cotterill remained suitably wary to negate his favoured 3-5-2 formation midway through the second half, withdrawing Tavernier for skipper Wade Elliott in favour of a more sturdy diamond midfield – Elliott to the left, Korey Smith to the right and Pack at the base.
Meanwhile, the mercurial Emmanuel-Thomas was setting his sights on finishing off Gillingham once and for all. First he escaped a couple of challenges in the middle of the pitch before sending a typically thunderous left-footed shot just a couple of yards too high.
Moments later it was his right boot threatening to do the damage, as he worked a yard of space and drilled the ball goalwards on his supposedly weaker foot only to strike the outside of the near post.
By now Gillingham had finally run out of hope, as Emmanuel-Thomas let fly with more pot shots, dragging one just wide before forcing Nelson to hold on at the second attempt.
Ultimately there would be no winning goal, but City had done more than enough over 180 minutes to ensure a first return to the national stadium in seven years.