Much has changed since Sheffield United’s last appearance at Priestfield Stadium.
Then, nearly a decade ago, the visitors were dreaming of rubbing shoulders with the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur after strikes from Paul Shaw and Michael Tonge propelled them to within touching distance of the Championship play-offs.
Nine seasons and ten managers later, Nigel Clough’s side arrived in Gillingham desperate to avoid making the acquaintance of Accrington Stanley and Northampton Town.
This result, delivered courtesy of Conor Coady’s goal, represented a potentially significant breakthrough in their battle for League One survival. The on-loan midfielder threaded home during the closing stages of a hard-fought first half and, with Peter Taylor’s team unable to prise apart a rearguard expertly marshalled by Neill Collins and Harry Maguire, the visitors lifted themselves out of the bottom four ahead of Saturday’s crucial encounter with fellow strugglers Bristol City.
United, despite beating Aston Villa, Fulham and Nottingham Forest en route to the FA Cup quarter-finals, had made the long journey south only four points and two places above the foot of the table.
It does not take a genius to fathom why.
United started the evening having played 21 hours of league football on the road this season and Coady’s clinical finish was only the ninth time they had scored.
That statistic, combined with the fact this was only their second triumph in the competition away from home this season, laid bare the main reason behind their perilous predicament, despite enjoying an improvement both in terms of performances and results since Clough’s appointment in place of David Weir in October.
But a combative and disciplined display against Taylor’s charges gave no indication of United’s difficulties away from home.
Indeed, as the match ebbed towards its conclusion, it was Clough’s players who posed the greater threat, although Leon Legge should have done better when presented with a late chance to equalise.
With new signing Ben Davies named and then duly removed from their starting 11 after being delayed by traffic, Clough asked Billy Paynter and Chris Porter to spearhead United’s attack after warning of the physical threat Gillingham pose.
John Brayford’s absence due to a slight muscle strain also meant Matt Hill was recalled and the former Bristol City defender was immediately forced to go shoulder to shoulder with Bayo Akinfenwa as Clough’s suspicions proved correct.
Connor Smith, on loan from Watford, forged Gillingham’s first real opening but his low shot from the edge of the area was comfortably saved by Mark Howard.
With Paynter and Porter patrolling Stuart Nelson’s penalty box, United’s ability to provide quality service would have a crucial bearing on how they fared against powerful opponents.
Ryan Flynn, enjoying his best spell of form since arriving at Bramall Lane three years ago, swept two dangerous centres across the Gillingham goal but neither were touched home.
Taylor’s side, comfortably positioned in midtable after gaining promotion last term, continued to take a more direct route, with debutant Ryan Inniss profiting from Akinfenwa’s ability to keep defender’s at bay before flashing a low drive just past Howard’s far post.
Chris Morgan, now a member of Clough’s coaching staff and United’s sole survivor of that convincing 3-1 victory in October 2004, will have appreciated Collins’ willingness to engage with Akinfenwa as he watched the action unfold from the technical area.
His manager, cutting a predictably agitated figure on the touchline, will have enjoyed Bob Harris’ ability to find Porter with a perfectly-weighted pass only for the assistant referee’s flag to intervene.
The left-back’s determination to drive forward helped United apply sustained pressure on Gillingham’s rearguard midway through the opening period.
A neat interchange with Paynter presented Harris, who later went close from a free-kick, with the chance to test Nelson but his shot, in the 27th minute, was blocked.
Likewise a venomous volley from Michael Doyle soon after as United began to turn the screw.
Coady made no mistake six minutes before the interval when he claimed his fourth goal of the season and second in as many games following a frantic exchange.
Porter struck the woodwork from six yards out and, when the ball bounced loose, Flynn seized the chance to pick out the midfielder who showed excellent composure to steer home.
Although the first hald will not live long in the memory of those who witnessed it, Clough must have been satisfied with his team’s efforts during the half-time break.
Akinfenwa had, predictably, been a handful throughout the game.
But Cody McDonald, Gillingham’s leading scorer, made little impression until wastefully dragging wide before Akinfenwa hacked clear to prevent Maguire from doubling United’s advantage.
Harris’ accuracy from corners continued to pose the hosts problems, with Maguire seeing a header deflected on to the roof of the netm and Paynter seeing another attempt hacked off the line just past the hour.
With Davies introduced soon after, fellow substitutes Jose Baxter and Jamie Murphy nearly combined on the counter-attack but Michael Harriman intervened.
Legge headed straight at Howard following Nelson’s long clearance.
But, that brief scare apart, United comfortably held on for a priceless victory.
GOAL: Coady 39.
GILLINGHAM: Nelson 6, Martin 6, Linganzi 6 (Weston 74), Akinfenwa 7, McDonald 7, Gregory 6, Dack 6, Smith 6 (Whelpdale 64, 6), Harriman 6, Inniss 5 (Legge 40, 6), Barrett 6. Not used: Fagan, Hessenthaler, Pigott, S Baxter.
UNITED: Howard 6, Maguire 7, Hill 6, Flynn (Davies 74), Doyle 6, Porter 6 (Baxter 79), McGinn 6, Collins 7, Coady 7, Paynter 6 (Murphy 69, 6), Harris 8. Not used: Miller, Scougall, Long, Kennedy.
REFEREE: Brendan Malone (Wiltshire).
BOOKINGS: Maguire 23; Martin 44, Gregory 74.# ATTENDANCE: 5,766.