Gillingham went into their final home match of the calendar year on the back of a 4-0 thumping from promotion contenders Bolton Wanderers on the previous Monday, meanwhile the visitors MK Dons had won their last two outings – a FA Cup replay victory against Charlton Athletic and a home win to AFC Wimbledon last weekend. Although the two teams were in differing form, it was hard to pinpoint who would come out best from Saturday’s encounter.
Manager Justin Edinburgh confirmed in his midweek press conference that versatile defensive man Chris Herd and midfielder Billy Knott would definitely be missing the last game at Priestfield in 2016. Left-back Bradley Garmston is reportedly making progress. In fact, it was an unchanged starting eleven from the team which got embarrassed by Bolton in front of the television cameras. On-loan goalkeeper Jonathan Bond is still out and doesn’t look like he’ll be making another appearance for the Gills as his spell comes to an end in the first week of January.
Gills XI: Nelson, Wagstaff, Ehmer, Cargill, Konchesky, Wright, Hessenthaler, Dack, Emmanuel-Thomas, Nouble, McDonald
Subs: Hadler, Jackson, Oshilaja, Donnelly, Oldaker, Cundle, Byrne
Robbie Neilson’s side started the better, in the fog, with a number of half-chances in the opening minutes of play. Ben Reeves had an effort from twenty yards blocked by Wagstaff before Samir Carruthers attempted a stunner but his volley went wide just a few moments later. In the 7th minute of the match, Gillingham ultimately had created the best opportunity of the game so far. Scott Wagstaff put a deep cross into the box and forced visiting defender Dean Lewington to make a goal-line clearance.
It took another ten or so minutes for a clear goal scoring chance arose again. It came courtesy of Edinburgh’s men again as ever-present forward Cody McDonald laid the ball off for Bradley Dack just inside the area – the 22 year old’s effort was calmly blocked by Lewington. Wagstaff received the first yellow card of the game, just short of the half-way mark of the opening 45 minutes. The ex-Bristol City man appeared to have brought down MK Dons’ Dean Bowditch near the corner flag.
Gillingham had a series of corners given their way on the half hour mark. The first one, taken by Dack, was cleared by the away side’s defence before a second cross from the midfielder went out of play, McDonald was inches away from making contact with his head. Frank Nouble had beaten the defender on the left wing before winning another corner, Baily Cargill got his head on the cross but could only direct the ball wide of the right post.
The talking point of the first-half though would come from MK Dons. Into additional time, forward Kieran Agard had seemingly been taken down inside the box by Paul Konchesky, who was given a yellow, and referee Brett Huxtable awarded a spot-kick, albeit a large majority of the home supporters suggesting it was a plain dive from the 27 year-old. A poor penalty from Bowditch meant goalkeeper Stuart Nelson could save with his legs to divert the ball from hitting the back of the net. Gillingham and MK Dons went into the break with the score line goalless.
The visitors went into the second-half on the upper hand as Reeves produced an effort from the edge of the box but the shot received a touch and went out for a corner. Around ten minutes after the interval and the away side made the first substitution of the match. Full-back George Baldock, who had been on the floor injured for a moment, was taken off as a precaution for Robbie Neilson and Jack Hendry took his place.
As soon as play resumed, MK Dons picked up their first card of the afternoon. Carruthers put his name in the book for a high foot on the Gills’ forward Frank Nouble. Jake Hessenthaler put in a dangerous cross in the 63rd minute and Cargill was standing there ready to smash the ball into the net but a MK Dons defender was able to clear. Moments afterwards the visitor’s Dean Bowditch made way for Nicky Maynard as they brought a more attacking approach to the Gillingham defence.
Three minutes later and the Gills made another effort for themselves. Centre-back Max Ehmer found Konchesky, the veteran defender found Nouble on the wing and he cut-in to have an effort on goal but was swiftly caught by goalkeeper David Martin. MK Dons had another name in the referee’s book just after that chance as Darren Potter had drawn a foul on Dack.
Going into the final twenty minutes of normal time, Nouble ran half the pitch before eventually winning a corner. Dack took the set-piece, passed it in to receive it, again, and the resulting cross was headed in by none other than striker Cody McDonald to give the home team the advantage late on. On the 79th minute Justin Edinburgh made his first change of the match – Frank Nouble was taken off to be replaced by Ryan Jackson, with Scott Wagstaff to move over to left midfield. MK Dons were unable to mount any serious threat to the host’s defence and it ended 1-0 to Gillingham.
Full-time: Gillingham 1-0 MK Dons
Scorer: Cody McDonald ’72
Attendance: 5,682 (350 Away Fans)
I was struggling to find a man of the match from the first 45 minutes of action, and the thought of the resulting being a goalless draw did come to mind. Although as soon as Stuart Nelson, who was making his 201st start between the sticks for the Gills, I thought he would be worthy of the award, and so it proved. Cody McDonald was a strong candidate for his goal being the winner in the end and throughout the match he ran his socks off, like he always does, but with limited support at times he definitely was able to create a chance or two.
Bradley Dack looks to be getting back to his self of last season, with a quality cross giving him the assist for McDonald’s goal, something we saw from the attacking midfielder almost every week in the 2015/16 campaign before he suffered a devastating hamstring injury. Captain Josh Wright had received a lot of criticism in the month of October and early November for his lack of leadership and sprinting up-field at times, but today he proved as to why he has that armband. Jake Hessenthaler was not afraid to get stuck in and put in every inch of effort he had into his performance.
The second-half display was very dominant from the Gills, which determined the result in my opinion. I would have said it wasn’t our best display in front of the home crowd but everyone kept believing and eventually the goal did come, and turned out to be the winner. It was one of those games that we were forced to grind out the result, the response from Monday’s result was immaculate. I take my hat off to the players because it can be difficult to win all three points after a score-line we suffered to Bolton Wanderers. Gillingham aren’t home until after the festivities, on the 2nd January to Oxford United. Meanwhile we’re on the road to Peterborough United on Boxing Day and Millwall four days later.