FA Cup Third Round - Gillingham 1 Aston Villa 2
Gillingham’s pre-match theme tune, The Last Waltz, proved quite appropriate as, despite treading on Aston Villa’s feet, the League Two team experienced their final dalliance with this year’s FA Cup.
James Milner’s first two goals of his second spell in claret and blue were enough to ensure Martin O’Neill’s men went dancing into the fourth round where they will travel to face Cheltenham Town or Doncaster Rovers.
However, Villa were made to work hard to avoid following Manchester City and Stoke in becoming this year’s victims of FA Cup upsets after Simeon Jackson’s goal for Gillingham.
Having pledged to field as strong a team as possible, O’Neill selected a line-up comprising a mixture of first-team and reserve players with Luke Young, Gareth Barry and Gabriel Agbonlahor replaced by Nicky Shorey, Craig Gardener and Nathan Delfouneso.
Barry and Young were injured, while Gabriel Agbonlahor was a late withdrawal from the squad after falling ill.
It meant Milner and Delfouneso formed a new-look strike partnership with the former Newcastle winger enjoying a much more productive afternoon than his teenage colleague.
Milner put Villa in front with a moment of class on 14 minutes when he clinically stroked home from just inside the box after playing a one-two with Stiliyan Petrov when Adam Miller was caught hesitating on the ball.
That strike temporarily silenced the partisan Gills supporters in the Rainham End, although it had the opposite effect on Mark Stimson’s players who recovered to dominate the rest of the half.
A slick move involving Gary Mulligan and Jackson down the right saw the ball cut back to Dennis Oli who should have done better than rifle an effort into the side-netting from close range.
Although Milner was ultimately Villa’s match-winner he almost cost them dearly when his weak back pass put Zat Knight in trouble and but for the lanky defender’s telescopic legs and impeccably timed tackle Jackson would have been through on goal.
Any complaints a near sell-out home crowd had about that challenge paled into insignificance compared to their collective fury following Nigel Reo-Coker’s foul on Oli moments later.
Having left a couple of Villa markers trailing with his pace and power, Oli’s leg was caught by Villa’s makeshift right-back right on the edge of the visitors area.
Gillingham were screaming that the foul had occurred inside the box, that Reo-Coker was last man and that the outcome should have been a red-card and a penalty.
Fortunately for Villa, referee Keith Stroud ruled that the challenge took place outside the penalty box – a decision backed up by television replays – and Miller’s free-kick was deflected wide after Reo-Coker escaped with a caution.
With Gillingham piling pressure on Villa, Jackson headed John Nutter’s cross wide from six yards when he should have scored and was penalised for illegally dispossessing Knight, although the striker was to get his reward in the second-half.
O’Neill’s happy travellers had a chance to put the tie out of the hosts’ reach on the stroke of half-time when Gardner picked out Delfouneso, but the scoring touch the Brummie striker has shown in the Uefa Cup went missing as he screwed a volley wide.
That miss might explain why Milner elected to shoot from distance rather than pick out his better placed strike partner early in the second-half with keeper Simon Royce parrying the effort and pouncing on the ball before Delfouneso could reach the rebound.
Villa were to rue that wasted opportunity when Jackson showed his quality in front of goal just before the hour mark, spinning past Knight on the edge of the area before smashing an emphatic finish past Brad Friedel to level the scores.
Despite the concession, Villa, who had looked nervy at times before the interval, regained their composure and threatened when Milner’s cross found Delfouneso, only for the youngster to make a mess of his header and then smash an effort just off target.
In the end, with the tie finely poised, it took a moment of controversy to win the game when Miller was adjudged to have bundled over Young in the penalty area 12 minutes from time.
The Gillingham captain protested his innocence and the home crowd certainly felt that the winger had played for the spot-kick, booing his every touch from that moment on.
However, with designated penalty taker Barry injured, Milner took responsibilty for the kick, despatching a convincing effort beyond Royce’s dive into the bottom left corner.