Oxford United were cruelly beaten at Priestfield this afternoon when a Brandon Hanlan header in the 89th minute decided a tense affair in which United looked to have claimed a point with a resilient display.
Unchanged for the third game in a row, United had the advantage of a strong wind behind them in the first half, although the way it swirled round Priestfield was unpredictable and made precision passing almost a non-starter. Gillingham had the big figure of Eaves to hit up front and it became a contrast in styles, with United still trying to pass the ball despite the blustery conditions.
The difficulty in doing that was shown after nine minutes, when Luke Garbutt’s subtle pass was a yard away from the run of the ever-industrious Jerome Sinclair, while Mark Sykes’ rising effort a minute later was carried on the breeze well above both the bar and the reach of the six-foot-nine Tomas Holy in the Gills goal.
There were several efforts off target: Eaves and Connor Ogilvie sent dipping efforts over Simon Eastwood’s bar, Garbutt fired wide on 27 from the edge of the box and Graham Burke sent a free kick wide a minute later, but nothing on target, with Garbutt heading a Long cross off target once more as we reached the 30 minute mark.
With conditions the winner, it was a tough first half to watch, but that’s fine; United have been out of games by half time this season and now look far more difficult to break down as well as having plenty of attacking options on the bench for later in the game.
However, five minutes into the second half the gameplan was tested to the limit as they once again called upon their outstanding keeper to keep them level. Rob Dickie was more clumsy than malicious in bringing Hanlan crashing down, but Eastwood spared his blushes by diving to his right to push Eaves’ penalty away.
United should then have had a spot kick of their own within 60 seconds when Sinclair was giving a massive push in the back by the keeper, but ref Ollie Yates decided Sinclair had been blown over by the wind rather than any Holy intervention. He was wrong.
Ahmed Kashi, on at half time, quickly settled in front of the back four and sprayed the ball around while pushing the four midfielders in front of him further forward. Gavin Whyte was then given half an hour to help the U's find a breakthrough, although it was a brave header from the once again excellent Sam Long that kept it scoreless soon after.
Whyte thrashed a 72nd-minute drive wide from a promising position, Graham blazed over from the opposite side a minute later but with Whyte giving the experienced Barry Fuller all sorts of problems down the right, United's earlier patience looked like paying off as chances came their way. Unfortunately, a combination of stout Gillingham defending and a tendency to overplay in the final third, occasionally turning down the chance to cross or shoot when the option appeared, meant that United couldn't find the net. With two minutes left they were punished when a Luke O'Neill corner was headed back at the back post by skipper Max Ehmer and Hanlan stooped to head home the only goal of the game from close range.
In the closest of all divisions, moments like that make all the difference and United, after back-to-back wins, had missed a golden opportunity to pull away from danger. It's going to be a fight all the way from here on in, starting at Rochdale on Tuesday night...
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Darrell Fisher, stats by OPTA