Gordon Strachan's managerial career got off to the worst possible start last night when the Coventry City team he took charge of a week ago in succession to Ron Atkinson fell victim to a magnificent piece of giant- killing by a Gillingham team lying seventh from the bottom of the Second Division.
The Kent club have no record to speak of in knock-out competition. Down by the Medway people still talk about the FA Cup epic against Everton in 1984 when their team took the eventual winners to a third-round second replay, but this is the first time in Gillingham's history they have ever beaten a club from the top division, and only the second time they have got as far as the fourth round of this competition. The last time was in the early days of the old League Cup in 1964. It would be no exaggeration to say that this was the best night the club had ever known, coming only 18 months after they nearly went out of business.
That Gillingham thoroughly deserve to be on their way to Ipswich Town in a fortnight's time could not be disputed after they produced much the more assured and intelligent football against a Coventry team unable to shake off the effects of a disastrous start to their Premiership season. For a team that has undergone big changes in recent months it was perhaps appropriate that the winning goal, 19 minutes from time, was scored by their longest-serving player, Neil Smith.
As in the first match, when Gillingham fought back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2, their compact midfield player Andy Hessenthaler gave a display of poise and perception, with which Gary McAllister's contribution compared poorly. Gillingham's strike partnership of the wily Steve Butler and the more physical Iffy Onuora used the ball superbly, and while their three-man defence lived on their nerves at times, they learnt to cope with the pace of Eoin Jess and Noel Whelan, and the Gillingham goalkeeper, Jim Stannard, produced two great saves when he had to. It was a victory achieved as much by the head as the heart, and for a cup tie, raw goalmouth action was in surprisingly short supply.
The profound uncertainty that lay at the heart of almost everything Coventry did was partly responsible for that. In the first half they only troubled Stannard twice, through shots from outside the area by Jess and Richard Shaw, and as the quality of Coventry's approach play deteriorated so Gillingham began to push up with confidence.
Butler's ability to retain possession, and the deftness with which he linked with Onuora was crucial to Gillingham's growing superiority, and it was a cross from the left by Butler that led to the winning goal. The ball should have been cleared, but Liam Daish, the Coventry central defender, held back, it ran through to Smith, and the Gillingham wing-back scored with a first-time shot from 12 yards. With 10 minutes left Dennis Bailey hit the bar from the edge of the six-yard box as Coventry fell apart.
"I've had body blows before," Strachan said, "but that doesn't make the pain any less. We all know that performances like that are not acceptable."
Coventry City (4-4-2): Ogrizovic; Borrows, Williams, Daish, Shaw; Telfer (Strachan, 72), McAllister, Richardson, Salako; Whelan, Jess (Dublin, 72). Substitute not used: Filan (gk).
Gillingham (3-5-2): Stannard; Green, Bryant, Harris; Smith, Hessenthaler, Ratcliffe, Bailey, Armstrong; Onuora, Butler. Substitutes not used: Piper, O'Connor, Pennock.
Referee: L R Dilkes (Mossley).Reuse content