Tony Pulis could not have enjoyed a more satisfying return to Priestfield Stadium yesterday. Three goals in 16 minutes either side of the break gave Stoke City an ultimately smooth passage into the FA Cup fourth round, and Pulis himself received a hero's welcome from a full house.
It is more than a decade since Pulis managed Gillingham, during which he has been excoriated by his ex-employer, the chairman Paul Scally, who yesterday used his programme notes to claim Pulis could have put the Gills out of business. Scally said he believed the majority of home fans would support his view, but that was evidently not the case. Even after goals from Jon Walters, Cameron Jerome and Robert Huth ended hopes raised by Danny Kedwell's 16th-minute strike, the Rainham End chanted Pulis's name.
"It will always live with me," said Pulis. "I had four fantastic seasons here, but you think as time goes by the supporters will forget. If he [Scally] wants to say stuff it's a free world, but it's what the supporters think that really matters. They were so magnificent my lads were asking me which side I was on."
Pulis managed the Gills to promotion 16 years ago but left in 1999 after his relationship with Scally became so acrimonious it led to an out-of-court settlement. Pulis, speaking from his position as manager of a stable Premier League club who are romping through the Europa League, kept his counsel ahead of this game, but the rancour still lingers for Scally. Pulis gave his thoughts after the game standing in a draughty tunnel beside the away dressing-room. That and the dugout were the only parts of the ground to which Scally allowed him access.
A year after Pulis left, Gillingham beat Stoke in a play-off semi-final, going on to defeat Wigan at Wembley, but the clubs' fortunes have reversed since then. The Potters are in a different league, literally and metaphorically, but that was not immediately obvious as their League Two opponents put their visitors under early pressure.
Chris Whelpdale had already threatened from Charlie Lee's cross when Danny Jackman clipped in a ball that Lewis Montrose flicked on and Kedwell stabbed in from four yards. Kedwell, who watched the Gills as a boy, and left AFC Wimbledon to go home last summer, said: "I thought then we might be the upset."
For a quarter of an hour this looked likely as Gillingham pressed, but Curtis Weston shot over when he should have sent Whelpdale clear. Stoke's only threats were from set-pieces, with Ryan Shawross turning one corner into the side-netting and Huth heading over from another.
Then Gillingham gave possession away cheaply in their own half and Jerome sent Walters clear. His shot was weak but Ross Flitney allowed it to slip under his body. The belief seemed to ebb out of Gillingham and Stoke took command. Their second came from a familiar route, a Rory Delap throw-in. Shawcross turned it against the bar and when the ball dropped Jerome tapped in.
Four minutes after the break, Huth, unchallenged, ran in to head home a Wilson Palacios corner. After that it seemed just a matter of how many Stoke would score, but after Kedwell cleared off the line and Walters and Jerome both blazed over Gillingham rallied and should have made it a tense finish. But Andy Frampton miskicked when Lee's 86th-minute corner fell to him five yards out, while Asmir Begovic denied Luke Rooney, the home side's promising young winger.
"For 35 minutes there was only one team in the game," said the Gills' manager, Andy Hessenthaler, "but in the last 10 minutes of the first half we were punished and that lifted them. We then switched off for five minutes in the second half and had a mountain to climb after that."
Gillingham (4-1-4-1): Flitney; Lawrence (Rooney, 65), Richards, Frampton, Jackman; Montrose (S Payne, 76); Lee, Weston, J Payne, Whelpdale; Kedwell (Oli, 63).
Stoke (4-4-2): Begovic; Woodgate, Shawcross, Huth, Upson; Shotton (Whelan, 52), Palacios (Whitehead, 61), Delap, Jerome; Walters, Jones (Fuller, 73).
Referee Mark Halsey.
Man of the match Lee (Gillingham).
Match rating 7/10.