As the clock ticked down in this FA Cup third-round tie Ashley Young and James Milner, two of the players Fabio Capello has identified as the future of English football, played keep-ball down by the corner flag.
The tactic was a measure of the fright Gillingham, of League Two, gave the Premier League's fourth-placed club at Priestfield Stadium. When Milner took advantage of sloppy defending with a clinical finish to give Villa an early lead, the pre-match fear of Mark Stimson, Gills' manager, that "it could be seven or eight-nil", loomed. But Gillingham, making light of a 73-place differential, rallied and levelled through Simeon Jackson's superb strike just before the hour mark.
A replay loomed, manna for impecunious Gillingham, and Martin O'Neill, the Villa manager, admitted that he would have settled for one at that stage. Then Young wriggled into the box, Gillingham's captain, Adam Miller, moved across to close him down, and Young tumbled over. Referee Keith Stroud pointed to the spot and Milner coolly converted.
Graham Taylor, the former Villa manager, who was in attendance, said he felt the penalty was "a very easy tumble". The home support wailed their disbelief and Miller, ironically clutching Young's shirt as he spoke, said "it was very soft, so disappointing. I wasn't even trying to tackle him". Stimson, however, was sanguine. "It was harsh, but I've seen them given. It probably wouldn't be a penalty in our division but these top players have such good balance you have to be spot on with any form of contact."
Young played partly because O'Neill had intended to pick a strong side and partly because with Gabriel Agbonlahor unwell he had few alternatives. Villa's bench, and the performances of some of the understudies who played, notably the woefully out-of-touch Nicky Shorey and Zat Knight, underlined the need for reinforcements if Villa are to maintain their Champions League push.
If they were down to the bare bones Gillingham were down to the marrow. Their bench included six youth-academy players, five of them Under 18s. Which meant the XI on the pitch had to do the job.
When Stilian Petrov stole the ball from Miller – as he tried to control Mark Bentley's risky pass out of defence – to set up Milner's opener, the task appeared beyond Gillingham. But with Nathan Delfouneso failing to capitalise on his selection, the home team were allowed to settle and press. Dennis Oli hit the side netting and Jackson headed wide. The latter, always a threat, then turned Knight and lashed his shot past Brad Friedel but a winner looked unlikely until Stroud intervened.
The consolation for a deflated Gillingham was the fourth-round draw: Cheltenham or Doncaster away. They may have missed out on playing at Villa Park, but not on another glamour tie. O'Neill admitted he was "happy just to be in the fourth round" and he was not just parroting a cliche.
Goals: Milner (13) 0-1; Jackson (57) 1-1; Milner (79pen).
Gillingham (4-4-2): Royce; Lewis, Bentley, King, Nutter; Oli, Weston, Miller, Barcham; Mulligan, Jackson. Substitutes not used: Pugh, Julian (gk), Essam, Rooney, Payne, Rance, Stimson.
Aston Villa (4-5-1): Friedel; Reo-Coker, Knight, Davies, Shorey; Milner, Gardner, Petrov, Sidwell, Young; Delfouneso (Harewood, 72). Substitutes not used: Salifou, Guzan (gk), Osbourne, Bannan, Clark, Lowry.
Referee: K Stroud (Dorset).
Booked: Gillingham Barcham, Bentley, Lewis; Aston Villa Reo-Coker, Davies.
Man of the match: Jackson.
Attendance: 10, 107.