Weah's Wembley reminder haunts brave Gillingham

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The Independent Football

It finished with the scores level, just as the epic Second Division play-off final did two seasons ago, although this time they were spared a penalty shoot-out.

It finished with the scores level, just as the epic Second Division play-off final did two seasons ago, although this time they were spared a penalty shoot-out.

Gillingham will have a slight advantage at Priestfield for the second leg of this Worthington Cup tie and but for a desperate late rally from Manchester City that had echoes of Wembley they would be defending a lead.

George Weah, who was most definitely not part of City's plans in the Second Division, saved them from embarrassment eight minutes from time as he drove in Alfie Haaland's deflected cross past Vince Bartram, who had hitherto been immaculate in the Gillingham goal.

It was not quite like 30 May 1999, the day that City's great revival truly began amid hysteria that, according to one supporter, "had not been seen since Little Jimmy Osmond came to Manchester".

Nevertheless, this was a match to be taken seriously; the Kippax was almost full and Joe Royle sent out virtually a full-strength side against a team that 16 months ago had come within a minute of keeping his club marooned three flights down in English football.

This was not just out of respect for Gillingham. Royle was part of the League Cup winning side that, as United fans are wont to remind him, was the last Manchester City team to win a major trophy. "We have not had much cup fever around Maine Road," he said. "Although we have had every other kind of emotion."

Gillingham, however, were not prepared to roll over; whether or not Weah and Paulo Wanchope were leading the City attack. Carl Asaba, who scored the opening goal in the play-off final, drove a shot wide after a couple of minutes and after half an hour Paul Ritchie was forced to head smartly off the line.

Their defence generally kept City's forward line at bay, although just before the interval Bartram was forced into a smart save from Mark Kennedy. Only once in the first half did they appear to crack when Weah twisted past three defenders, closed in on goal only to loft the ball over both Bartram and the crossbar.

City's inability to break through was punished just after the hour when Gillingham upset every calculation. Nicky Weaver could only palm away Chris Hope's header from a left-wing corner into the path of Paul Smith, who hovering around the penalty spot stabbed home.

With 15 minutes remaining, Gillingham should have killed the game if not the tie as, with Weaver beaten, Kennedy cleared Marcus Browning's shot off the line.

City's response to going behind was fitful, although Weah wriggled through a maze of defenders and forced a fine block from Bartram, and the rebound might have been turned in by Wanchope but for an outstanding tackle from Barry Ashby.

Manchester City: (3-5-2): Weaver; Prior, Haaland, Ritchie; Crooks (Granville, h-t), Wright-Phillips (Dickov, 67), Whitley, Bishop (Jobson, 73), Kennedy; Weah, Wanchope. Substitutes not used: Allsop, Wright (gk).

Gillingham: (3-5-2): Bartram; Hope, Butters, Ashby; Southall, Smith, Hessenthaler, Browning (Saunders, 90), Edge; King, Asaba (Thomson, 87). Substitutes not used: Patterson, Lewis, James.

Referee: D Pugh (Bebington).