Whatever the Football Association do to Ron Atkinson when he appears before them on two disrepute charges tomorrow, it will not match the ordeal he suffered at Priestfield Stadium last night.
His Coventry team looked set for their third and most comfortable win of the season when Paul Telfer scored twice in three minutes just before the half-hour. An hour later they were hanging on for a replay after Gillingham were rewarded for a stirring fightback with second-half goals from Iffy Onuora and Simon Ratcliffe.
Ratcliffe's strike, a superb effort from fully 30 yards, would have brought a bitter nod of recognition from Ron Atkinson. Eleven years ago he signed Ratcliffe, now 29, on professional forms for Manchester United. Ratcliffe failed to make the first team at Old Trafford and was sold, by Alex Ferguson, to Norwich.
Last night he was part of a Gillingham revival that underlined the fragility of Atkinson's expensively assembled team. For a brief period Coventry were flowing, their Premiership superiority evident in a series of neat moves mostly involving John Salako.
But when the match swung against them their confidence drained away. Even before Onuora's 57th-minute goal, his eighth in eight games, they were a mess. The pressure told on Paul Williams, who was fortunate not to be sent off after a bout of fisticuffs with Steve Butler. But it did not faze Steve Ogrizovic, who made a series of fine saves despite playing with his broken nose, an in injury he picked up at Highbury on Saturday in controversial circumstances. The Coventry goalkeeper was greeted, incidentally, with chants of "Ian Wright, Wright, Wright." He responded with a wave.
All the ingredients for an upset were there last night. The kick-off had to be delayed while the 10,000-plus crowd was shoe-horned into the creaking Priestfield Stadium. The hosts, fresh from promotion to the Second Division, were brimming with confidence. The visitors, one off the bottom of the Premiership, were vulnerable. There was even the prospect of momentous events - Big Ron, so it was whispered, could be heading for premature retirement if Coventry lost.
Gillingham began brightly but, for all their possession, Coventry showed the greater class. Salako was given far too much space and, after 25 minutes, he picked out the equally unmarked Dion Dublin at the far post. Dublin laid the ball back and Telfer shot into the roof of the net. Three minutes later Telfer was there again, this time heading in Salako's cross. With Gary McAllister twice going close to a third, Coventry looked at ease.
Twelve minutes later they were in distress as Onuora twisted to head in Dennis Bailey's cross. Gillingham poured on the pressure and, with 14 minutes left, Coventry cracked. The replay is on 13 November. It will not be a foregone conclusion.
Gillingham (5-3-2): Stannard; Smith, Morris, Bryant, Harris, Chapman; Bailey (Puttnam, 84), Hessenthaler, Ratcliffe; Onuora, Butler. Substitutes not used: Thomas, O'Connor.
Coventry City (4-4-2): Ogrizovic; Borrows, Williams, Shaw, Hall; Telfer, McAllister, Richardson, Salako; Whelan, Dublin. Substitutes not used: Jess, Ndlovu, Filan (gk).
Referee: P Durkin (Portland, Dorset).Reuse content