Peterborough United star George Boyd summed this mess of a match up best: ‘That’s one of the worst five games I’ve ever played in,’ said the veteran of almost 600 senior appearances.
Significantly Boyd was smiling as he said it while emerging from the players’ tunnel after the game at the Priestfield Stadium. The only enjoyment to be taken from error-strewn contests comes in the form of a three-point haul, and Posh overcame some tricky circumstances to see off a typical team of Steve Evans’ battlers.
Three forced player changes, two alterations to a defence that kept a clean sheet in their previous outing and no Marcus Maddison which had the knock-on effect of reducing the effectiveness of a pair of free-scoring strikers, one of whom, Ivan Toney, played with an ankle problem. Not that Maddison would have enjoyed playing on grass so long Posh reserve goalkeeper Aaron Chapman likened the surface to a scene from jungle film Jumanji.
No wonder Posh manager Darren Ferguson celebrated the final whistle with a huge smile and a fist pump. His 400th game in charge of Posh had delivered win number 177 and the boss had played a big part in the success.
Ferguson moved Niall Mason from right-back to a defensive midfield position and the player responded with a performance of calm authority until gifting Gillingham a late goal with an ill-advised backpass.
And the manager switched from his beloved midfield diamond to a 3-5-2 formation after half an hour which stopped home forward Brandon Hanlon from breezing past Mark Beevers into space in the left channel and also gave licence to the recalled Joe Ward to stride forward purposely from the right-side of the defence, something he did with great effect to blast Posh into the lead with a stunning strike from 25 yards five minutes before the break.
“We had prepared to change formations early in the game depending on what we saw Gillingham doing,” Ferguson revealed. “We’re comfortable in that formation and it certainly blocked the space Hanlon had been enjoying.
“We were far from our best, but any win at Gillingham is a good win. They left the grass long which they are entitled to so. This is League One not the Premier League and we have to put up with this sort of thing.”
Shrewd man that he is Ferguson will know Posh won’t always be able to rely on ‘worldies’ to win matches. They created very little in this game once Mo Eisa’s first-minute shot following a Siriki Dembele dribble had been blocked. Eisa did catch Toney on 10 goals from the penalty spot after Gills midfielder Mark Byrne had inexplicably handled Ward’s flat corner early in the second-half, a moment of madness that ultimately proved decisive.
“I wouldn’t expect a 10 year-old to have done what he did,” Evans said in typically forthright terms after the game. “At least the referee saw that one, He didn’t see a lot else all afternoon.”
Evans, for all his soothing words before the game, hasn’t calmed down a lot since his departure from London Road nine months ago. The fourth official probably left the game with earache, although Posh coach Aaron Mclean, who was cautioned, and Evans’ faithful sidekick Paul Raynor, who wasn’t, were responsible for a lot of that.
“I’m not going to criticise the referee,” Evans added before calling Charles Breakspear ‘hopeless’ 30 seconds later.
The home side did enjoy spells of pressure either side of substitute Mikael Mandron’s 81st-minute goal, but lacked the quality to take advantage.
Connor Ogilvie headed a decent chance from a corner wide late on and Mandron missed an awkward volley just before he scored. Mark Marshall’s last-gasp cross glanced the Posh crossbar leaving goalkeeper Christy Pym’s second minute block from Mikael Ndjoli as another crucial moment in this season of great goals and defensive mishaps.
Posh ground out another win, but did they really answer questions about the strength in depth of the squad? Not completely.
Ward was good as he scored for the second game in a row, albeit in matches 18 days apart, and Rhys Bennett stood tall at centre-back in the second-half, but the individualistic Dembele was no replacement for Maddison in the number 10 role.
Posh: Christy Pym, Niall Mason, Frazer Blake-Tracy, Mark Beevers, Rhys Bennett, Josh Knight, Joe Ward (sub Idris Kanu, 90 mins), George Boyd, Siriki Dembele (sub Dan Butler, 74 mins), Ivan Toney, Mo Eisa (sub Alex Woodyard, 86 mins).
Unused substitutes: Aaron Chapman, Nathan Thompson, Kyle Barker, Harrison Burrows.
Gillingham: Jack Bonham, Jack Tucker, Connor Ogilvie, Max Ehmer, Tom O’Connor, Mark Byrne, Alfie Jones, Stuart O’Keefe (sub Mark Marshall, 83 mins), Oliver Lee (sub Mikael Mandron, (64 mins), Brandon Hanlan, Mikael Ndjoli (sub Alex Jakubiak, 57 mins).
Unused substitutes: Joe Walsh, Lee Hodson, Regan Charles-Cook.
Goals: Posh - Ward (40 mins), Eisa (pen, 52 mins).
Gillingham _ Madron (81 mins).
Cautions: Posh - Mclean (coach, dissent), Knight (foul).
Gillingham - Ehmer (foul).
Referee: Charles Breakspear 7
Attendance: 6,269 (554 Posh).