Gills blow more of a sickener than City thrashing
NIGEL Clough had hoped Burton Albion’s upturn in League One form would not be impacted by their Carabao Cup thrashing at the hands of Manchester City in midweek.
But the question now is not how can they respond to a 9-0 humbling at the hands of the outstanding Premier League champions.
Instead, Albion must bounce back from one of their most deflating defeats of the season, 3-2 at the hands of a Gillingham side who have now done the double over them.
How they kick on from here will be the truest test of the character in the Burton squad and whether they are able to learn from the issues that have continually held their hopes of a promotion push back over the past six months.
The Brewers dominated Saturday’s loss to the Gills.
They finished the game with 62% of the possession, with 31 shots to the visitors’ seven and with Scott Fraser looking to make it two Burton hat-tricks in a week, following on from Marcus Harness at Rochdale.
But Gillingham, on the back of an FA Cup third round win over Cardiff City, were ruthless where Albion too often lacked a killer instinct.
And while they were opened up at will early on, the visiting defence ultimately held firm when it mattered most. The same could not be said of the hosts.
One of the Brewers’ three changes came at the back, with Jake Buxton forced out by illness.
So, too, Marcus Harness, with Ben Fox and Will Miller replacing them. Fox took the right-back role as John Brayford moved to centre-half, while Stephen Quinn returned from a groin injury in place of Kieran Wallace.
Those switches provided some fresh legs after the defeat to City only three days earlier - but there did not look to be any players struggling for intensity or tempo from the off.
Within three minutes, Liam Boyce did well to loop a header backwards and on to the angle of crossbar and post.
Lucas Akins was the next to come close, steering Reece Hutchinson’s cut-back wide of the near post.
While final passes were lacking once Burton got into the channels, they repeatedly opened up the visitors through direct running.
Fraser and Akins led that charge, slicing through a disjointed Gillingham midfield.
From one mazy run, Akins saw a left-footed shot held by Tomas Holy. From another, he laid the ball back for Fox to curl an effort towards the far post but Luke O’Neil scooped it off the line.
Burton had amassed 11 shots by the 21st minute, without the visitors registering a single attempt on Bradley Collins’ goal.
But that counted for little when Elliott List picked up the ball in space on the halfway line.
The Gills forward still had plenty to do but he outpaced Brayford down the outside, burst into the Burton box and rolled a calm finish between Collins’ legs to open the scoring.
That goal rocked the hosts, even though they came close to an immediate response when Fraser’s curling free kick crashed off the outside of Holy’s left-hand post.
List worked himself room to force a near-post save from Collins, with Gillingham spurred on.
Things got worse for Burton in a crucial passage of play on the stroke of half-time.
Possession was cheaply given away on the edge of the Brewers’ box and Ben Turner brought down Regan Charles-Cook before he could break into the box.
Turner was booked for the challenge but Albion would be further punished when O’Neil’s curling attempt from the set-piece struck Quinn’s arm.
Referee Peter Wright awarded the penalty and former Brewers midfielder Callum Reilly converted from the spot.
That goal meant Albion would have to come back from two goals down for the first time this season if
they were to salvage something from the game.
Their response at the start of the second half suggested they felt they could do just that.
After the match, Fraser said the Burton players spoke at half-time of going on to win the game by a couple of goals, so dominant had they felt before the break.
And it was the ex-Dundee United midfielder who would fire his side back into contention.
Moments after Akins was superbly denied by Holy from close range, Fraser received the ball from a corner, nudged the ball around his marker and arrowed a low shot in off the far post.
That was in the 52nd minute. On the hour mark, Nigel Clough’s side were level.
This was a rare Burton goal on the counter-attack. Boyce headed a loose ball into Fraser’s path in midfield and the 23-year-old charged upfield before feeding Miller to his left.
Miller held on to it long enough for Fraser to find some space in the Gills’ box before rolling the ball into his path, where the dynamic midfielder lashed a confident finish past Holy for his sixth goal of the campaign.
The on-field celebrations were short-lived, as Fraser urged his team-mates back to the halfway line. They sensed a game there for the taking.
They got straight back on to the front foot but, crucially, Gillingham rode out the storm and Albion could not find a third goal while the momentum was with them.
David Templeton replaced Miller and new signing Josh Clarke, on loan from Brentford, came on for his debut at Fox’s expense.
Clough elected to put Clarke on the right wing, with Akins, who had caused countless problems for Gillingham down that flank, moving to right-back.
It was Templeton who came close to a breakthrough, testing Holy down low. He could only parry the effort and when Jamie Allen raced in to retrieve the rebound, he went down under pressure from Alex Lacey.
The Burton bench were up as one, appealing for a penalty, but nothing was given and, as play continued and the visitors broke, it took a superb Collins save to deny List as he again burst past Brayford.
By the time six minutes of stoppage time were shown on the fourth official’s board, it seemed that Burton may only get one more chance.
There would indeed be only one more opening - but it would go Gillingham’s way.
Having soaked up periods of the second half in the face of relentless pressure, the visitors worked a move down the left flank for Brendan Hanlan, whose low cross was laid off by List into the path of substitute Josh Rees, in space to guide a finish past Collins for the winner.
Clough bemoaned the costliness of soft goals in his post-match interview and he says Burton are working to bring in a centre-half this week.
The week ahead will be the Brewers’ first without a midweek game for a month and the seven days before the trip to take on Doncaster Rovers will be a crucial recovery period.
But after seeing a four-game unbeaten run in the League draw to a gut-wrenching conclusion, Albion’s psychological response to a 12th loss of the campaign could be just as important.
Scott Fraser fires in a shot for Burton Albion to make it 2-2 in the second half against Gillingham but the Brewers were unable to go on to complete a comeback victory. Below, Gills goalkeeper Tomas Holy can only watch on helplessly as a low shot from Fraser (partly hidden) sneaks through to make it 2-1.