THE owners of two magical left feet turned a difficult game on its head to earn United a fantastic victory over table-topping Gillingham at Plainmoor.
A tight but entertaining first half was surpassed by a sizzling second period, although it started in horrible fashion for the Gulls, as veteran forward Deon Burton opened the scoring with a neat volley.
The Yellows spent mere seconds licking their wounds before the dazzling left foot of Nathan Craig had equalised direct from a corner. Step aside the rookie in left foot wizardry for the experienced magician, and Kevin Nicholson was the hero with a sensational thumping winner five minutes from time.
United manager Martin ling made two changes to the side beaten 3-2 at Bristol Rovers on Saturday, one enforced and one tactical. A red card to Joe Oastler led to his suspension, granting Daniel Leadbitter his first league start as a Gull.
The tactical switch came on the wing, where Danny Stevens was restored in place of Craig, who shuffled back into the engine room, bumping Craig Easton down to the bench. The reorganisation also led to a recall for Kirtys MacKenzie among the replacements.
Gillingham boss Martin Allen was slightly more ruthless in his selection, bringing in four new faces from the side that battered Burton 4-1 on the weekend. Callum Davies and Bradley Dack came into midfield at the expense of Charlie Allen and Lewis Montrose.
The other two switches came in attack, where Myles Weston and leading scorer Danny Kedwell were rested. The preferred duo was speedy American Robbie Findley alongside the experienced Jamaican international Burton.
All the ingredients were in place for a proper League 2 battle; a skiddy surface under the floodlights with an expectant crowd, and both sides started the game at a high tempo that had Plainmoor bubbling in anticipation.
For all the good intentions, however, a decent passing rhythm proved elusive, although one attempted defence-splitter from Craig came within a shoe size of beating Gills’ full-back Joe Martin and finding the run of Billy Bodin down the right.
At the other end, the visitors created space for Chris Whelpdale to dink over a cross from the left and Burton rose above Aaron Downes to win a header that fortunately lacked sufficient power to trouble Michael Poke in United’s goal.
Bodin was next to threaten, picking the pocket of Martin before dancing inside on his favoured left foot and fizzing a low shot into the near-post side-netting. Seconds later, Craig found space 25 yards from goal but his shot flew comfortably over Stuart Nelson’s crossbar.
The first big chance of the evening arrived on 20 minutes when the burning pace of Findley was too much for Downes but the low cross was just behind Burton, who scooped over from just inside the box.
United responded with a fabulous move down the left flank and Stevens showed excellent pace to nip in behind his full-back before measuring the ball inside to onrushing captain Lee Mansell, who got plenty of power on his shot but was denied the opening goal by the legs of Nelson.
The Gulls were suddenly finding their range, as a Craig foray down the right ended in a clipped pass for Bodin, who killed the ball instantly before digging out a fine right-footed drive that had Nelson scrambling across his goal to push wide.
Plainmoor was seething moments after when a seemingly well-executed tackle from Downes, who was last man, on Findley was adjudged a foul by the assistant referee and there was a collective sigh of relief as referee Brendan Malone only presented the Australian with a yellow card.
United’s next escape was even more dramatic, as a whipped Gillingham corner was punched clear by Poke, only for the immediate return to bounce off a succession of legs before Brian Saah hacked clear from under his own bar.
Strangely enough, the next Gills’ corner led to Howe racing clear to create a gilt-edged opportunity for Bodin, but the young Welshman shot tamely at Nelson and that was that for an intriguing first 45 minutes.
The searing pace of Findley was instantly to the fore after the restart, as a neat flick from Burton picked out the American for a run on Saah, but the finish was comfortable for Poke.
From nowhere, Gillingham were in front after a simple moment of defensive confusion between Saah and Leadbitter resulted in the big centre-back heading against the shoulder of the young full-back.
Time momentarily stood still as the ball looped perfectly for Burton to execute a controlled volley past Poke and into the bottom corner. It was cruel on the two Yellow protagonists but still an accomplished finish from the Jamaican.
United were soon level, and in the strangest fashion, as Craig scored with a whipped corner that evaded the desperate reach of Nelson to find the far top corner. It may not have been deliberate but it was certainly welcome, and Craig’s left peg is such a wand that maybe there was an element of intent.
Plainmoor was now rocking and there was genuine verve in United’s play, as a beautifully constructed move led to Rene Howe flicking the ball inside for a first-time shot by Stevens, and Nelson could only just parry wide.
United’s next incisive attack was even better, Mansell picking out Howe on the edge of the area and the big striker pirouetted and in one fluid movement, steered a left-foot shot toward the far corner.
For all the world it looked a goal but Nelson somehow got enough of a fingertip to divert the ball on to the post and wide, and full credit to the Gillingham ‘keeper, it was a save that made impressive amends for his loss of bearings from the Yellow equaliser.
The game retained its fizz for the next 10 minutes but neither side could fashion a significant opening, and Ling was forced into a defensive change, introducing Thomas Cruise for the war-weary Leadbitter.
It was a game that needed something special and, as is so often the case, the left foot of Nicholson provided that moment. There seemed little danger when he collected the ball 30 yards from goal but within a flash, his smashing drive had taken a slight deflection and rocketed into the roof of Nelson’ net.
A spark of individual brilliance had won the game and United had proved, at their best, they can beat the best.
Gulls (4-3-3): 1 Michael Poke; 12 Daniel Leadbitter (21 Thomas Cruise 83), 5 Brian Saah, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 7 Lee Mansell (capt), 6 Damon Lathrope, 20 Nathan Craig; 15 Billy Bodin, 9 Rene Howe, 19 Danny Stevens. Substitutes (not used): 8 Ryan Jarvis, 13 Martin Rice (GK), 18 Craig Easton, 23 Ashley Yeoman, 29 Niall Thompson, 30 Kirtys MacKenzie.
Booked: Downes 37, Leadbitter 44
Gills (4-4-2): 1 Stuart Nelson; 2 Matt Fish, 6 Tom Flanagan, 26 Adam Barrett (capt), 3 Joe Martin (12 Andy Frampton 45); 15 Callum Davies, 4 Jack Payne (10 Ben Strevens 70), 18 Bradley Dack, 7 Chris Whelpdale; 20 Deon Burton, 29 Robbie Findley (24 Myles Weston 63). Substitutes (not used): 9 Danny Kedwell, 16 Lewis Montrose, 21 Tommy Forecast (GK), 27 Michael Freiter.
Booked: Fish 49
Referee: Brendan Malone
Attendance: 2,251 (205 away).