The Hatters were back on the road – and a long one at that, down to Kent – following their maximum points-haul over the Easter weekend, but had to settle for a share of the spoils after coming from behind at Gillingham.
Will Collar’s 88th-minute headed equaliser secured parity in a tight encounter that had seen the hosts take the lead nine minutes into the second half. The draw also extended the Hatters’ unbeaten run to nine matches, but saw them drop a position to fourth – two points off the automatic promotion places – and remain in search of a first victory at the Priestfield Stadium since the opening day of the 2000/01 campaign.
Following what been a week of persistent rain, County took to the field under a sky of white cloud and emerging sunshine, and with a starting line-up unchanged from that for the two Easter games at Sutton and in SK3 against Newport.
The Hatters’ bench featured one adjustment from those matches, as Callum Camps returned to replace the injured Antoni Sarcevic – while the hosts included among their substitutes midfielder Ethan Coleman, who had turned out for County as a trialist during the 2020 close season.
With the Hatters having triumphed in five of their last six matches on the road, and the ‘Gills’ making Priestfield into something of a fortress with eight wins in nine there, a close contest looked to be in prospect. But the hosts were handed an early scoring opportunity with just six minutes on the clock, as Neill Byrne’s mis-kick let in Alex MacDonald – only for the winger to be denied by Ben Hinchliffe, whose outstretched right leg kept out the shot.
Midway through the first half, a foul on Myles Hippolyte by Max Ehmer (clocking up his 350th Gillingham appearance) earned County a free-kick just outside the box – but the kick itself, from Ryan Rydel, took a deflection off Conor Masterson and spun over the crossbar.
Leading Gillingham scorer, Tom Nichols, let rip several minutes later with a shot that Hinchliffe did well to parry. And at the other end, 10 minutes ahead of the break, Akil Wright’s curling effort from the edge of the area narrowly cleared the bar.
The award of five additional minutes did nothing to break the stalemate. County earned a corner during the fourth of them – but Rydel’s in-swinging delivery from the right evaded all in attendance and drifted out beyond the far post.
HALF-TIME: Gillingham 0, County 0.
County made a double-substitution immediately upon the resumption – introducing Paddy Madden and Chris Hussey for Byrne and Jack Stretton, respectively – although the hosts were first to unleash a shot when, after a couple of second-half minutes, Ehmer drilled wide of the left post.
Two minutes later, Hippolyte went close for the Hatters – seeing his well-struck effort from the Gillingham ‘D’ tipped over by goalkeeper Glenn Morris. And ‘Hippo’ subsequently volleyed beyond the left upright following the resulting corner.
At the other end, Hinchliffe used his feet to keep out a low shot from Cheye Alexander – but he was powerless to stop the follow-up effort, as Gillingham kept the ball in play and the ball fell, courtesy of a deflection, to George Lapslie who hooked home from six yards.
The hosts continued to press, as an attempt by their captain, Shaun Williams, ricocheted off Hussey and into the arms of Hinchliffe – before County sought to respond through Kyle Wootton, who flicked on Rydel’s cross from the left for Morris to dive and smother, and Madden, whose shot from the right was deflected behind by Masterson.
With eight minutes remaining, a promising County move culminated in a low drive into the six-yard box by Collar that fell to Fraser Horsfall, who prodded beyond the left post. And, three minutes later, Collar headed over Hussey’s free-kick from the left.
But the Collar show had only just begun, and in the 88th minute he powered in another header, after connecting with Kyle Knoyle’s cross from the right, and beat Morris all ends up, at the end housing more than 500 jubilant travelling Hatters, to gain a point.
FULL-TIME: Gillingham 1 (Lapslie, 54), County 1 (Collar, 88).
Team (3-4-3): Hinchliffe; Wright (Camps, 64), Horsfall, Byrne (Hussey, 46); Knoyle, Collar, Croasdale (Capt.) (Olaofe, 74), Rydel (R. Johnson, 74); Stretton (Madden, 46), Wootton, Hippolyte.
Unused Subs: Jaros, Evans.
Attendance: 5,810 (519 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.