Wigan Athletic lost to a goal in each half by Gillingham’s Bradley Dack in gruelling heat on the South coast.
Latics enjoyed plenty of possession throughout but the ball just didn’t fall for them in the final third and they were brilliantly denied an equaliser midway through the second half when Gills keeper Stuart Nelson dived at the feet of Wiill Grigg, which may well have changed the outcome of the match.
Dack’s late penalty was a sucker punch and Latics were forced to make the long journey back north empty-handed.
Gary Caldwell made just the one change from Wednesday’s defeat of Scunthorpe United, Kevin Mcnaughton making his first league start for the club in place of Jonjoe Kenny.
Gillingham were the first to show, Dack testing Richard O’Donnell in the Latics goal from distance inside the first minute. Gillingham dominated the early exchanges, with Latics content to contain and get their passing game going, eventually threatening in the 18th minute.
Michael Jacobs’ deep free kick from the right hand touchline was flicked on by Craig Davies and it fell to Chris McCann and John Egan at the far post. McCann appealed for a corner as the ball flew inches over the bar as both players went for the ball, but a goal-kick was given.
David Perkins then sent Jacobs away through the middle dangerously, but the ball was cleared, as was a corner a minute later as Latics continued pressing. The best opportunity came on 31 minutes when Grigg shot from distance after a run by McCann down the left, Nelson saving comfortably enough.
But the half turned when referee Trevor Kettle offered a drinks break to the players on 33 minutes – an unusual but very sensible gesture in the circumstances.
Gillingham were the quickest to react after the restart, and after Latics failed to deal with a run down the right by Rory Donnelly, the ball fell to Dack on the edge of the area and his shot through outstretched legs beat O’Donnell.
Latics immediately suffered another blow McNaughton pulled up and limped off in some distress, replaced by Kenny. Caldwell made another substitution at the break, Sean Murray replacing Francisco Junior.
Gillingham threatened straightaway as Murray’s stray pass in the centre circle was knocked forward to Luke Norris and it took a fantastic goal-saving tackle from Latics skipper Craig Morgan to clear the danger.
Latics were then denied a superb equaliser on 54 minutes when Murray redeemed himself with a great cross from the right, Grigg slid in at the far post and Nelson made an instinctive save with his feet at point blank range.
Gillingham immediately broke away and Donnelly’s drive rattled back off O’Donnell’s far upright and back came Latics. Gillingham almost scored again on the break, this time Norris’ volley whistling inches wide on the angle.
The game ebbed and flowed with both teams having spells of possession but nothing clear cut in terms of opportunities and Gary Caldwell’s final substitution, a positive one on 76 minutes, came as he sacrificed a defender in Reece James and replaced him with Billy Mckay for his first appearance of the season.
Instead of making an impact in the right half of the field, however, Gillingham immediately won a penalty in the 82nd minute when Donervon Daniels was judged to have pulled down Dack in the box, and he picked himself up to score his and Gillingham’s second of the afternoon, sending O’Donnell the wrong way.