This was, as Nigel Clough admitted afterwards, probably the perfect start to Sheffield United’s 125th anniversary celebrations.
Ninety-six dramatic minutes which saw his players drag themselves back from the brink of defeat to win a match which, despite inexplicably falling behind during the closing stages, they dominated from start to finish.
Clough paid tribute to United’s character and courage after insisting it would have been a “travesty” if Luke Norris’ superb late strike had secured all three points for Gillingham.
Jamie Murphy was in no mood to argue after scoring the stoppage-time goal which, following Michael Higdon’s equaliser, ensured a miscarriage of justice was avoided.
“We’ve shown out there that, no matter what happens, the group of players here now will never, ever give up,” he said. “And hopefully that will stand us in good stead for the rest of the season.
“Some of my best friends are here. We’re mates rather than just teammates and that’s why we’ll always fight for each other right until the bitter end.
“I don’t think anyone could argue that we didn’t deserve to win that match. It looked like it wasn’t going to happen but, because of the atmosphere there is behind the scenes, we got there in the end, and that’s what’s most important.”
United, who commemorated the landmark occasion with a gala dinner at Ponds Forge on Saturday evening, did everything but score before Higdon and Murphy pounced during the closing stages.
Marc McNulty, who received a standing ovation when he made way for Higdon with 20 minutes remaining, drew two fine saves from Stephen Bywater, the former Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper, before hitting the post with a low angled drive.
Higdon, scoring for the second time in as many games, was also thwarted by the woodwork having earlier watched from the bench as Stefan Scougall, Michael Doyle and James Wallace were all denied.
Against the odds, Norris’ strike - a powerful, angled shot which found its way into the back of Mark Howard’s net via the underside of the crossbar - appeared destined to secure Gillingham an improbable victory and extend their unbeaten run at Bramall Lane to seven games.
But United, Higdon and Murphy in particular, had other ideas.
“I think that was probably quite a fitting game to have given the date,” Clough said afterwards. “We’ve had everything in one match that the club has gone through in its history. Highs, lows and jubilation. The whole lot.
“To be fair, I think it would have been a travesty if we hadn’t taken at least something from that because we created so many chances and so many good situations.
“When they scored we were on the bench thinking it was going to be one of those days when you do everything in your power but just don’t get the break.
“Fortunately, though, the lads just kept on going and kept on believing in themselves.
They deserve a lot of credit for that but,I just wish we could have made it easier for ourselves and wrapped it up sooner. I think that would have helped everybody’s nerves.”
Had United gone about their business with a little bit more zip during the early exchanges then they would almost certainly have obliged. Ben Davies set the tone when he stripped Kortney Hause of possession in the fourth minute but elected to shoot rather than square for the unmarked McNulty.
Jay McEveley glanced a header just wide as United continued to control proceedings before Wallace shot past the post.
McNulty drew the first of several smart saves from Bywater on the stroke of half-time while Gillingham’s Amine Linganzi cleared Harrison McGahey’s effort off the line during the scramble which followed.
“We got ourselves on top and I thought everyone contributed out there,” Murphy, showing signs of regaining the form which made him such a formidable proposition last term, said. “On a personal level, hopefully I’m getting close to my best because I want to help out the lads. As I say, the atmosphere is so good here behind the scenes, we’re such a tight group, that you don’t want to let anyone down.
“The manager has been great because I know I’ve not had the best of starts. But, with the rest of his staff, he just keeps encouraging me and telling me to run at defenders.
“He doesn’t make things complicated. He just asks us to focus on doing what we do best, as a team and as individuals.”
The pattern continued after the break with Gillingham, who by manager Peter Taylor’s own admission had arrived intent on fighting a rearguard action, retreating in two disciplined banks of four whenever United drove forward, which they continued to do but with greater precision and purpose.
“We had a game-plan and, I’m sure Nigel knows, it’s one that a lot of visitors are going to have when they come here,” Taylor said. “We stuck to it really well too and I thought it was going to pay off.
“You are going to see lots of matches like that here at Bramall Lane. It’s inevitable because Sheffield United are the promotion favourites so we make no apologies whatsoever. This is a difficult place to come to.
“Credit to United because they kept on going and got the result they wanted. But credit to my lads too because they were disciplined and put in so much themselves.
“They are disappointed not to take something because we came so close. But they should take a lot of heart from the performance. They can take confidence from coming here and showing that character.”
When Norris, a replacement for Cody McDonald, powered home with six minutes remaining an eerie silence enveloped the ground. But Bywater, who had earlier thwarted Wallace and Scougall with smart blocks, was powerless to prevent it being broken in spectacular fashion when Higdon, moments after seeing a header rebound off the upright, slid home after meeting Craig Alcock’s low centre.
Then Murphy, whose exchange with the United defender had set events in motion, swept the ball across Bywater and inside the far post. “It felt great to put that away,” Murphy said. “And hopefully there are going to be plenty more to follow because it’s important everyone chips in.
“Despite what some people say, we’ve shown we’ve got goals in this team and we know there are ourselves.
“So, if we can combine that with the type of attitude we’ve shown out there, then hopefully things will work out okay.”
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 6, Alcock 7, Wallace 8, Doyle 8, Murphy 8, Scougall 7, McNulty 7 (Higdon 75), Collins 7, B Davies 7 (Flynn 70, 6), McGahey 7, McEveley 7 (Harris 70, 6). Not used: Basham, Porter, Reed, Turner.
GILLINGHAM: Bywater 8, Martin 6, Egan 6, Hause 6, Loft 6, McDonald 6 (Norris 70, 7), Linganzi 7 (Hessenthaler 90), Pritchard 6, C Davies 6, Dickenson 6, Hoyte 6. Not used: Fish, McGlashan, Morris, German, Dack.