James Milner scored twice on his 23rd birthday as Aston Villa avoided becoming the latest Premier League club to make an early FA Cup exit with a 2-1 third round win away to Gillingham.
But victory at Priestfield Stadium on Sunday was anything but assured for Martin O’Neill’s men.
In between Milner opening the scoring and netting a penalty 11 minutes from time, Villa — fourth in the Premier League and 74 places above Gillingham — were given a torrid time by their hosts from the fourth-tier League Two.
The lively Simeon Jackson drew Gillingham level in the 56th minute after a superb turn and shot left the Villa defense floundering.
“We knew it would be tough,” O’Neill said. “It was very hard. I’m delighted we got through, delighted for the supporters and we went as strong as we possibly could.”
“They [Gillingham] are very strong, they played very well and good luck to them this season,” he said.
Jackson said that his side had put up a good team performance.
“As a team we did very well, but unfortunately we couldn’t get the result. A bit of trickery from Ashley Young got the penalty and that’s how it goes sometimes,” Jackson said.
Villa, who were playing their first FA Cup tie of the season, went ahead in the 13th minute when they seized possession as an over-confident Gillingham paid the price for trying to play the ball out of defense.
Milner shrugged off Gills skipper Adam Miller, exchanged passes with Stiliyan Petrov and then beat goalkeeper Simon Royce with a well-directed shot into the far corner from the edge of the box.
Jackson’s pace, however, was a constant problem for the visitors’ defense and only a last-ditch tackle by Zat Knight prevented him surging into the box.
But Gillingham continued to press forward and forced three successive corners, the last of which was gathered by Villa keeper Brad Friedel.
Villa, for all that they were struggling in the possession stakes, could have doubled their lead through Nathan Delfouneso shortly before halftime, but the teenage striker volleyed wide from close range.
However, the goal the Kent side had been threatening came shortly before the hour mark.
Jackson was quickest to latch onto Gary Mulligan’s flicked-on header and he sped past Knight before unleashing a fierce strike that gave Friedel no chance.
Tempers began to fray as the tackles flew in and Gillingham looked just as likely to score on the counterattack as Villa.
But the game turned again when Villa’s Ashley Young was awarded a penalty after drawing a foul as he went across defender Miller inside the box.
Milner made no mistake with the 79th-minute spot-kick, shooting low and hard past the diving Royce’s right hand.