Away to Gillingham earlier this season was very much a “well this is going to be fun, isn’t it?” moment, coming back from a goal down and scoring four goals with some swashbuckling football - it looked like League One was ours for the taking.
It’s easy to forget though that Gillingham actually played alright on that balmy August evening. The way they got at us and caused some defensive problems was a bit of foreshadowing as to what we would see in the second half of the season.
If the Gills can bring that attitude to the SoL tonight, along with dangerous target man Tom Eaves, it could be yet another difficult night for Jack Ross and the lads.
To find out if the visitors think the story of the last few games will continue tonight, we caught up with Gillingham fan James Morgan.
RR: I thought you looked decent against us (despite the score line) earlier in the season and you’ve taken points from sides near the top, such as Portsmouth. So why the hell are you only three points from the relegation zone?!
JM: Our defensive solidity from last season has just completely evaporated. While we conceded 55 goals all last season, this season we’ve already conceded 53.
I’m not quite sure why - it’s almost the exact same back line. We looked half decent early on this season - including at home to Sunderland where I thought the scoreline did flatter you - but it’s been fairly miserable otherwise.
RR: Looking at it from the outside, I imagine Steve Lovell is the one uniting everyone at the club at the minute, given his history at Gillingham. Is that the case, is he a very important character or am I misreading it?
JM: I’d say our support is about as fractious as I can remember it, but the real point of contention is the chairman Paul Scally rather than the manager. A seemingly dwindling number see him as the man who saved us from destruction in the mid 1990’s and the rest think he’s taken the club as far as he can or worse, is running the club into the ground.
As for Steve Lovell, no one doubts his passion for the club - he never left the area after signing for us in the 1980’s and he’s held practically every coaching position going at the club over the years. I have a real fondness for him - he’s incredibly genuine, clearly loves the club and is learning on the job. It pains me to see him struggling.
However, we’re definitely seeing a bit more dissent among the fans about his position - with criticism focusing on his supposed tactical naivety and poor signings. On the signings I think he’s had about four quid to pay for wages so I think he’s done about as well as can be expected.
On Lovell’s tactics I think there’s an argument to be made - he is very inexperienced as a manager at this level and has shown a worrying tendency towards inflexibility and not knowing how to change things up when we’re doing badly.
RR: How do you see the season ending for Gills and where do you see the club going next season? Are their positives to hold on to or are you feeling pessimistic?
JM: After Saturday’s slightly better performance and 3 points against Scunthorpe I think we’ll just survive again, but I’m not particularly confident. Success is the same as it’s been for the past 3 seasons now: survival by any means.
So next season is either another struggle against relegation in League One or chasing the play-offs in League Two.
You don’t follow Gills for the glory.
RR: Given our bad form and shaky defence lately, I bet Tom Eaves can’t wait for this game. Eaves is an obvious threat but who else should Sunderland fans be keeping an eye on?
JM: Eaves has dropped off quite a bit recently to be honest - but then again his best performances have tended to be against the bigger clubs. I think he’ll be very up for it given that the rumours about you putting a bid in for him in January seem to have been unfounded. His goal return is pretty remarkable when you consider he’s playing for what is fundamentally a pretty rubbish football team.
Keep an eye out for our 6 foot 9 giant Czech goalkeeper Tomas Holy - he’s hard to miss but probably the only other current Gills player with realistic hopes of playing at a higher level.
Wigan loanee Leonardo da Silva Lopes has had a very positive start in midfield since signing for us on the last day of the transfer window.
RR: And what about Jack Ross’ side? Anyone you’re worried about in particular?
JM: At a conservative guess your wage bill is probably about 10 x ours... so everyone?
The likes of Aiden McGeady stick out a bit at this level. I’m going to tempt fate by saying that I’d take Eaves over any of your strikers though.
RR: How do you expect Lovell to approach this game? Will he really go for it given our recent form or do you see him playing it safe?
JM: I think he’ll stick with a similar line up to Saturday.
Where we have got results in games like this (e.g. Portsmouth away) we’ve relied on soaking up chances and hitting teams on the counter - we do have a lot of pace in the side with Elliot List and Brandon Hanlan.
RR: Finally, can we have a score prediction please?
JM: 3-1 to Sunderland.