Sunderland face Gillingham at the Priestfield Stadium on Saturday, in their ninth match of the 2020/21 League One campaign. Parkinson’s men travel to Kent after failing to win their last two games against Portsmouth and Rochdale, dropping the Black Cats to seventh in the table.
Steve Evans’ side have started the season well, but have failed to pick up a point in their last four league games. Consecutive defeats to MK Dons, Portsmouth, Fleetwood and Ipswich have dropped the Gills to 16th in the table.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Gillingham fan and VAVEL deputy editor, Lewis Browning, to discuss his side’s summer recruitment, and to see what Sunderland fans can expect from the match.
MC: Sunderland failed to beat Gillingham in four attempts under Phil Parkinson last season. Why do you think the Gills have become our bogey team?
LB: I think Evans enjoys being the underdog. He likes to talk up opposition teams and downplay ourselves in terms of our youth, inexperience and, in particular, our spending. Sunderland are by far the biggest team in the league and I think Evans thrives on that.
We have also, speaking truthfully, got to remember that even though Sunderland are the biggest team in the league, they may not be the best. Anyone truly can beat anyone.
MC: Steve Evans is a notorious figure in management within the EFL. How is he viewed by the Gillingham fanbase?
LB: I would say he is mostly liked. When he was announced as the new manager just over a year ago opinions were split – he is certainly a controversial character. But he is also a winner. He soon got fans onside with his honesty and openness at a fans’ forum.
He bonded with the fans last season, and I think he is now judged completely in footballing terms rather than what may or may not have happened in his past. I’m certainly a fan.
MC: After a brilliant start to the season, Gillingham have lost their last four games without scoring. What are the reasons behind the team’s inconsistency so far?
LB: We have had a lot of injuries, but I don’t want to make excuses. Truth be told, we have been very shaky at the back and, like you say, we haven’t scored in any of the games either. Evans is still searching for a system that works and, after looking decent going forward for a period, we are once again struggling. It is very hard to pinpoint one reason for our poor form, but I do hope it changes soon.
MC: Mika Mandron’s brace for Gillingham last season planted a significant nail in Sunderland’s promotion hopes. Were you surprised that he was allowed to leave for League One rivals Crewe?
LB: Evans made it clear that he wanted to keep Mandron and planned to offer him a deal but, as a club, we held back offering new contracts until we had a start date for the new season. Before we got that, a few players that we would have liked to have kept, left – Mandron included. But life goes on.
He has done well at Crewe, but I think we have a very good replacement in Vadaine Oliver, so he has not been missed too badly.
MC: As well as Mandron, the Gills lost captain Max Ehmer and young striker Brandon Hanlon to Bristol Rovers. How did the fanbase react to losing those players?
LB: Again, both were players we wanted to keep. Like Mandron, Ehmer left before we could offer players new deals, I assume for security, but Hanlan left after the season had started.
We have lost better players than Ehmer before and been okay but, being an experienced head and our captain, fans worried he would leave a hole in our defence. And he has done. Our oldest centre-half is now 22, and we are missing the experience at the back.
As for Hanlan, I think we offered him about four deals, and word around Medway was that he had received some bad advice from an agent. He trained with us all summer and played for us all pre-season before leaving after the season had started, and it was a really messy situation. Fans were happy to see the back of the situation as a whole when it was over, but Hanlan is a player with lots of potential, and he would’ve been brilliant to hold onto. But, again, life goes on.
MC: In a huge turnover, Steve Evans signed 15 new players over the summer transfer window. Which players have been the most effective so far?
LB: I think Kyle Dempsey and Jordan Graham arrived with the biggest reputations. Dempsey has had a stop-start season so far with injuries, but he was named our captain and he will do well for us. Graham has been the man – pretty much everything goes through him and he has four goals and an assist from nine games so far this year – and should probably have more with some of the chances we’ve missed.
A shout-out must go to Ryan Jackson at right back, too, who has led the team excellently in the absence of Kyle Dempsey and Stuart O’Keefe.
MC: The COVID-19 pandemic has placed the long-term future of many EFL clubs under threat. What financial shape are Gillingham in currently?
LB: Our latest figures show that we made losses of around £550,000 over the period to May 2019, so that was even before the pandemic started. But, under Paul Scally – who has been very open in the press about how the pandemic has impacted things – we have never really been in any financial trouble, and I don’t think we are at the moment. Of course that will change the longer we have no money coming in, but we have splashed out in terms of signings this year and I think we are safe for now.
MC: Who are the eleven Gillingham players you predict Steve Evans will select against Sunderland and what style of play can we expect to face?
LB: Evans perhaps infamously insists on a direct approach to his play, which isn’t always pretty on the eye, but it has been successful for him in the past. He often wants his players to hit the big man, but is also happy to see his team play when they can. You will see a lot of crosses into the box for sure.
We have plenty of injuries at the moment – Stuart O’Keefe and Jacob Mellis are both out for the season and the likes of Ryan Jackson and Tom O’Connor are out too – so it is hard to pick a side, but I think I have a pretty good idea.
4-4-2: Jack Bonham, Robbie McKenzie, Jack Tucker, Zech Medley, Connor Ogilvie; Jordan Graham, Josh Eccles, Kyle Dempsey, Alex MacDonald; Dominic Samuel, Vadaine Oliver.
Bonham, Dempsey and Oliver aren’t fully fit, but they should be okay.
MC: Both sides are heading into the match in poor form. What is your honest prediction of the final score?
LB: Gillingham really cannot afford to lose again here. Losing five in a row would be an absolute travesty – obviously we would have to move forward, but it would be far from ideal. But we really are struggling at the minute and losing late on against Ipswich was a real dagger to the chest after playing well and looking good for a point.
Sunderland haven’t won in their last two, but they are a good side nonetheless. I will go with a 0-0 draw on the day.