After losing 1-0 to League One leaders Coventry on Sunday, Sunderland return to the Stadium of Light where they will face Steve Evans’ Gillingham FC on Saturday.
Phil Parkinson will be aiming to rectify his poor record against the Gills as Sunderland manager, after being beaten 1-0 by them in both the league and the FA Cup earlier this season. Before losing to Wimbledon on Saturday, Gillingham were on an unbeaten run of 15 games which has seen them move into the top half of the table, still within a chance of finishing in the play-offs.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Gillingham blogger Lee Clifton, we discussed their recent fantastic run of form under Steve Evans, as well as if he believes they have a realistic chance of achieving a play-off finish.
MC: Gillingham manager Steve Evans took over from Steve Lovell in the summer - how would you review his tenure so far, and what changes has he brought to the club?
LC: There have been huge changes made to the playing squad across both transfer windows this season. In January, Gillingham signed striker John Akinde from Lincoln for a undisclosed transfer fee, whilst Olly Lee and Tom O’Connor extended there loan deals at the club. We also signed Jordan Roberts and Jordan Graham on loan until the season concludes. On the other hand, we had players whose loans expired such as our top scorer Alex Jakubiak. We shipped others out on loan or simply terminated their contracts.
Another key change this season under Steve Evans has been in mentality. Since winning the 2012/13 League Two title Gillingham have spent the majority of time since battling against the threat of relegation. This season the club have already achieved 50 points with ten matches remaining which is highly refreshing. We have an outside chance of achieving a playoff position, if you offered me that at the start of the season I would have gladly taken it.
Our intensity levels have risen this season which has led to an improvement in our home form. Gillingham have won nine, drawn three and lost five at the Priestfield Stadium this season, in contrast to last season where we only won seven.
MC: Starting with a 1-0 victory against Sunderland, Gillingham went on a 15 match unbeaten run in League One before losing to Wimbledon last Saturday - what are the main factors behind the team’s remarkable form?
LC: The defence have been remarkable, specifically the form of players such as: Jack Bonham, Barry Fuller, Max Ehmer, Jack Tucker and Connor Ogilvie.
During this run we have managed to keep eight clean sheets, which has eased the pressure on ourselves to score more goals.
We have defended brilliantly as a team, but being able to name a consistent back five has been given the club a solid foundation to build on.
MC: Because of that run, Gillingham are now just seven points away from the play-off positions - do you think achieving a top six finish is now a realistic prospect for the club?
LC: I would say finishing in the top six is highly unlikely, simply because we would probably need to win at least eight of our last ten league games to stand a chance.
Gillingham still have to play the likes of Coventry, Wycombe, Rotherham and Fleetwood in addition to Sunderland who are all fighting for promotion themselves. I think our aim should be to finish the season strongly so we can hopefully build on it next season.
MC: A colleague of mine at Roker Report found that statistically Mikael Mandron is the most effective target man in League One - despite not scoring a high amount goals, how influential is the Frenchman to your team?
LC: Mandron was a regular starter for Gillingham alongside Hanlan, however since signing Akinde he has struggled to start and has made more appearances from the bench. Due to the club signing more attacking options, the Frenchman now has far more competition and will have to work his way back into the starting XI.
MC: Gillingham signed experienced striker John Akinde from Lincoln in January, what impact has he had on your team so far?
LC: Akinde scored for Gillingham during our 3-2 away win against Blackpool, as well as winning a penalty against Shrewsbury. He has had a slightly slow start and has not scored as many goals as I would have hoped, however Steve Evans did say he was not 100% fit yet so hopefully the best of him is still to come.
MC: If there was one Gillingham player you think would walk into Sunderland’s starting XI, who would it be and why?
LC: I would say Connor Ogilvie, he can play centre back or left back and was formerly of Spurs’ academy. He scored the winning goal against Sunderland during our previous league encounter and has been integral to our defensive success. I would argue he has been of player of the season this campaign.
I think Gillingham will find it difficult to keep Ogilvie in the summer with Championship interest likely. Blackburn have expressed an interest in him and he only has one year left on his contract, I hope we can convince him to sign a new deal but I think a Championship move is more likely.
MC: Away from home this season Gillingham have drawn 11 of their 17 league matches, conceding and scoring less goals than games - is it the case than away from the team just park the bus and play for a draw?
LC: The eleven draws display that Gillingham are difficult to beat but also that we lack the quality in the final third to score multiple goals. There have been countless games this season where we should have won, but we have not taken our chances at crucial moments of the match.
Our top scorers in all competitions are Hanlan and Jakubiak with seven goals, not having players who are capable of scoring double figures in a season will always prevent a team from finishing high in the league.
MC: Who are the eleven Gillingham players you expect Steve Evans to select and what style of play can Phil Parkinson’s men expect to face?
LC: (4-1-2-1-2) GK: Jack Bonham, RB: Barry Fuller, CB: Jack Tucker, CB: Connor Ogilvie, LB: Tom O’Connor, DM: Alfie Jones, CM: Stuart O’Keefe, CM: Ben Pringle, CAM: Regan Charles-Cook, ST: John Akinde, ST: Brandon Hanlan.
In terms of style of play, I believe Gillingham will aim to play direct to feed Akinde and Hanlan as quickly as possible. Both players are capable of retaining the ball and running in behind, this tactic worked effectively when we beat you back in December.
MC: Sunderland will be the favourites despite Gillingham’s credible head-to-head record - what is your honest prediction of the final score?
LC: Sunderland 1-1 Gillingham.
I think Charlie Wyke will score for Sunderland and Connor Ogilvie will score for Gills.