Sunderland host Gillingham at the Stadium of Light today as Lee Johnson’s men look to achieve their third consecutive win in League One. The Black Cats currently sit seventh on the table, while Steve Evans’ side sit comfortably in 12th.
Earlier in the season, Sunderland beat Gillingham 2-0 courtesy of goals from Chris Maguire and Lynden Gooch – but only after a penalty save from Lee Burge and a red card for Gillingham. When the Gills last visited the Stadium of Light, a 96th-minute equaliser from former Sunderland striker Mika Mandron hammered a nail in Sunderland’s playoff hopes.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Gillingham fan Matt Boosey of Gills In The Blood, to discuss how his side are getting on under Steve Evans, as well as what Sunderland fans can expect to see from their opponents.
MC: Gillingham have been incredibly hot and cold this season, rarely drawing matches. What are the main factors behind the squad’s inconsistency?
MB: I think the experience we had defensively last season – Max Ehmer and Barry Fuller were a consistent part of our back four – meant we nicked points here and there when perhaps we had our backs against the wall. This season the centre backs are all young so perhaps we’ve lacked a little bit of know how in the first half of the campaign.
Injuries haven’t helped either, with the likes of Stuart O’Keefe, Jacob Mellis, Kyle Dempsey and Dominic Samuel all missing for significant periods.
MC: The club are seven points away from the playoff positions. Do your fans possess the belief that you can make a late promotion run, or are you content with avoiding relegation?
MB: I think in this weird COVID-19 induced campaign everyone feels a little bit disconnected and really hopes they just have a club to follow in the longer term – but I wouldn’t say I’m just content with staying up.
At the start of the season I wanted us to improve on last year's tenth place finish, and with more consistency perhaps we still can. However, I think the playoffs will be out of reach.
MC: Steve Evans is known for his history of achieving promotions in the English lower leagues, but he has failed to do so in his last three jobs. Are Gillingham fans confident he is the man to take the club forward?
MB: I can’t talk for everyone, but I certainly think he’s the man to take us forward considering what we had seen in the few years prior to his appointment. I don’t necessarily think that means he has to get us promoted to be deemed a success, but if he can establish us in the top half of the division then it gives us a platform to potentially challenge in the future.
MC: Who are three Gillingham players the Sunderland team will have to be wary of during the match and why?
MB: I will say Jordan Graham, who is a cut above League One in my opinion. Kyle Dempsey is for me one of the best central midfielders in this division and is now influencing games consistently. Finally, Callum Slattery has come in on loan from Southampton and added defensive solidity to us in front of the back four, something that has perhaps been missing during the first half of the season.
MC: Eighteen-year-old goalkeeper Joe Walsh has left Gillingham to join Championship side Queens Park Rangers. Are you frustrated to see the club sell an upcoming talent, or is it essential to raise funds?
MB: Yes and no. We all dream of a youth product breaking into the side and achieving big things, but with the way the world is at the moment I think that if we’re getting a good fee for a kid who is essentially unproven then we’d be daft to not take it. But of course, he goes with my best wishes.
MC: Gillingham have had many of their loan players recalled, which led to the club signing Callum Slattery (Southampton), Olly Lee (Hearts) and Robbie Cundy (Bristol City) as loan replacements. Do you think they have improved your squad?
MB: The early signs are a categoric yes. Olly Lee we know all about – he’s added a calming and composed presence to our play. Callum Slattery has really hit the ground running in terms of breaking up play in the middle of the park and getting us back on the front foot, while we’ve only seen Robbie Cundy once, but he was very good on debut against a good Crewe side so that bodes well moving forward.
MC: The COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the newly-introduced wage caps, has led to a very quiet transfer window this month. Do you think a cap is the correct approach moving forward?
MB: I think it means a more level playing field in terms of the competition definitely, whether it’s right or wrong I guess depends on who you support. For a club like Gillingham it allows us to attract players we couldn’t before, but I guess the bigger clubs who have larger budgets are feeling a little hard done by.
MC: Who are the 11 players you expect Steve Evans to select against Sunderland and what style of play can Lee Johnson’s men expect to face?
MB: Based on Tuesday night’s emphatic win I would be very surprised if he changes the side at all, barring injuries. If that is the case we will be able to go direct into big Vadaine Oliver when we have to, but in the likes of Graham, Dempsey and Lee we have players who can open any team up with their technical ability.
4-2-3-1: Bonham (GK), Jackson, Tucker, Cundy, Ogilvie, Dempsey, Slattery, Graham, Lee, O’Connor, Oliver.
MC: Sunderland beat Gillingham 2-0 at the Priestfield Stadium back in October. What is your honest prediction of the score this time around?
MB: I think the 2-0 defeat at our place was even for large periods and ultimately hinged on two big moments, us missing a penalty and then having a player dismissed within a couple of minutes.
Given our decent record against you last season and the fact we’ve picked up in the last three games, I will go for a 1-1 draw, as I know you’re a big fan of that result.