Sunderland dropped two points as a late goal from Jordan Graham meant that Gillingham travelled back down south with a point in the bag with a 2-2 draw at the Stadium of Light.
Lee Johnson’s side led twice but were pegged back both times, as Sunderland registered a third home game against Gillingham without a win.
Lee Johnson made two changes to the side that took three points away from Portman Road, with Bailey Wright missing out after a concussion sustained on Tuesday night.
This paved the way for Tom Flanagan to make his return to the starting 11 in the centre of defence alongside Jordan Willis. Jack Diamond took the place of Carl Winchester in the attacking midfield of the 4-2-2-2 – or 4-4-2 – formation. New loan signing Jake Vokins was on the bench, with Danny Graham and, more notably, Chris Maguire missing out on the matchday squad.
First Half Action
After two consecutive victories the Black Cats began the game on the front foot, and found an early opener thanks to Aiden McGeady.
Jack Diamond’s over-hit cross was picked up by McFadzean on the left, who fed McGeady. The Irishman rolled the ball onto his right foot, and sent it goalwards, with a deflection from a Gillingham defender looping it over the stranded Jack Bonham.
After the goal, Sunderland sat back and allowed Gillingham to find their way back into the match. Ogilvie’s left-footed cross inadvertently nearly lobbed Lee Burge, however the ball fell onto the roof of the net.
Steve Evans would have been happy with his side’s response, and you could sense they were coming closer to the equalising goal.
Ogilvie was at the heart of the next opportunity again, as he weaved his way through an area of red shirts, but his eventual shot was blocked from around eight yards out.
The equaliser eventually did come when a long throw caught the Black Cats out, as Grant Leadbitter nodded the ball away, but only to Alex MacDonald. MacDonald, who was sent off during the reverse fixture in October, made a far more positive impact on this fixture, arrowing his shot goal wards, and beating Lee Burge in the bottom left corner.
MacDonald almost was on hand to double his and Gillingham’s tally moments later. Graham’s cross was nodded away by Jordan Willis but, yet again, dropped to the feet of MacDonald, who powered a shot towards goal which, fortunately for Sunderland, cannoned off the crossbar.
Sunderland began to find a route back into the game; Power’s teasing cross was missed by both the rising O’Brien and Wyke, and was touched out for a corner kick.
That corner kick dropped to Tom Flanagan on the edge of the penalty area, and the defender's effort was palmed away for another corner, which came to nothing.
Johnson’s side were handed with a golden chance to retake the lead when the referee awarded a penalty for Robbie Cundy’s foul on McGeady. The Irish winger ran at the on-loan Bristol City defender, wriggling his way into the penalty area before reversing the ball onto his right foot.
A trailing leg caught McGeady, and the referee pointed to the spot.
A debate between Leadbitter and McGeady about who was to take the spot kick ensued, with the club captain winning out. Leadbitter’s right-footed effort from the spot was well saved by the fist of Jack Bonham, however, with the ball spinning back towards the goal the on-rushing Leadbitter was able to nod the ball back into the empty net – giving the Black Cats a 2-1 half time lead.
Half Time - Sunderland AFC 2-1 Gillingham FC
Second Half Action
Within moments of the second half Sunderland struck the crossbar through a man in form –Charlie Wyke. Scowen’s cross from the right was whipped into the penalty area, and Wyke rose the highest - only for his header loop off the top of the crossbar.
An early change was made in the second half from Lee Johnson, as Lynden Gooch replaced Jack Diamond in attack.
Gillingham were providing a very physical threat for the Black Cats, and they struck the post, as the ball was dropped behind for Oliver, who touched it past Lee Burge, but it bounced narrowly wide of the left post.
Sunderland looked to add to their advantage when the ball was crossed to the back post, where Wyke was awaiting to nod it down for McGeady – however the winger’s shot was held by Jack Bonham in the Gillingham goal.
Gooch had an opportunity to carve his name onto the scoresheet, as his attempt from a narrow angle was turned wide of the right post.
Steve Evans’ side then struck the woodwork, as a long throw from Ryan Jackson found Oliver, whose acrobatic effort was fired off the left post.
The Sunderland head coach made a double change, bringing on Luke O’Nien and Dion Sanderson in an attempt to keep hold of the one-goal advantage – Wyke and Leadbitter the men replaced.
With the clock ticking closer to added time, the Black Cats weren’t able to hold onto their lead, as the ball was flicked onto Oliver - causing Lee Burge to stumble off his line. Oliver touched it onto Graham, who calmly eased the ball around Burge and fired it into the roof of the net, to salvage a point for the Gills.
Full Time - Sunderland AFC 2-2 Gillingham FC
There is something about Steve Evans and his Gillingham side that causes dread from Sunderland on Wearside.
In their last three home matches against the Gills, the Black Cats have failed to secure a win.
Possibly it could be the route-one approach and the physicality that his side poses. Whatever it is, the Wearsiders have never been able to deal with it.
On Saturday, the Black Cats had to deal with a large number of balls launched into their penalty area, and two of these resulted in goals for the away side.
Sunderland’s home form has been poor all season, and if they have any aspirations of battling at the very top end of the table they must try and reverse their home form. At present, it seems that they would prefer playing away from their home ground.
But, why do Sunderland have such poor form at the Stadium of Light?
A short answer to that question may be that the Black Cats are suffering from the absence of fans inside the stadium.
The support of 30,000-plus Sunderland fans will always spur on the side but the Black Cats have been forced to adapt to the change due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many fans may point out – justifiably so – that Lee Johnson’s side can’t use this as a valid excuse, with every club, up and down the country, having to deal with the lack of fans in the ground.
There is no doubt that Sunderland started this match in superb fashion, by netting the early goal from McGeady after a wicked deflection – but from then, the Black Cats dropped into a lower gear.
They soaked up the Gillingham dominance and were mostly pinned into their penalty area - having to deal with an abundance of long balls and throws being sent into the 18-yard box.
It may just be a coincidence that the Black Cats were without Bailey Wright and crumbled under the pressure, by conceding after twice taking the lead.
Wright is the glue that holds this Sunderland defence together, and his presence was clearly missed, with Tom Flanagan unable to match the Aussie’s performance levels.
A late goal is gutting and it seemed like a mirror image of Sunderland’s 2-2 draw against Gillingham last season, in the final home game before the first lockdown.
Meanwhile, two consecutive trips to MK Dons in two different competitions brings chances for fresh faces to appear into the first team – but as always with any negative result, the true impact will be judged by how the team responds.