Matthew Crichton: Gillingham currently sit 19th in League One after two successful seasons of challenging for the playoffs - what are the factors behind your decline in performance so far this year?
Lewis Browning: I’ve thought about this a lot and I put it down to the league being harder and our squad being worse. This is the most difficult League One ever in my opinion and we lost some names in the summer and didn’t improve.
That’s a bad combination. It’s worth saying though that Steve Evans’ teams get better in the second half of the season so we could still see an improvement yet.
MC: Has that dip in form placed pressure on Steve Evans, or does he still have the backing of the fanbase?
LB: I wouldn’t say so. I think he’s the best manager we can hope for right now and the best we’ve had in a while. I do still expect him to leave at the end of the season, and if he does I’m expecting a downgrade. Some fans still aren’t sold on him because the his off-field adventures, but I don’t think that’s football-based.
MC: With factors such as the salary cap being overturned and there being so many ex-Premier League teams in League One, do you think it is harder than ever for sides like Gillingham who operate on a much smaller budget?
LB: For sure. The league is getting harder and harder and some of the figures the big teams are splashing out are insane. Look at Ipswich and the number of names they brought in - teams like Gillingham simply can’t compete.
But that’s where coaching comes into it; at the end of the day it’s 11 vs 11 and the players have to be armed with a good game plan and be improved on the training pitch to have a chance. It really is a fight.
MC: Gillingham lost Jordan Graham, Jack Bonham and Connor Ogilvie during the summer window, is it the case that it is simply not possible for the club to replace that type of quality?
LB: Unfortunately so. We’ll pick up the odd gem but we can’t go out there and cherry pick the best players. Jordan Graham was always going to stay for just a year because he’s a Championship-quality player and there’s no replacing that with what we’ve got available.
Connor Ogilvie was with us for four years and became a better player and I think became one of the best if not the best left back(s) in the league. Again, we can’t replace that. I think Jamie Cumming is better than Jack Bonham, but as I say it’s just the odd gem and it’s hard to replace the good players we lose.
MC: Of the players you have recruited this summer, who has stood out and why?
LB: Jamie Cumming in goal. He’s been a big upgrade on Jack Bonham for me and he’s an incredible talent. He’s a great shot stopper and his communication is getting stronger and stronger and he’s improving the other areas of his game too.
The new attacking players have struggled a bit and as good as Max Ehmer has been with his return too, I think Cumming takes the award.
MC: Vadaine Oliver scored 20 goals in all competitions for Gillingham last season, is it a case of if you can stop him you can stop Gillingham?
LB: Almost, yeah. He’s not had the same service with Graham gone and at times he’s been starved of it. He’s also been playing through some injuries and it’s notable when he’s off his game. When he’s ticking, he’s hard to stop.
MC: As Sunderland have a very youthful side, do you think Gillingham’s overly physical and direct style is probably the best way to try and exploit our inexperience?
LB: For sure. We’re not going to win a battle of the ball or many individual battles. Everyone will have to be on the top of their game for us to get anything.
I think the key battle will be with Oliver and the Sunderland back line and what he can create from any potential scraps he gets. I expect the likes of Stuart O’Keefe to play too, and Gillingham to play in a very physical way.
MC: Who are the eleven Gillingham that you expect Evans to select against Sunderland?
LB: Jamie Cumming will be in goal. David Tutonda is unfortunately injured and whilst Bailey Akehurst could get the nod he’s young and Evans has regularly said he’s not ready. So I think it’ll be Rhys Bennett at right back and Robbie McKenzie at left back with Max Ehmer and Jack Tucker in the middle.
I expect Stuart O’Keefe to play with Kyle Dempsey and Alex MacDonald will be in there too. As will Vadaine Oliver, and I think John Akinde will keep his place too. The final spot will probably either go to Dan Adshead or Danny Lloyd depending on system, but on paper I think the following will be the XI:
Cumming, Bennett, Ehmer, Tucker, McKenzie, Adshead, O’Keefe, MacDonald, Dempsey, Akinde, Oliver.
MC: Lastly, what is your honest prediction of the final score?
LB: I can’t see Gillingham getting anything. Being at home will help us but Sunderland are simply too strong. I think 3-1 to Sunderland - Stewart to score twice, McGeady once, and Dempsey for Gillingham.