Yesterday’s win at Gillingham was worth a lot more than the three points added to the season’s tally.
After the 4-0 defeat to Portsmouth an international break arguably came at the wrong time for a group of players who would have been desperate to make amends, and Saturday’s trip to the Priestfield represented an opportunity to move on from their trip to the south coast, and demonstrate we could quickly move on from that disappointment.
At the full-time whistle yesterday, Sunderland’s 59% possession count didn’t tell the full story to a game where Lee Johnson would have been frustrated that his side didn’t control the game with more conviction.
However, it was a huge test of character for the lads, and one they just about passed, managing to hold onto a win that could prove decisive come May.
In truth, it wasn’t easy going for Sunderland, and if Gillingham had been more clinical the three points could easily have gone in the opposite direction.
Before kick-off, the big news was the lack of experience on the Sunderland bench – the absence of McGeady, Dajaku, Gooch and Evans meant Lee Johnson’s outfield subs – bar Bailey Wright and the returning Denver Hume – came from the under 23s.
Johnson made three changes to the starting 11 from the team that lost to Portsmouth. Doyle, Pritchard and Dan Neil replacing Wright, Dajaku and Evans.
For the Black Cats, opportunities were few and far-between – O’Brien’s early right-footed effort drew an easy save from the Gillingham goalkeeper.
Steve Evans’ side dominated possession in the opening stages, mostly in the final third, as Sunderland simply failed to penetrate the Gillingham backline and carve any openings.
Ron-Thorben Hoffmann produced a moment of class to deny the Gills – Jack Tucker’s thumping half-volley drawing a brilliant save from the German stopper.
The warning signs were clear, and Sunderland presented the home side with a clear opportunity to take the lead.
Lee Johnson’s side were unable to clear their lines on numerous occasions, before Flanagan’s failed clearance saw O’Keefe beat O’Nien to the ball, and the referee pointed to the spot. There were no arguments from the Sunderland team, as Danny Lloyd successfully dispatched the spot kick, sending Hoffmann the wrong way.
The Black Cats still struggled to build any sort of rhythm or maintain a great deal of possession after the goal, with the home side giving Sunderland no room for creativity within the centre of the park. It was Gillingham that looked more likely to add to the scoreline, with both Lloyd’s and Mustapha Carayol’s flying narrowly past the left post.
With the half-time interval looming it was clear what Lee Johnson’s message would be, as his side were simply one-step behind the pace at the Priestfield, but a surprise equaliser restored parity on the south-east coast.
Dan Neil’s superb cross into the penalty area from the right found Aiden O’Brien, who was able to poke the ball past a stranded Jamie Cumming in the Gillingham goal.
Both sides made tactical alterations at half time; for the Gills, Jack Tucker moved into the centre of midfield, with Rhys Bennett moving into the back four.
Sunderland changed shape, pushing Pritchard into wider areas where he was able to see more of the ball.
Lee Johnson’s team talk seemed to have done the trick, with Sunderland looking significantly better at the start of the second half – and earned their reward less than ten minutes in.
The goal gave from sheer determination and showed the contrast with the opening 45. Elliot Embleton’s corner was recycled twice; the second time reaped the reward. Pritchard’s cross was met by the head of Flanagan, who was able to nod the ball past Cumming at the far post.
With the tempo increasing, there were clear signs that Gillingham were on the ropes, and Sunderland had two successive efforts to put the game to bed. O’Nien’s ferocious effort was blocked, before Dennis Cirkin’s tame shot rolled into the gloves of the Gillingham goalkeeper.
Sunderland were growing in confidence and looked set to take a stranglehold on the game, before our task was made a whole lot more difficult thanks to a needless red card.
After overrunning the ball, Elliot Embleton’s flew into a challenge on Jack Tucker. It was low and his studs were down, but the ferocity of the tackle – combined with the over-the-top reaction from the Gillingham players, who surrounded the referee pleading for a sending off, saw the referee reach for red.
From there on it, Sunderland’s control on the game began to slip away.
Substitute John Akinde’s right-footed effort was drilled wide of the left post, Charlie Kelman’s header was blocked by Dennis Cirkin, before Ron-Thorben Hoffmann was drawn into action by producing a fabulous save to deny Robbie McKenzie’s long, looping header.
As the clock ticked down, Gillingham became increasingly desperate to salvage something from the game. Stuart O’Keefe’s volley dropped into the gloves of Hoffmann, and Vadaine Oliver’s header crashed off the top of the bar, and after five minutes of stoppage time the referee drew the game to a close.
For Sunderland, the final whistle brought relief from fans all around the world. Sunderland had responded well to the Portsmouth defeat, and overcame a period where they weren’t at their best.
Of course, there are still areas to work on for Lee Johnson and his team, but the three points held a greater significance on a day where all of the top six all produced wins.
Crewe is next up on Tuesday, and with Embleton missing and none of the injured players likely to return, Lee Johnson’s going to have some tough selection decisions.
For now, however, Sunderland are still firmly in the driving seat, but their character and determination in Saturday’s victory showed that they can deal with anything in their way.