At the time, Mikael Mandron’s equaliser in the last minute felt like a body blow to Sunderland’s chances of promotion. The result left us vulnerable going into the Bristol Rovers game, which ended in defeat - and as the season was curtailed due to the Coronavirus pandemic, little did we know the impact the final two results would have on the club's chances of promotion.
Following the curtailment of the season due to the pandemic, the contentious ‘points per game’ solution was voted on as the season was finished. Sunderland were left stranded and dropped to eighth place - the lowest finish in our history.
It was a disaster for the club, but much more heartache and loss would meet almost everyone - heartache and loss that can be measured on a different level to anything football-related.
At the time of this game against Gillingham, Sunderland were in the midst of a rescue mission after horrendous pre-Christmas form. Phil Parkinson’s men had lost only one in twelve in January and February. From a season that looked like petering out to mid-table obscurity, the team had got themselves in the play-off places and looked like the team in form.
Despite the style of play being something akin to watching paint dry, Parkinson had solidified the defence and was beginning to get a tune out of the attacking players such as Lynden Gooch and Chris Maguire. They were grinding out results.
Parkinson drafted in Josh Scowen, Antoine Semenyo and Northern Ireland international striker, Kyle Lafferty in January - and it was the Northern Irishman who was seen as a player that could add an extra bit of talent up front.
This game was his first start. Parkinson left Charlie Wyke on the bench after the previous week’s defeat to Coventry, and it was hoped Lafferty could offer something extra. He certainly did.
There was a strange atmosphere around the stadium that day - an atmosphere of apprehension, tension and doubt. News of the impending pandemic was circling and people were starting to doubt whether these big events should go ahead.
As the game started, the north east wind began to swirl around the stadium... as did the multiple plastic bags and rubbish on the pitch - a synonymous image of the Stadium of Light experience these days.
The first half was a complete nonevent. Sunderland huffed and puffed and tried to create chances using their wing backs, Denver Hume and Luke O’Nien. Gillingham were happy to sit back and frustrate. No matter what it took. Steve Evans had his team set up well, and Sunderland were struggling to find a way to get by them.
As the second half began, Sunderland grew stronger and looked the most likely to score. Lafferty had a couple of chances, as did Chris Maguire. It looked like it was going to be one of those days until Denver Hume poked a cross into the box from the left hand side. Lafferty managed to get his head on it and gave Sunderland the lead.
Gillingham were not concerned by the concession of the goal. They kept their heads and got the equaliser through ex Sunderland academy product Mandron. His first was in the 74th minute when he poked a finish inside the far corner after Jordan Willis had struggled to deal with a corner properly.
The atmosphere was tense. The fans knew the club needed the win. Nothing less was particularly good enough. Step up Lafferty. As George Dobson picked the ball up on the 84th minute around the centre circle, he played through Lafferty who was playing off the last man. He finished it low into the corner and gave Sunderland the lead. A sense of relief overcame the stadium. Had we got over the line?
As we entered stoppage time, six minutes were added on. Gillingham piled the pressure on. Sunderland looked edgy. Vulnerable. When Olly Lee laid the ball off for Mandron deep into six minutes of stoppage-time the striker did the rest with a brilliant low finish inside goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin’s bottom right corner.
The game finished a draw. Mandron came back to haunt Sunderland. The club were in the play-off places by the skin of their teeth.
They had to get the win at Bristol. They didn’t. As the club's fortunes began to unravel that week, so did the world.
It would be a long time until we would get back to the Stadium of Light.
Sunderland AFC: J McLaughlin, Willis, Ozturk (Semenyo 81), Power, Maguire (Scowen 85), Lafferty, Gooch, Flanagan, O’Nien, Dobson, Hume (Lynch 89)
Subs not used: Burge, Watmore, McLaughlin, Grigg
Gillingham: Bonham, O’Keefe, Ehmer (Akinde 72), Ogilvie, Hanlan, Mandron, Roberts (O’Connor 61), Fuller, Jones, Graham (Lee 58), Tucker
Subs not used: Walsh, Willock, Charles-Cook, Pringle