I imagine that when most Sunderland fans looked at our remaining fixtures at the turn of the year, the fact we were playing Gillingham towards the end of the season at home gave them cause for optimism - that this particular game would be a certain three points.
Yet, since Neil Harris walked through the door they’ve improved, and perhaps most interestingly, they’ve won three out of their last four games away from home.
They’re certainly not clear of the drop zone yet by any means, but another couple of wins should probably be enough to gift them another season in League One - and Harris will be motivated to get the two or three wins they likely need sooner rather than later.
Teams tend to come up to Sunderland to play one way - they sit back, waste time from the off, and slow us down. I have no doubt that Gillingham will have looked very closely at how other teams have played when they’ve come here and they’ll be looking to do the same.
To the team and Alex Neil’s credit, in the recent wins over Fleetwood and Crewe they found a way around those tactics, and whilst it wasn’t pretty, we left with the three points on both occasions.
Hopefully, it won’t come to that today, but we have to be prepared for it. We have to go into the game knowing that, once again, it’s likely that a team struggling towards the other end of the table aren’t going to come up here in front of a massive crowd to show us respect - and we have to get around that by starting on the front foot, taking the game to them.
Something Dan Neil said in an interview recently about our fans has stuck in my mind ever since - he was asked about the impact of the fans, particularly at home, and he pointed out that the Stadium of Light becomes a fortress whenever the players actually go on the front foot right from the start of a match. He said the onus was on the team to give supporters something to cheer about, and not the other way around - wise words from such a young man, and something that I hope the players who start the game today take note of.
Alex Neil keeps talking about how we are taking things one game at a time, and that’s the most sensible thing to do. Despite the fact we are outside of the top six and most of the teams around us have caught up on the games they had in hand, we still have other teams in the Play-Offs left to play - but that will probably mean absolutely nothing if we don’t take three points this afternoon.
I’d like to be able to say “no pressure, lads” but let’s be honest, the pressure is huge on them to get the results we need to get into those Play-Offs come the end of the season.
That doesn’t have to be negative pressure, though.
There’ll be over 30,000 of us cheering them from the off if they start the game in the way they should - fast-paced, high tempo, aggressive and bullish.
So, let’s be confident - let’s give Gillingham a proper spanking, and let’s put the rest of the teams fighting it out for a space in the top six on notice.
Neil Harris is expected to be without Stuart O’Keefe after he was forced off during the win over Accrington Stanley last Saturday, and also has Mustapha Carayol and Gerald Sithole (yes, that is his real name) sat out on the sidelines due to ongoing injury problems.
Experienced midfielder Ben Reeve, however, is expected to be fit to play.
Having arrived at the club injured, Danny Batth hasn’t really been able to show what he’s capable of, but after a few weeks off and an appearance for the U23s he’s expected to be fit enough to make the matchday squad - most likely on the bench.
Alex Pritchard also made a return to training this week and could feature after missing almost a full month of action due to an injury he picked up in the draw with Charlton, but it probably comes too soon for Nathan Broadhead. Aiden McGeady is training, but Alex Neil cast doubts this week over whether or not the 36-year-old winger will be fit enough to feature again this season.
What did the gaffers have to say?
Neil Harris said...
We have achieved nothing yet.
Of course, there is pressure on us because we want to get further ahead of the bottom four.
There is no fear in my changing room at the moment.
More and more fans are starting to travel.
Saturday is a game I’m looking forward to. I don’t think we will be adding to the group this weekend and we might not be as strong as we were last weekend, unfortunately.
Alex Neil said...
I went and watched them against Accrington at the weekend when they won, and [on video] against Ipswich, Sheffield Wednesday, and Charlton this week.
They are hard to beat, hard to break down, well-organised, they hit you well in transition, they are direct in their play, and effective, so we know what’s coming.