Still in the mix, still vying for promotion via the playoffs, and still putting the supporters through every possible emotion, from frustration to elation.
That was this game in a nutshell, and after Nathan Broadhead headed home what proved to be the winner, deep into injury time, we had finally got our own back after two years of waiting.
If you cast your mind back to 2020, you may recall that last pre-pandemic game at the Stadium of Light was against Gillingham. That day we looked set to win, only for Mikael Mandron to torpedo our hopes with a late equaliser.
To that end, this crucial and hard-earned victory felt like atonement for the stumble of two years ago, but in the grand scheme of things, it was much more.
Mainly, it ensured that Alex Neil’s goal of securing a Championship return as Sunderland boss is still very much on, because had we drawn, his task would’ve become even more arduous with so few games left.
Pre-match, it was a blessed relief to see Alex Pritchard returning to the starting XI, and with Danny Batth drafted in to form what looked like a solid central defensive partnership with Bailey Wright, Neil had doubtless recognised the importance of victory in this game. In attack, meanwhile, the exciting-looking trio of Ross Stewart, Jack Clarke, and Patrick Roberts were set to be unleashed.
The first half was as close to a ‘defence versus attack’ training session as you are ever likely to see in professional football, and when the opposition are time wasting on throw-ins and doing everything to disrupt the momentum of the game with barely fifteen minutes played, their game-plan isn’t exactly hard to decipher.
Possession? All Sunderland. Passes completed? That was a stat heavily in our favour, too, as we pinged the ball around for fun and played with a vibrancy and positivity that was good to see. But in the area that matters, we were just lacking again.
Granted, there was plenty of good build-up and link-up play, particularly between Roberts and Pritchard, but we just couldn’t find the crucial breakthrough. A Luke O’Nien header, which skimmed the crossbar after a good ball in from Jack Clarke, was as close as we came to edging ahead, but the performance overall was encouraging.
The second half was very much a continuation of the first. We played football, and Gillingham played to the gallery, with a litany of spoiling tactics that were expected, but nonetheless frustrating to witness.
Yes, they were defensively resolute and reasonably effective at it, and we simply couldn’t break them down. Pritchard curled a shot over the bar, and Corry Evans had another good chance after we broke away, but couldn’t take it.
Neil’s triple substitution - which saw Embleton, Gooch and Broadhead enter the fray - ultimately changed the game.
As the half wound down and six minutes were added, Sunderland worked the ball to Elliot Embleton, who lofted an accurate pass towards the far post, where Broadhead was lurking to nod home the winner. Cue pandemonium in the stands and on the field as those in red and white celebrated and Gillingham’s players slumped to the ground.
The moral of the story for the visitors? Waste time, by all means, but do it in the knowledge that it might come back to haunt you when the fourth official’s board goes up.
From our point of view, there were plenty of positives to take from this game, not least the fact that, even in the dying embers, we refused to give up and continued to probe for an opening rather than simply hoofing the ball aimlessly into the danger area. Neil has certainly toughened us up psychologically, and here was more evidence of it.
Elsewhere, Pritchard, even after an injury-enforced layoff, was a cut above at times, with his passing crisp and movement sharp. Batth’s return went as smoothly as it could’ve done, and a goalscoring return for Broadhead was brilliant to see.
On the downside, Clarke continues to frustrate at times, largely because of his decision-making and lack of a final product, and it wasn’t Stewart’s day in front of goal, although the big Scot will undoubtedly rediscover his touch soon.
One more game down, then, and six (potentially nine) more to go. This was undoubtedly a test of our newly-instilled resilience, and we will doubtless have to tap into those reserves over the coming weeks. We remain on course, and Oxford is the next test, where the players should be on a real high after winning in such exciting fashion.