The chance to make amends for Tuesday evening’s performance (ie win a game) came quickly with a trip to Kent to take on Gillingham – the side that effectively ended our play-off hopes last season with a late equaliser at the SoL. With questions hanging in the air about the team selection at Spotland/The Crown Oil Arena, Parky decided to bring back Scowen, O’Nien, Leadbitter and O’Brien and brought back all three points as Maguire came off the bench to score a late penalty and Gooch ran seventy yards to wrap the game up deep into added time. As a game, it wasn’t much of a spectacle, pretty much matching the weather in being wet and windy, and while we were worthy winners, we had clear-cut chances to have doubled our goal tally…and Gillingham only had ten men for the last half hour.
Our last visit had been in December last year and ended with the same score-line as the FA Cup replay a month earlier – 0-1. At least the league defeat didn’t come on a night, after extra time, when I was able to call at the paper shop on the way home. The previous season had seen an evening match at their place attract over 2,000 Sunderland fans to witness a 4-1 win on a happy, sunny, late summer evening. A great result that we thought was the start of a steamrollering campaign that would carry us out of this division. Of course, that didn’t happen, and little over a year ago Jack Ross was sacked. It’s perhaps worth noting that after eight games this season, we have fifteen points, having scored ten and conceded six. At the same stage in 2019, we had sixteen points, having scored nineteen and conceded eleven. The next three games saw a win, a draw, and a loss, and saw the end of boss Ross. Watch out, Parky – although I suspect our owner now has things on his mind which interest him more, such as… well, anything that’s not SAFC.
As well as owing the Gills for knocking up last season, there’s still the small matter of the play-offs in 1987, when we fell foul of an away goals rule, when its necessity hadn’t even been considered by the powers that be, meaning that although the tie ended 6-6 over two legs, they had an extra 30 minutes to score their final away goal. Both sides had a penalty saved when we were 2-1 up at Roker as well, just to give you another pub quiz question, for when pub quizzes are a proper thing again.
With us defending the Kerplunk Stand that we fans would normally expect to occupy, we kicked left to right as the camera, perched precariously almost directly above the touchline, and Gillingham started things.
McLaughlin Wright ©Flanagan
O’Nien Scowen Leaadbitter Gooch Hume
With the wind blowing into Burge’s face and the rain teeming down, it’s safe to say that the fans dodged a bullet with this one – those who’d remembered that it was an early kick-off (which didn’t include me) wouldn’t have got any wetter if they’d sat in the bath to watch proceedings. After a really scrappy opening couple of minutes, we thought (well, I thought) that we’d settled in, but we gave up possession after a few seconds and reverted to scrappy. I suppose the weather didn’t help, but Gillingham’s tactic of lofting balls over the middle or the right might have won them lots of corners, but none of them caused us any real problems. Having said that, we could have done without those dead balls considering the number of daft free-kicks we were conceding. Gillingham just did the same with them as their passing, and they sailed through to Burge – apart from one which caught Wright out, and Samuel should have done better when the ball dropped in the box, but his shot sailed over and would have scared the life out of anyone in the Brian Moore Refreshment Area, had anyone been there.
Hume, Scowen, and McLughlin put in crosses that were too close to the keeper, and young Denver tried a low one that was blocked. In the first 25 minutes, we only put together a couple of periods of decent passing, but looked to have gone ahead after Wyke was fouled out on the left. Scowen put the free to the back post, where O’Nien stooped to head back across the goal and inside the far post – only for offside to be given. A very close decision, and without the benefit of another camera angle, one that’s hard to discuss, but it did spark us into a bit of positive football. Gooch and Wyke exchanged passes and it ended up out on the right, from where O’Nien put in a low cross that found Scowen a few yards out in the middle of the goal – from where he somehow put it over the top. An awful miss that had us wondering if it would be costly. We are, after all, Sunderland, and we have a reputation for making things like that costly.
Down at the other end, Wright and Samuel had a bit of a set-to, probably because our Aussie thought that their man was going down easier than a balloon with a hole in it, and the ref had words with both. Scowen had the chance to redeem himself for that rotten effort when he took a pass from McLaughlin and worked it onto his left foot on the edge of the area, but shot inches above the near post angle. We were then treated to a fairly graphic few seconds of Gillingham boss Steve Evans blowing his nose, footballer-stylee, probably destroying any hope of controlling the virus in Kent in the process. McLaughlin, safely fifty yards away from the piles of mucus, again provided a chance, this time to O’Nien, whose shot was blocked for a corner on our right. Scowen took it low to O’Nein, and his shot was again blocked – this time by the shins of Wyke, who couldn’t get out of the way. In mitigation, his marker would probably have blocked it anyway. Charlie then tried a daft backheel on halfway that allowed Gillingham to break, but that ended with Samuel in his preferred position – lying down.
Jackson saw yellow for a naughty late one on Hume right in front of the dugouts, which had Evans moaning, then the wind died down for a few minutes, which resulted in a couple of through balls that would have been perfect earlier being far too strong for our forwards. Or perhaps we over hit them. You choose. Two added minutes were announced, and we hope that we weren’t about to repeat our antics at Rochdale and keep giving the ball back to the opposition. We managed that, but only just, giving the ball away just before the whistle.
Level at the break when we should have been a goal ahead in a half that had started very scrappily and ended just scrappily after we took nearly half an hour to assume any sort of fluidity in our play.
No changes for the second half, and we immediately tried Gillingham’s tactic of using the wind, this time to set Gooch away, but he had no chance of catching Wright’s long punt. With Samuel continuing his tactic of falling over ( I don’t know why, as the ref might have fallen for a few things, but he fell for none of this nonsense), Wyke took Leadbitter’s pass in the box and spun (as much as Charlie can spin) and shot, but it was into the keeper’s arms. O’Nien and Scowen swapped passes and played it in to O’Brien in the box, but his control was poor (ie non-existent) and the attack fizzled out. After the cameraman had wiped the lens for the umpteenth time, Jackson just in the box out on the right, he went down very easily. Penalty, but a very soft one that would have had VAR scratching its head for two minutes before asking the ref to have a look at the screen then deciding there had been contact, however minimal. Never a pen in non-league, and the sort of tumble to the ground that would have seen a Sunday morning forward laughed at by his team-mates.
Anyhow, Graham stepped up and shot to Burge’s right, Lee went the same way and saved it, with the rebound being knocked hopelessly and harmlessly over the bar. Well done that man. A minute later, O’Nien played the ball away from near our box and was then hit by McDonald, who was immediately set upon by the other ten Sunderland players. Straight red, one that even Mr Evans couldn’t argue with, presumably offering up the excuse of “he got there as soon as he could.”
Right Lads. You’re 280 miles from Sunderland, it’s quarter past two in the afternoon, there’s ten of them, and you’ve got thirty minutes to win the game. Hit it!
To be fair, we tried to make the ball do the work and pass it about, dragging our opponents into the gaps that their reduced numbers naturally meant and trying to run into the spaces behind them. Scowen had one blocked and Hume had a rush of blood to the head, slashing one over the bar when a simple lay-off would have been preferable, then we put together a really canny passing move that started with McLaughlin carrying it out of defence and well into the home half. He gave it to Scowen, who gave it to Leadbitter, who gave it to Flan, who gave it to Gooch – except Gooch had gone the other way on the edge of the box, and the ball trickled harmlessly for a goal kick. Samuel went off, presumably with a wet backside, replaced by the more defensively-minded Robertson.
Wyke got to McLaughlin’s cross well ahead of the front post and flicked it on, but O’Brien could only put it the wrong side of that post. Our Ulsterman did the same soon after, and this time O’Brien attempted an overhead kick, with the ball dropping for Scowen a few yards out. For the second time this afternoon, I was halfway out of my seat in celebration. For the second time this afternoon, Josh blazed it over the top, causing more mayhem in the Brian Moore Refreshment Area. For the second time this afternoon, we should have been ahead.
With twenty to go, O’Brien made way for Graham as Parky decided that guile was ineffective and sought to batter Gillingham into submission. We’d been playing better than in the first half, which is m=no more than to be expected against ten men. Steve Evans decided to counter this by replacing Oliver with Akinde, who looked enormous, even in an already quite large Gillingham side. Awkward time for Wright? Let’s hope not.
We won a corner on the left, which was out of range of the camera thanks to a protruding part of the stand, but Scowen’s cross was cleared and Gooch had a shot blocked and another corner was won, on the right. Flan won the header, and when the clearance fell to him on the edge, hit a volley that was destined for the net, but instead hit the back of a defender. An inadvertent back-pass was pounced on by Wyke, but the keeper saved well high up in the corner of the goal. This was during a decent spell of pressure around the 77th minute as (like the commentators way) we were knocking on the door. Unfortunately, we weren’t getting through that door, so Maguire came on for O’Brien to see if he could have a mad ten minutes and produce a bit of Chrissy magic to win the game. We got a cross in that was a bit behind Graham, meaning that his header couldn’t be directed on target.
When Wyke took a McLaughlin pass in the box, he was knocked over in a manner as obvious as the defender could manage, but the ref decided that the linesman way out on the right, needed to be consulted before the penalty could be given. With something like his third or fourth touch, Maguire sent the keeper diving to his right as he rolled the ball into the other corner. Gerrinnn! Now, Lads, let’s keep possession for another seven or so minutes and we’ll have three points. Please.
Evans made his gob go too much and got a yellow, and we were caught in a nice dilemma – should we press for a second, or just keep the ball and hold on to what we had? Knowing our record when trying to hold on to what we had, I’d be choosing the former option, and you could see in the way we played that the players weren’t sure which to choose. There was a muffled announcement which I presume was to do with added time, but I couldn’t make it out, and Gillingham tried an attack. When we got it out of the box, Gooch picked it up and galloped away, a full seventy yards into the right hand side of their box. With Maguire in the middle dragging a defender with him, Gooch fired it in off the keeper. And relax - ninety four minutes gone, that was that.
Well, it should have been, but we contrived to concede two corners before the ref blew. Worthy winners, certainly. A good game, certainly not, as there were too many needless free-kicks given away, and large periods of the game, especially in the first half, in which we couldn’t put more than two or three passes together. However, the defence, well marshalled by captain Wright, looks to have got its mojo back, as Burge only had one shot to deal with – and that was the penalty that he saved.
Man of the Match? I’m tempted to say McLaughlin, as he did a lot of good work on the right of defence as well as finding the time to get a few telling passes in down the other end, while anybody who carries the ball as far as Gooch did, and then scores, has to be in contention. Scowen passed well but needs to stay behind after training for extra shooting practice, while Leadbitter showed why he should have been in the side on Tuesday. McLaughin it is.