Sunderland are finally back in action after the March international break, which was mostly played out as Jermain Defoe’s retirement bash. The lads host Gillingham at the Stadium of Light as the season enters its crucial final month, where all automatic promotion and relegation fates will be realised.
Gillingham, like many teams in the division have been a ball ache of a club for the lads, having only managed to do the double over the Gills once, and that was in the first season. They also managed to knock us out of the first round of the FA Cup in 2019 in what was a dark Phil Parkinson spell. Thankfully salad-dodger Steve Evans is no longer at the helm for them, and has been replaced by Neil Harris, a manager who in his playing days for Millwall beat the lads in the 2004 FA Cup semi final. One game away from Europe, it still hurts now.
The Gills are in relatively good form for a side currently sat 19th in the table, having won two of their last four and getting a goalless draw at home to promotion chasing Sheffield Wednesday. That being said relegation is a realistic prospect for the Kent side, and they’ll be doing all they can to stifle the lads who have got their own agenda at the other end of the table. The last time these two teams met the lads came away with all three points thanks to a Tom Flanagan header, and a world class save from Thorben Hoffman. At the time that win was needed to help rid the (wet) scars of the 4-0 defeat at Portsmouth, a win Saturday could set up a positive charge towards the play-off places.
Aaron Chapman will be in goal for the Gills, and was in great form for them in their recent win at Accrington Stanley, pulling off multiple fine saves. Captain Stuart O’Keefe will be present in midfield, likely alongside Oliver Lee (son of former Mag, Rob Lee). QPR loanee Charlie Kelman will be leading the attack, having scored last time out, joined by American forward Vadaine Oliver. Harris is likely to set up similar to Sunderland, known to play 4-3-1-2 and 3-4-1-2. If they sneak an early goal expect that to revert to 10 at the back, a tactic they used recently in their win at Doncaster after scoring in the first minute.
The international break may have a twofold advantage for the lads as Rotherham is now the penultimate game of the season, meaning promotion and/or the title is already secured for them. More significantly, Alex Pritchard and Nathan Broadhead are one game closer to their return, and other than talisman Ross Stewart, those two players are as critical as it gets for the Sunderland boys’ promotion hopes. Dan Neil had another positive experience with the England under-20s, and will be hoping for another start in the centre of the park on Saturday.
Corry Evans isn’t likely to get dropped but could be in line for a rest having received his 68th cap after 90 minutes for Northern Ireland alongside brother Jonny in the week. It was a surprise to many that Jay Matete was for dropped the game at Lincoln last time out, so would be ideal fresh legs to come in, though I doubt that will happen.
It does look like Alex Neil has trust in the three defenders with Carl Winchester and Dennis Cirkin playing either side of Bailey Wright – which has yielded clean sheets of late. Wright should still be fresh after a round trip to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to not get any minutes for Australia. And we pray Ross Stewart’s omission from the Scotland squad for their second fixture of the break has no sinister undertones, and he was simply surplus to requirements.
With home advantage, a rested squad, no suspensions, and players coming back from injury, this a game that only a win can be palatable. Gillingham have their own motivations, but the desire to get out of League One after four turgid years will surely outweigh theirs. Alex Neil has had valuable time with the squad, including a fleeting return from Jack Diamond, that everything needs to tick come 3pm on Saturday afternoon.
The Gills held Sheffield Wednesday recently, so an early goal is order of the day to stop the doubts creeping in. Three points could see us back in the play-off places, especially with Oxford playing Plymouth this weekend. Ha’way the lads!