Gillingham 1 Sunderland 2: This is how 10-man Cats got back to winning ways
After falling behind to Danny Lloyd’s first-half penalty, goals from Aiden O’Brien and Tom Flanagan either side of half-time put Lee Johnson’s side 2-1 ahead before Elliot Embleton was sent off.
That left the visitors defending in numbers as The Gills threw on more strikers and piled on the pressure.
The closest they came was when Thorben Hoffmann made an outstanding save to keep out Robbie McKenzie’s header, while the hosts also had a late penalty appeal turned down.
It’s a result which rekindles Sunderland’s push for promotion following that 4-0 loss at Portsmouth a fortnight ago.
Johnson made three changes to his team from the trip to Fratton Park, as Callum Doyle, Dan Neil and Alex Pritchard were all recalled.
Corry Evans, Leon Dajaku, Aiden McGeady and Lynden Gooch were all left out of the matchday squad due to fitness concerns, meaning there was a lack of experience on the visitors’ bench.
Yet Sunderland’s starting XI still looked strong, and they created the first chance of the match as Pritchard’s long-range effort was held by Gills goalkeeper Jamie Cumming.
Opportunities were hard to come by in the first 45 minutes, though, as the Black Cats tried to play through a congested midfield and struggled to impose themselves.
With McGeady and Gooch absent, Pritchard and Embeton were deployed as inside forwards, with Aiden O’Brien in the No 10 position, yet the side lacked natural width.
At the other end, Gillingham’s direct approach caused problems and Thorben Hoffmann was forced to keep out a well-struck volley from Jack Tucker, before Dennis Cirkin cleared an effort off the line from the resulting corner.
That was a clear warning sign, and Sunderland weren’t so fortunate in the 25th minute when Luke O’Nien made a rash challenge to bring down Stuart O’Keefe and concede a penalty. Lloyd made no mistake from the spot, sending Hoffmann the wrong way.
Sunderland’s frustration started to show after that as passes went astray and Gillingham kept their shape.
Eventually, a moment of quality came, as Neil picked out O’Brien with an excellent cross from the right and the forward converted on the stroke of half-time.
The goal came at a perfect time and the visiots started brightly after the interval, with Carl Winchester making more forward runs from right-back.
Winchester’s persistence helped his side win a corner in the 55th minute, which saw Sunderland recycle possession before Pritchard’s inviting cross was headed home by Flanagan at the back post.
Sunderland had momentum after that but their job was made much tougher when Embleton was sent off for a really late challenge on Jack Tucker in the 67th minute.
That left Sunderland on the back foot, yet they managed to see it out.
Sunderland XI: Hoffmann, Winchester, Flanagan, Doyle, Cirkin, O’Nien, Neil, Embleton, Pritchard (Wright, 70), O’Brien (Harris, 90), Stewart
Subs: Burge, Younger Hume, Sonha, Wearne
Bookings: Cirkin, 42 Stewart 83
Red Card: Embleton, 67
Gillingham XI: Cumming, Jackson, Tucker, Ehmer (Sithole, 90), McKenzie, Bennett (Kelman, 81), Dempsey, O’Keefe, Lloyd, Carayol (Akinde, 60), Oliver
Subs: Chapman, Lee, Reeves, Adshead,