Gillingham 1-2 Sunderland AFC
Ten-man Sunderland sealed a hard-fought three points at the Priestfield Stadium after coming from behind to beat Gillingham.
Tom Flanagan headed the winning goal early in the second half, after Aiden O’Brien had cancelled out Danny Lloyd’s penalty for Gills.
Elliot Embleton was dismissed for a straight red card after a late tackle with a quarter of the game to go, but Lee Johnson’s side take a crucial three points back to the North East.
Gillingham showed their early threat five minutes in, when Jack Tucker forced Thorben Hoffmann into a well-sprung diving save to his right, firing an effort from 25 yards.
From the resulting corner, Max Ehmer’s shot inside the box was blocked by Tom Flanagan and the Lads survived the early scare.
Efforts from O’Brien and Embleton, both kept out routinely by Jamie Cumming from distance, as well as a couple of intriguing breaks forward – one of which saw Dennis Cirkin momentarily receiving treatment after trying to keep a pass in play – represented Sunderland’s early attacking threat.
The opener arrived 24 minutes in for the hosts, as Luke O’Nien was just too late for the ball and tripped his man inside the area. Despite Gillingham putting the ball in the net immediately after, the referee maintained the penalty decision – which saw Lloyd step up and strike a firm drive past Hoffmann.
It was O’Nien who came close to finding a response from the Black Cats on the half-hour mark, firing over from 15 yards following a well-worked corner routine between he and Embleton.
But after slowly turning the screw further and further, finally the equaliser came on the stroke of half-time. Dan Neil’s excellently whipped cross from the right found O’Brien inside the six-yard box, who beat his marker to the ball and found the net.
The second half began in much the same way, with the Lads looking confident even if not too many chances were being created, Embleton’s free-kick whipping over from 25 yards out after Robbie McKenzie had fired over at the other end.
And nine minutes after the restart, the second Sunderland goal arrived. Following an encouraging attack from which Gillingham gained respite, Carl Winchester’s excellently timed tackle won the ball back and saw it out to Alex Pritchard. Another inch-perfect cross from the right this time picked out Flanagan in the air, to head home his first of the season.
The task became harder midway through the second period, as Embleton picked up a straight red card for a late lunge on Tucker. Bailey Wright then replaced Pritchard as Johnson was forced to shuffle his side to weather a potential storm.
Substitute John Akinde twice worked half-chances for the hosts, firing wide on the turn the first time and then seeing an effort blocked well by Callum Doyle.
At the other end, Winchester struck wide under pressure following good work from Neil on the break.
As the clock ticked down, it became time to put bodies on the line which continued the more Gillingham were forced to commit, O’Nien making a terrific block from Kyle Dempsey, before Hoffmann produced a terrific fingertip save onto the post from Lloyd’s looping header in the final four minutes.
The Lads managed the game excellently in the dying embers, and 2,000 jubilant Sunderland supporters head back to Wearside three points better off ahead of Tuesday’s trip to Crewe Alexandra.
SUNDERLAND AFC: Hoffmann; Winchester, Flanagan, Doyle, Cirkin; O’Nien ©, Neil; O’Brien (Harris 89’), Embleton, Pritchard (Wright 70’); Stewart.
Subs not used: Burge, Hume, Younger, Wearne, Sohna.
Gillingham: Cumming, Jackson, O’Keefe, Ehmer, Tucker, Dempsey ©, McKenzie, Lloyd, Bennett (Kelman 80’), Oliver, Carayol (Akinde 60’).
Subs not used: Chapman, Lee, Reeves, Adshead.