This weekend Bristol Rovers welcome Sunderland to the Mem with three points to be fought over for two teams at different ends of the division.
When the fixture list came out ‘the Sunderland home game’ was the first that most Gasheads would have been looking for.
The Black Cats have not torn up the division as some would have expected but Jack Ross seems to have steadied the ship and a promotion whether automatic or via the play-offs looks very possible. Rovers know from their own season in the Conference that being the big fish in the small pond is not much fun if you stay in the small pond!
The Wearsiders have been at the top end all season so far but have struggled since their last away win at Blackpool on New Year’s Day. Draws at Charlton, Scunthorpe and Oxford are reasonable but these have not been backed up by home wins. Until Tuesday evening’s 4-2 win over Gillingham, a 1-0 defeat of AFC Wimbledon was the only victory since the start of the year. Luton, Blackpool and Accrington have all visited the Stadium of Light and come away with a share of the points.
At least Jack Ross seems to have rid the club of the poison that was evident during the fascinating Netflix documentary “Sunderland til I die”. The fly on the wall style showed some players in a bad light and the utter frustration of many loyal supporters who felt their allegiance to the red and white stripes was being taken for granted.
On Tuesday evening as Rovers were battling away at Fratton Park for a hard-fought draw the Black Cats ended their frustrating run of draws when they disposed of Gillingham 4-2. Within five minutes the home team were ahead. Grant Leadbitter whipped a corner towards the penalty spot, where Jimmy Dunne had done well to get the run on his marker. He looked to be hauled to the ground but as the referee let play run on, Lee Cattermole, recalled to the side after a long spell out with an ankle injury, thumped home the loose ball.
Before the game Jack Ross had stressed the importance of getting ahead and not having to force it. Having finally done so, his team were pegged back within a minute. The defence switched off and allowed Tom Eaves to run free, the striker cleverly taking the ball round Jon McLaughlin and as Tom Flanagan challenged, the ball was turned into the bottom corner.
Just four minutes later the home team were back in front; another excellent Leadbitter delivery found the unmarked Flanagan, who headed home well.
The Black Cats were set on their heels five minutes before half time when they failed to deal with a Gillingham corner and Brandon Hanlan was left free to strike a firm effort past McLaughlin.
In the 66th-minute a cross to the back post cleared the Gillingham defence. Luke O'Nien looked set to fire home at the back post but was brought down by a clumsy challenge from Leo Da Silva Lopes. Grigg chased to gather the ball and after Aiden McGeady stepped aside, finally got off the mark by firing the penalty straight down the middle of the goal.
McGeady on the scoresheet with 13 minutes left when O'Nien was again brought down in the box by Regan Charles-Cook. This time Grigg let the winger step up and he replicated the striker's effort, scoring straight down the middle.
Speaking after the game Jack Ross said, "It's worth mentioning that I thought the supporters were terrific. I know we speak all the time about their loyalty and their passion. I thought their patience and their support for the players throughout the game was terrific. Even when Gillingham got themselves back in it, and even when we went 20 minutes in the second half without getting ourselves ahead, throughout the game they were really good.”
"They deserve a lot of praise for that and I know the players are extremely grateful. We've mentioned how determined these players are to bring success to the club and it is going to be a collective effort. The patience and support of the fans made a big difference."
Whilst five points from nine has not been a great return for the Black Cats, but Ross has been hugely encouraged with the output of his players over the three games. "I know I have said I have been pleased with large parts of the last two home games and that is the case, and we continued in that same vein," he said. “There was times when it looked as though it was going to be frustration again but I am delighted for the players. They put a lot into the three games, it's a bit frustrating to only take five from nine but the performance level and amount of chances created has been good.”
Looking back over the history of games between the teams it is somewhat surprising that it is all evens with 10 victories to each team. Looking into those statistics a little more deeply there is a massive bonus for the home teams, Rovers winning 9 of the 14 games played in the West Country and just one win on Wearside, whilst Sunderland have 9 victories at home and 2 away.
Now that is quite a remarkable record against a team of Sunderland's calibre. Certainly in these games home advantage is everything. Most of those meetings have been in League games whilst the two teams have been on an equal standing.
Let us look at the two Cup games between the two sides. Firstly they clashed in a 2nd Round League Cup tie back on 7th September 1971. Rovers were on a high, having just disposed of Bradford City 7-1 on the previous Saturday. Sunderland were riding high in the Second Division (and eventually finished 5th). A 15,262 Eastville crowd saw Harold Jarman, Wayne Jones and Sandy Allan all scored to put Rovers through 3-1.
By 1977-78 season Rovers had climbed into the Second Division themselves. They'd travelled to Roker Park on 12th November and been on the end of a 5-1 thrashing. When they drew the Rokerites (as they were then known) in the 3rd Round of the FA Cup there weren't too many people who thought Rovers were going far in the Cup that year. However they were wrong, despite Graham Day getting himself sent off, 10 man Rovers battled their way to a 1-0 victory courtesy of a Bobby Gould goal.
Looking back at League games the match played on 24th February 1988 was equally remarkable. Rovers were in poor form and high riding Sunderland arrived at Twerton Park with high hopes. A crunching tackle early in the game by Armstong on Kenny Hibbitt, broke Hibbitt's leg and it seemed to Galvanise the Rovers team. They took Sunderland apart that night and goals by Ian Holloway, Devon White, David Mehew and Gary Penrice gave the Gas a 4-0 victory.
On 7 September 1974 there was an early season lesson for Rovers with a Billy Hughes hat-trick (including a penalty), Pop Robson and a Peter Aitkin own goal giving the home team 5 goals with just as Alan Warboys response.
Following that 12th November 1977 5-1 loss, the Rokerites were at it again on 2 December 1978 as they once again put 5 goals past Martin Thomas, this time, Bob Lee, Gary Rowell and a Wayne Entwistle hat-trick sent Rovers facing the long journey home pointless.
The Black Cats were disappointed when Josh Maja left to join Bordeaux in the January transfer window, but were buoyed with the signing of Will Grigg from Wigan. Aiden McGeady said at the time of Grigg’s arrival, “It’s hard to take that many goals out of your team midway through the season, regardless of what you thought of Maja’s all-round game. If you get him a chance in the box, he scores. He’s an unbelievable finisher.”
“Griggy’s a different kind of striker who probably runs more channels than Maj, a different type of hold-up play. In the last couple of games he’s just been unlucky, he’s not got that goal. He had a few chances and it just didn’t fall properly for him but now he’s scored, which is great.”
“I understand we’re on paper probably seen as the strongest team in the division and when you’re not winning games everyone inside the club, not just the fans, feel the pressure. Everyone wants to be promoted, that’s where we want to be. Sometimes you have to be patient.”
“The positivity from the manager and in the group over the last week or so is that the performances have been better, albeit we’ve not been getting the rewards. Tonight overall I thought we played really well, it was disappointing to lose a couple of goals which obviously sets us back a bit but I think the performance clicked tonight.”
“Tuesday was a much-needed three points, especially seeing other results. Let’s just see how we go. I can understand playing at a big club when things aren’t going right on the pitch, the crowd and everything else around about it can suck you in a little bit. I understand that because I’ve played at Celtic, Spartak Moscow and Everton, you can feel it on the pitch sometimes It’s down to the individual whether he can rise above that.”
“There’s still almost a third of the season to go. We’re going to treat it like 14, 15 games to get ourselves promoted.”
Jack Ross was without striker Duncan Watmore for Tuesday night's clash with Gillingham, after the speedster had completed his first 90 minutes since returning from injury the prior week. But the Sunderland boss is hopeful that he will recover in time to form part of his squad on Saturday, "Duncan had a slight groin problem, we could have risked him," Ross said. "All being well he will be back on Saturday in the squad."
Chris Maguire, was withdrawn early on at the Stadium of Light, in what was his return to the starting line-up, Maguire lasted less than 20 minutes before he was force to leave the field, Ross noted, “It was an impact injury to his calf, he was quite sore,"I thought he started really well, he is a bit sore. He will be assessed. Sometimes they can clear up quickly, we will have to wait and see.”