Byfield's brilliance adds edge

Sunderland 2 Gillingham 1
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The Independent Football

Gillingham: The very mention of the name is sufficient to send a shudder through any Sunderland supporter. In 1987 it was the Gills who plunged the Wearsiders to the lowest point in their 125-year history, consigning them to a season in the old Third Division. It was a different story last night.

Gillingham: The very mention of the name is sufficient to send a shudder through any Sunderland supporter. In 1987 it was the Gills who plunged the Wearsiders to the lowest point in their 125-year history, consigning them to a season in the old Third Division. It was a different story last night, a Darren Byfield goal eight minutes into the second half consigning Gillingham to defeat on their first visit to the Stadium of Light ­ and raising red-and-white hopes of an automatic return to the Premiership for Mick McCarthy's side.

Sunderland are up to fourth place in the First Division now, eight points behind Norwich and West Bromwich Albion, with a game in hand. The pacesetters have yet to visit the Stadium of Light, where the FA Cup semi-finalists have not lost a League game since their opening home fixture, against Millwall on 16 August.

McCarthy's men were never in serious danger of slipping up last night, although they did make hard work of overcoming a team struggling against relegation with 10 first-team squad members on the injured list.

It was backs-to-the-wall stuff from the start for Gillingham. They ought to have been playing catch-up from the seventh minute but, after cutting inside from the left flank, John Oster steered a right-foot drive into the arms of Steve Banks.

It was left to Sean Thornton to strike the first blow, a right-footed free-kick smack in the top right corner from 20 yards. With 12 minutes gone, it looked ominous for Gillingham but Sunderland proceeded to ease off the front foot, to the obvious annoyance of their manager. McCarthy became an increasingly agitated figure at pitchside and his fears were realised in the 27th minute when Nicky Southall crossed from the right and the ball trundled over the goalline via the shoulder of Mamady Sidibe and the chest of Patrick Agyemang.

It took a stiff half-time team-talk and a flash of brilliance by Byfield for Sunderland to regain their early momentum.

Eight minutes into the second half, Tommy Smith fed Byfield on the left and the Jamaican international wrong-footed Leon Johnson before burying a low right-footed drive. It was the former Rotherham man's third goal in three games and it might have been followed by Sunderland's third of the night, Alan Pouton heading a Darren Williams drive on to the Gillingham crossbar with Banks beaten.

As it was, though, McCarthy was happy enough at the final whistle. "I'll accept 2-1," he said. "It's an excellent result for us."

Sunderland (4-4-2): Poom; Wright (Williams, 34), Breen, Babb, McCartney; Thornton (Cooper, 90), Thirlwell, Whitely, Oster; Byfield, Kyle (Smith, h-t). Substitutes not used: Myhre (gk), Piper.

Gillingham (4-4-2): Banks; Southall, Ashby, Johnson, Rose; James (Jarvis, 83), Smith, Pouton, Spiller (Hessenthaler, 69); Agyemang, Sidibe. Substitutes not used: Crofts, Awuah, Beckwith.

Referee: M Cowburn (Lancs).

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