Monsieur Salut writes: games come thick and fast in League One. We’ve hardly had time to celebrate the emphatic home win against Scunthorpe before the long trip to Gillingham beckons. James Morgan*, our Gills fan, is not from Gillingham and has never lived in Kent. A gloryseeker then? No, he inherited his love of the Gills from his dad and that passes my arbitrary test of true support with flying colours (heaven knows, I was born almost as far from Sunderland as it’s possible to be and still be English). James has pals from uni who follow Sunderland and retains a soft spot for our club – and for a certain player who graced both the Priestfield and the Stadium of Light. I wonder what the Gills equivalent of Roy Keane’s assessment of Nyron – Tony Pulis or Peter Taylor maybe – might have been (Keano said ‘the less time Nyron spends on the ball, the better it is for all concerned’). Oops: forgot to ask him about the Gills sending us down to the third tier in the 1980s …
Salut! Sunderland: The season has started well with two wins out of the three in the league and the Gills sitting just outside the playoff places. Have the results been deserved, are you surprised to have made such good early running and can it be sustained?
James Morgan: the first two wins (against Accrington Stanley and Burton) were extremely comfortable to be honest. While it had many of us revising our pessimistic outlook for the season I was a bit more cautious as I think those first two opponents might struggle this season. Saturday’s game against a resurgent Walsall was a far tougher ask and until the final period of the game we looked quite poor so maybe that was a little bit of a wake up call. I think the ceiling on our ambition this season would have us finishing around where we are now in the lower reaches of the play offs but being far more realistic anything above mid table would represent real progress after a difficult couple of seasons.
Steve Lovell and Paul Scally: a good pairing as manager and owner and how far realistically can they take you?
I think most Gill fans absolutely adore Lovell. A legend at the club as a player (albeit before my time) and he’s done brilliantly as manager. Beyond the pitch he just comes across as an incredibly genuine and humble bloke who really has the best interests of the club at heart. I really hope we continue to do well under him and he stays at the helm for years to come.
Scally, to put it diplomatically, is a more divisive figure among our fanbase. The fact remains that without his intervention in the mid 90s the club might have ceased to exist. However, he’s quite open that he’s probably taken the club as far as he can barring significant outside investment. There is a perception among the fans – rightly or wrongly – that while he is genuinely courting potential investors he’s not prepared to relinquish his control over the club and will therefore struggle to attract anything significant.
Tom Eaves did the damage against Burton and wasn’t even in the starting XI. Who are the other players on whom you will be relying to keep up the good start?
Despite finishing 17th last season we were in the top third for fewest goals conceded and we’ve largely kept that defence together. Congolese international centre-back Gabriel Zakuani might not be the best on the ball but defensively has to be one of the best in the division and our giant Czech keeper Tomas Holy has rightly attracted attention from clubs higher up the pyramid. We tend to soak up a lot of pressure and limit sides to pot shots and then hit them on the counter – this is one of the reasons why under Lovell we’ve had a really strong away record, but struggled at home.
Our midfield and forward line look stronger than last season. Lovell rightly identified a lack of goals from midfield and pace throughout the side as our most glaring deficiencies last season. He released big names like our captain Lee Martin and Jake (son of club legend Andy) Hessenthaler and in their place has signed young, hungry (if unproven) players like Regan Charles-Cook and Brandon Hanlan. That pair were both released by our good friends at Charlton having barely had a look in but have looked really impressive so far.
You’ve had some decent names as managers (even if, as with Tony Pulis, it didn’t always end happily) and in past line-ups. Thoughts?
Pulis was the manager when I first started going to games in the mid 90s. He built the foundation of the side that went on to play in the second tier for the first time on our history so will always be a hero of mine and I take it very personally when people attack his managerial style! Martin Allen’s tenure was (mostly) glorious and he built a real affinity with the fans. He’s the only man in football who could get away with the gilet and bright red trousers combo.
Who has given you most pleasure in Gills colours?
There are too many to mention, but in this moment I’ll say Bradley Dack (he’ll be in the Prem before long), Andy Hessenthaler, Robert Taylor and Simon King are among my favourites.
And who should never have been allowed at the Priestfield Stadium?
There’s a lot of competition for this title but I’ll go for Ronnie Jepson. Among the bleaker periods of my 20+ years as a fan was watching his assemblage of cloggers playing incredibly dour football. Luckily I was at university for a lot of his time in charge so I was spared much of it.
Gills have had to weather financial crises. Do things seem stable now?
We are told by our chairman that we are now debt-free. In recent seasons we seem to have done alright in transfer fees with the likes of John Egan, Bradley Dack and Paulo Gazzaniga moving on. My biggest concern is one probably shared by a lot of clubs of our size: a dwindling fan base. You only have to see the kids playing football in the streets around Priestfield in Arsenal and Chelsea shirts to grasp the problem. I’m not sure moving to a new stadium, something Scally has been promising since he took over in 1995, will address that.
And what have been your highs and lows as a supporter?
Lows: The infamous 98/99 play-off loss to Man City. Probably the worst day of my entire life and I’m not sure I’ll ever get over what to this day remains one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in football history. Not winning for 35 consecutive away games during 2009-10 was absolutely ridiculous.
Highs: Our play-off win the season after the Man City debacle against Wigan to get us into the second division for the first time ever. Winning League Two in 12/13 under Martin Allen.
What thoughts on Sunderland? The club, the fans, the city and region, Jack Ross?
I’ve always had a soft spot for Sunderland as I have some good friends who are fans. We bonded when we met at university over a mutual appreciation for the life and works of Nyron Nosworthy. I’ve been to a couple of Sunderland games with them and I think your fans are brilliant. I wish we were as numerous and as loud.
I can’t say I had even heard of Jack Ross but from what I’ve seen the engagement between him and the new ownership and the fans has been positive. I really hope this season gives you an opportunity to clear out the deadwood and rebuild a club that should be up there in the top division by rights.
There’s something of an affinity between the two towns in that our biggest employers were both the dockyards and both were closed under Thatcher. Not to exaggerate the similarities today – the Medway towns undoubtedly benefit from their position in the wealthy south-east and through their proximity to London – but I think these are two towns that are neglected and overlooked. In areas like those the fortunes of the football club can take on a greater significance I think.
Have you been surprised by our sharp decline?
Not really no, as I keep a close eye on how you’re doing and hear a lot through my friends. I wasn’t surprised by your relegation last season to be honest. The club just looked absolutely stagnant and knackered sadly.
Hand on heart, where will our clubs finish this season?
As per usual the bookies have us as among the favourites to go down, which is a bit odd when one considers our form under Lovell extended over the course of a season would have us firmly in the top half. We’ll finish mid table I think.
I think Sunderland might do a Blackburn from last season – start slowly but then end the season in blistering form to finish 2nd.
The World Cup: a fabulous tournament, long to be remembered, or quickly forgotten now league football is back?
I absolutely loved it. But I’d take the Gills winning something, anything, over England winning the World Cup.
The Neymar question: will VAR eliminate cheating or is it a lost cause?
I think the hysteria among pundits was misplaced. It worked mostly and where it didn’t was down to an odd application of the rules by the refs making the decisions. When Sunderland fans grasp just how poor the standard of officiating is at this level I’m sure they’ll come round on it too. Applied correctly it can and will disincentivise diving.
Will you be at our game? What will be the score?
As a season ticket holder I will be yes. Heart says an entertaining score 2-2, head says we’ll lose 3-1.
* James Morgan on himself: I’m not actually from Kent and I’ve never lived there. I inherited the club through my dad like an unfortunate genetic disorder. He timed taking me to my first ever game very well – it was under Tony Pulis and we went up that season. That set in motion probably the best period in our history as we eventually got into the second division and stayed there for five seasons. It’s definitely not all been that fun but those good seasons and the playoff/title wins mean so much more for it.
Interview: Colin Randall