A Kyle Lafferty double wasn’t enough to secure victory as Sunderland were held to a 2-2 draw by Gillingham.
That results sees the Black Cats fail to capitalise on Rotherham’s slip-up as the promotion pictures grows murkier by the week.
Phil Parkinson made one enforced change for this one as Charlie Wyke missed out with a back injury and was replaced by the Northern Ireland international, while Steve Evans made three changes to the side that lost to AFC Wimbledon last week.
Sunderland made a bright start to the afternoon as they looked to put the woes of last weekend’s 1-0 defeat to Coventry City behind them.
Picking the ball up from deep, the Black Cats probed at the Gillingham defence as they looked to examine what would be the most effective way to cut the defence open.
The first quarter turned into a scrappy affair with neither side creating much in the way of clear-cut chances.
Sunderland did create one good opening after 30 minutes when Luke O’Nien and Chris Maguire linked up down the right, before a cross found Lynden Gooch in the area.
The American tried twice to get his shot away, but was denied by Jack Bonham from close range.
Gillingham looked like a side who had lost just one game since the end of November as they kept the ball well and exposed gaps in the Sunderland midfield and down the flanks.
Steve Evans’ side did create chances in the opening period, but rarely looked like taking the lead.
As for the hosts, an individual piece of play from Chris Maguire nearly set Sunderland on their way as he turned a defender in the box before letting fly with an effort that was deflected wide.
Phil Parkinson’s side were building momentum towards the end of the first half as consecutive free-kicks led to Tom Flanagan letting fly with an effort from which was just tipped around the post.
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The second have continued in much the same way with Sunderland dominating proceedings.
A surprise lead almost came their way when Chris Maguire’s awkward free-kick evaded the Sunderland attack, the Gillingham defence and almost Jack Bonham in the goal who spilled the routing cross into the box.
Thankfully for him, the visitors were able to clear before being punished.
The pressure was building once again on the Gillingham goal as O’Nien’s cross almost caught out the shaky Bonham in the net before Kyle Lafferty dragged an effort wide of the mark from close range.
Sunderland were then just a couple of feet from taking the lead as Luke O’Nien reached the byline and pulled back for Maguire who was denied by Bonham who smothered the ball as he was about to slot him.
Parkinson’s side were turning the screw as the game reached the hour mark, but a brief lapse in concentration almost allowed Gillingham to take the lead as Brandon Hanlan capitalised on a defensive lapse but had his effort parried away by Jon McLaughlin.
However that nervy moment was short-lived as Denver Hume curled in a perfect cross from the left flank towards Kyle Lafferty who planted a firm header into the back of the net.
It was a massive moment for the experienced striker, but even more-so for the Black Cats.
But just as Sunderland should have kicked on, Gillingham capitalised on another defensive lapse when Willis let the ball drop in the area only for Mikael Mandron to squeeze it through a crowd of players and into the bottom corner.
Gillingham almost took the lead moments later when Oliver Lee latched onto a ball in the area however his curling effort was kept out my a stunning Jon McLaughlin stop to his left.
Phil Parkinson switched things up after 80 minutes when Antoine Semenyo replaced Alim Ozturk.
That change may not have had a direct impact in what happened next, but it certainly inspired Sunderland into the lead as a ball from George Dobson was threaded through to Lafferty who prodded home to the jubilation of the home fans.
It seemed that the three points were in the bag until Gillingham’s Mikael Mandron grabbed his second of the game with a drilled effort deep into stoppage time.
That result sees Sunderland stay in 5th place in the table with an incredible one point separating every team between 3rd and 8th in League One.
FULL-TIME: Sunderland 2-2 Gillingham