“Oh, so that’s what they play at the end when Sunderland win a game!”
It’s been another long season for those of a Red-and-White persuasion but, not for the first time, Sunderland Ladies look poised to bring some much-needed footballing cheer to Wearside. A 3-0 win over Reading put the Lasses into the Women’s FA Cup semi-final, one game away from a Wembley appearance on May 14. It also gave a boost to the Women’s Super League division 1 campaign that began with an uncertain 1-1 against the same opponents in torrential rain a week earlier.
With Beth Mead, last season’s WSL top scorer, at the heart of an effective attack, there’s plenty to attract fans weary of the men’s struggles in the Premier League. Even as the early stages saw both teams struggle to create much before Sunderland missed a couple of decent chances, there was no echo of the tension and frustration that engulfed the Stadium of Light 24 hours earlier as Sam Allardyce’s team failed to break down West Brom and lurched ever closer to the relegation trapdoor. Mead opened the scoring on 35 minutes, Tori Williams added a second five minutes later and Brooke Chaplen wrapped it up in stoppage time after Reading raised their game in the second half without seriously threatening to fight back.
The relationship between fans and team feels different here; supportive and encouraging without succumbing to the same angst that typifies so many Premier League clashes. Much like Durham Ladies, who we visited earlier this season in the cup, the crowd includes a high proportion of families with young girls – many doubtless drawn from the ‘sister club’ scheme run by Sunderland. During the slower passages of play, kids were cartwheeling behind the goal – not recommended at the Stadium of Light. Reading, for their part, brought a small but vocal group of fans – complete with an almost life-size cardboard cut-out of one of the players. They had a song for every player: if squeezing ‘Helen Ward’ into the tune of ‘Sex bomb’ was a challenge, the attempt to get ‘centre of excellence’ into a meaningful lyric was bold but ill-advised. Fair play to them for the effort, but more than a few home fans were beginning to wish the roadworks on the A1 in North Yorkshire had occupied them for longer.
That was about the only gripe for Sunderland on the day. But while there’s an upswing about the club just now, the current success has come against the odds. Blyth Spartans Kestrels came under the SAFC banner in 2000 and the switch from avian to feline initially paid off handsomely. The team became a production line for the England set-up. Current England captain Steph Houghton began her career at the club and remains perhaps the most notable graduate of the women’s academy.
But the fact that she now plays for Manchester City underlines the difficulties women’s football has had in establishing itself in the north-east. Sunderland were a force in the Women’s Premier League, but the reshuffle that created the all-new, TV-friendly Super League was set up on a franchise basis. Sunderland applied but was turned down. On-field pedigree counted for little; Sunderland didn’t make the initial eight.
Condemned to remain in a Premier League the was already secondary, several leading players felt they had little choice but to move on to top flight or overseas teams. Many felt that the game in the region had suffered a serious blow, but the club preserved and won three consecutive WPL titles before finally being granted a slot when the Super League expanded to create a second division. While Sunderland were told to work their way up, Manchester City were fast-tracked into the top flight despite a relatively short history.
With a point to prove, Sunderland romped to promotion in 2014 and consolidated with a fourth-place finish in their debut campaign in the top flight under the guidance of former Wimbledon winger Carlton Fairweather. For much of the season they looked like genuine title contenders but faded in the closing stages, missing out on a shot at Europe. Attendances got up around 1,000 for mid-summer games against Chelsea and Notts County, highlighting the club’s potential. Mead, still awaiting her first full cap for England, was the league’s top scorer with 12 goals in 14 games. A repeat of that performance would surely push her into Mark Sampson’s plans at international level.
Hetton Centre, England.
April 3, 2016. FA Women’s Cup Quarter Final
Sunderland 3 (Mead, Williams, Chaplen) Reading 0
More photos now available on Flickr.