The very first winter league for the Sunderland Ladies kicked off last September, and despite the women’s team seemingly improving, the foundations have seemed loose and the whole club could crumble at any minute. The first match, a 1-0 win away to reading was a defiant statement, going in as underdogs to a heavily improved Royals squad we said: “here we are, we won’t roll over, we want this.” However, just 3 days after that match, the FA announced its plans to restructure the league. This would make the top league fully professional, and all leagues below could have a semi professional aspect. The league reform demanded full time contracts for a certain number of players, a youth set up, and a certain amount of funds/backing to become a part of the top tier - which seemed to crush the Lady Black Cats dreams from the off. Just the previous year our club reverted from full time to part time, with only a handful of players having full time contracts, which lead to the departure of stars and familiar faces who had been members of the starting XI for years - such as England prospect Beth Mead, and Northern Ireland regular Rachel Furness. Owner Ellis Short and his financial difficulties could be to blame for this as he chooses to put less money into the club than in previous years.
So this season has become rather pointless for us, we have no reason to win in this league as our fate is sealed. The club has not yet bid for access to any league for the 18/19 season, as we do not have the resources necessary to qualify for the leagues we desire at this time. The whispers of a Sunderland team based at Northumbria Uni are getting louder, but what this means everyone is unsure of. Do we just use their facilities? Do we become Team Northumbria, and have Sunderland ladies cease to exist, we just don’t know. We do know that without them we will possibly be in at least the second tier, or maybe even the third. Every win I see players I congratulate them on the good game, but in my mind I’m always thinking, maybe it was pointless anyway. Every loss still stings, but at least it’s a throwaway season right? Nothing seems to matter at this point, and that hurts us all deeply.
However, it means the pressure is off for the games, and it could make a cup run seem more enticing. At Least it’s something that matters, and will remain in the history books as something meaningful. Although we exited the Continental Tyres Cup in the quarter finals at the hands of former Sunderland striker Beth Mead and her Arsenal teammates, there’s still the FA cup. We’ve drawn Derby County Ladies or Brighthouse Town at home in the Fourth round, and that has to be a game we go all in for. Imagine the upset of little old Sunderland winning the FA cup. It would be my personal version of ‘73. Unfortunately, this seems a pipe dream, as it will almost certainly end in a thumping away to a bigger, richer and all round more stable team as all our cup hopes seem to do; we get to the quarters, or even the semis, but then draw away to Arsenal or Chelsea and out we go.
This season looks even worse if you look not only at the disruption to the league, but the disruption within the club. This season the top dogs of the club decided that we should move from our ground at Eppleton, where the youth teams play their games, to play at the home of South Shields, Mariners Park. For some, this is a better ground; it has better transport links with the metro and many buses running close, but it also sits in the middle of an industrial estate, and in essence isn’t Sunderland at all. The claret and blue flags of the Shields faithfuls still fly while we play, everything is still covered in South Shields crests. It’s not a home ground at all. This went hand in hand with the change of training facilities, with the excuse “the academy is too busy and doesn’t have the resources” used to move us to Northumbria University’s facilities. Sunderland Ladies were moved out of Sunderland in every sense, and it doesn’t feel like we are a true part of the club I love anymore. Mariners park draws lower crowds, despite one of our reasons for moving being to increase attendance, than the old home at the Hetton Centre did, with many locals from around that area refusing to travel and choosing to support Durham Ladies instead. For me, it feels like the players wear the crest I’ve grown up with, but they aren’t a part of it. They don’t train at Sunderland, they don’t play in Sunderland, they aren’t really Sunderland.
This is a club that I love, I’ve supported Sunderland men all my life, and Sunderland women as long as I’ve known they existed. When the lads were breaking my heart every week, the lasses kept my love for the game alive. That resonates with how many supporters of another FAWSL1 club feels, Yeovil Town. Their fans chose to fund their women’s team themselves, and their bid for top league status was accepted. They will be playing their games at the highest level in England next year, despite regular thrashing from the top teams. With no disrespect intended, Sunderland ladies are a better team than Yeovil Town Ladies - with the passionate fan base the Mackems often boast about they should have a bigger following too. However we come nowhere near the amount of fans that attend the home matches for the glovers. Which meant we couldn’t save our own team even if we had been given the option to pitch in, which we weren’t. This new league is not about quality, nor whether the teams in that league deserve to be there based of their results. It’s all about money, which for a team that has more than its fair share of financial pressures, means we are in a lose/lose situation.
Such is the life for a Sunderland fan.