A look back at the past 12-months for Sunderland Ladies.
Heading into 2021 the Covid pandemic continued to impact everyday life in unprecedented ways.
Although football was allowed to continue – albeit behind closed doors – ‘non-elite’ sport was suspended from 4 January, bringing a temporary halt to Sunderland Ladies’ season.
The possibility of history repeating would have been another devastating blow for Mel Reay and her team who were still overcoming the bitter disappointment of the 2019-20 campaign being curtailed which had denied them a shot at promotion and potential league cup win.
Sitting in mid-table, a run of four wins from five games heading into the festive period had raised hopes of catching leaders Huddersfield Town.
But with 80% of fixtures still to be played and responding to feedback submitted by leagues and clubs, the FA confirmed steps 3-6 of the women’s football pyramid would be declared null and void with immediate effect.
There would also be no promotion or relegation, but a process of upward club movement – by application – would be considered to ‘protect the integrity of the women’s game’ following two years of disruption.
On the pitch, the Women’s FA Cup did return with the Black Cats facing Sheffield FC at the Academy of Light in April in the second round.
Three months of no football and only five days training was hardly ideal preparation, but Reay spoke of her pride of her players’ resilience in overcoming setbacks and their strength as a group.
“I think they are just grateful to be back doing what they love,” she told the Echo.
They’ve overcome barriers both personally and as a team, and they’re a credit to themselves with that. I’m proud to coach them and proud to lead them.
“I just hope we build a good cup run because it would be a reward for all that hard work.”
They couldn’t have hoped for a better start as goals from Keira Ramshaw and Holly Manders added to Eve Blakey’s hat-trick as the Black Cats swept aside Sheffield to set up an away tie with Burnley in the next round.
Reay also revealed she had an encouraging meeting with sporting director Kristjaan Speakman to plan the team’s growth in the coming years as part of the club’s overall philosophy including providing access to the first teams data scientists and a swift return to the Women’s Championship.
She added: “There’s going to be a vision in place and a strategy in place to achieve it, which is all we want and all we need. To know that everything is going to be in place for us is all that we can ask.”
The season would be brought to a heart-breaking end as Sunderland were beaten 3-1 on penalties by Burnley to exit the FA Cup in a fiercely contested game in a snowy Lancashire.
If April ended on a downer, the announcement Sunderland had applied for promotion to Women’s Championship via upward club movement certainly raised spirits.
Speaking to safc.com, chief operating officer Steve Davison, said: “I am delighted that we have the opportunity to apply to join the FA Women’s Championship, as it is critically important that, as a collective club, we represent all of the people within our wonderfully diverse community.”
The Black Cats also kept things ticking over with a 5-1 friendly victory over Leeds at the Academy of Light which included a ‘perfect’ hat-trick from Kiera Ramshaw.
In June ‘unbelievable scenes’ greeted the news that Sunderland had been successful in their bid to win promotion to the Women’s Championship, with their application accepted based on their on-field record, unrivalled youth development through the Regional Talent Club, facilities and structure.
“[Securing promotion] represents a tangible reward for Mel and her team for their stellar record over the last 24 months,” said Kristjaan Speakman. “We now look forward to delivering on our plan and building an infrastructure to support the players and staff during the upcoming campaign.”
Those plans were ramped up throughout the month, as Keira Ramshaw and Malta international Maria Farrugia both committed their futures to the club, with the captain delighted to extend her stay on Wearside.
On the transfer front, experienced defender Charlotte Potts returned to Wearside on a free transfer, joining the Black Cats for the fifth time.
On the pitch, Mel Reay’s side would kick off their pre-season preparations against Celtic and Nottingham Forest at the Academy of Light. Despite holding their own against the Glasgow giants in the first half, Sunderland naturally tired in the second and narrowly lost 1-0.
Three days later they recorded their first win, coming from behind to beat Forest 2-1 with Holly Manders and Eve Blakey scoring quickfire goals after half-time.
There was a notable change off the pitch as Durham first team coach Steph Libbey replaced the long serving and popular Trevor Atkinson as assistant manager.
Supporters could hardly contain their excitement ahead of fixture release day, with Sunderland starting their Women’s Championship campaign away to Coventry United, while the first home game against Blackburn Rovers at the Stadium of Light would take on extra significance as they would be allowed to watch a Ladies’ game in-person for the first time in over two years.
In other fixture news, Sunderland were drawn alongside Liverpool, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield United in Group A of the Continental League Cup.
Rounding off a hectic month was the arrival of a former Black Cat, Emma Kelly, who joined from Women’s Super League outfit Birmingham City.
Pre-season continued with an impressive 4-2 win away to Derby County but ended on a down note with a 2-0 defeat against Sheffield United before attention turned to the opening Championship game in the Midlands.
Despite a nervy start, Sunderland overpowered their hosts and a superb solo goal from youngster Jess Brown helped mark their return to the second tier with a deserved 1-0 win.
Behind the scenes, Gentoo Homes were announced as the club’s front of shirt sponsor for the 2021-22 season, with the Branch Liaison Council’s successful Matchday Mental Health Hub logo featuring on the sleeves and Everyone Active signing up as back of shirt sponsor, strengthening community support of the women’s game.
Steve Davison said: “Women’s football has a rich heritage within the North East and it has an equally important future, so it is fantastic to be able to partner with like-minded organisations to create exciting new opportunities for players, staff and supporters alike.”
With the club’s usual home ground Eppleton CW undergoing redevelopment to upgrade facilities, and to celebrate the return of supporters, the Blackburn match was switched to the Stadium of Light.
“We’ve waited such a long time for you to all be back watching the girls and having our support behind us is massive,” said Mel Reay in her programme notes. “It doesn’t get bigger than a match at the Stadium of Light in front of our fans.”
Almost 800 fans turned out in the sunshine to watch Reay’s side go top of the league with an impressive 2-0 win. Midfielder Neve Herron and Holly Manders gave the Black Cats a commanding lead in a scintillating first half performance which blew their opponents away.
The unbeaten start continued in London the following week as substitute Kiera Ramshaw inspired a brilliant comeback and earn a hard-fought 1-1 draw at Crystal Palace, while a late own goal rescued a point against Lewes at the Stadium of Light as the month ended.
“We’re absolutely delighted with the start to this season back in the Championship,” Mel Reay reflected.
“We weren’t quite sure what to expect coming into the season, but the girls have worked extremely hard physically and from a technical point of view, they’ve done exactly what we’ve asked of them on the pitch.”
Adding a bit of spice to October’s River Wear Derby against Durham, Sunderland announced the signing of former Wildcats forward Iris Achterhof on a non-contract agreement for the remainder of the season.
Before the derby, the Black Cats made the long trip to the South West to face Bristol City. In horrendous conditions which directly contributed to the Vixens’ second goal, Sunderland’s unbeaten run ended abruptly with a 2-1 defeat.
Things didn’t get much better a week later as Durham took the derby bragging rights with a 2-0 win in front of a bumper crowd of 865 at Eppleton CW.
To make matters worse, it was two players with Wearside connections – Sunderland-born Beth Hepple and former Black Cats midfielder Mollie Lambert – who scored in the second half to inflict a first home defeat.
With one eye on the future, England youth international Grace Ede was promoted to the senior squad from the Regional Talent Club, who said she was “over the moon” to start her new challenge.
The 16-year-old went straight into the squad for the Continental Cup clash with Sheffield United, but it was another RTC graduate, Keira Ramshaw, who stole the show by scoring a dramatic stoppage-time penalty against Sheffield United to tie the game 1-1 after 90 minutes. The SAFC legend – and one of Ede’s heroes – then repeated the trick in the resulting shootout as Sunderland claimed the bonus point.
Mel Reay challenged her team to use the Blades result to push on in the league and her side duly obliged with a 1-0 victory at Charlton Athletic to end October on a high note.
Back in Continental Cup action, first half goals from Grace McCatty and Holly Manders helped Sunderland move to the top of Group A with a 2-1 success over Blackburn but November would be a tough month in the league.
A week that started with a bang fizzled out with a frustrating 2-0 home reverse against London City Lionesses then, a week later, Kiera Ramshaw scored her third goal of the season at Watford, but the Black Cats would have to settle a draw on Women’s Football Weekend.
This would be the only point claimed during November as several long-haul trips began to take their toll. Next up would be league leaders Liverpool, who showed exactly why they are expected to be playing Super League football next season with a dominant performance.
Heeding Mel Reay’s pre-match rallying call to have a go at their illustrious opponents, Emily Scarr shocked the visitors with a goal inside the first 20 minutes, but the Reds hit back to head into the break 2-1 in front, with a fantastic strike from Melissa Lawley on the hour putting the result beyond doubt.
But looking back on the season so far, Reay told the Echo’s Phil Smith that she couldn’t have asked for any more from her players and was encouraged with their progress.
“When we look back on those games, we kick ourselves really, because it’s really been preventable mistakes that have led to us losing points,” Reay said.
“But we’re in a good place, with points on the board.”
November also saw Wearside welcome the Lionesses to the Stadium of Light for their penultimate 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifier of the year against Austria.
Manchester City striker Ellen White marked her 100th cap with the only goal of the game as England made it five wins from five to strengthen their position at the top of Group D in front of 9,159 hardy souls who had braved Storm Arwen to cheer on Sarina Wiegman’s side.
With several former Regional Talent Club graduates including Jill Scott and Jordan Nobbs named in the squad, it was fitting Sunderland announced another potential star and England youth international – Daisy Burt – had made the jump to senior football.
After completing the deal, Burt said: “I feel I’m definitely ready for women’s football, and that I’ve progressed from the RTC well enough to show what I can do.”
The Black Cats would now be competing on three fronts as the Women’s FA Cup third round draw paired them with Brighouse Town who they would face in December.
December would be a rollercoaster month in more ways than one.
In the build up to the Aston Villa Continental Cup tie, the squad was rocked by the news that Emily Scarr had been spiked on a night out and Kiera Ramshaw was suffering from concussion after being involved in a car accident.
Although Scarr was able to face the Villans, other players being unavailable due to personal reasons, illness or injury meant that Mel Reay was only able to name four substitutes in her squad as they were crushed 7-0 by the Super League side.
Two positives to be taken from the game were the performances of Grace Ede and Daisy Burt – making her senior debut – who impressed during second half cameos.
“With all the injuries we’ve had, it doesn’t really help that we couldn’t make any changes so the team picked itself almost,” Reay told safc.com after the game.
“It was a tough game. When you concede that early on it was always going to be an uphill battle.”
Scarr’s spiking came as Northumbria Police confirmed a rise in cases across the region in November and emphasised the importance of highlighting the dangers.
“It can happen to anyone and that you have to have your wits and your guard about you wherever you are,” Steph Libbey told the Echo.
“It will be something we can all learn from and hopefully, it doesn’t happen to anyone in the near future.”
As key players returned, results improved, first a 1-0 win over Brighouse securing Sunderland’s place in the FA Cup fourth round where they will face Birmingham City, and then a 4-2 penalty shootout win against Liverpool in the Continental League Cup.
Maria Farrugia calmly scored the decisive spot kick to secure the bonus point after the tie finished goalless after 90 minutes as the Black Cats finished second in Group A but would narrowly miss out on a quarter final place.
Hopes of carrying the feel-good factor into the league were dashed after the clash with Sheffield United was postponed due to Covid reasons, as the virus continues to ravage the sporting calendar and everyday life.
With a well-deserved rest over the festive period, Sunderland will be heading into the New Year with optimism, hoping to cement their place in the Women’s Championship for another season. Currently sitting in eighth, they will be looking up instead of down with a promising 2022 ahead.