Mel Reay was sent off as Sunderland Ladies fell to a 1-0 home defeat to Crystal Palace in the Women’s Championship.

Molly-Mae Sharpe looked to be offside when she netted the winner and that, plus several other contentious decisions, compounded a frustrating and miserable afternoon for the Black Cats and their head coach who saw red – in more ways than one – late on.

Earlier this month Reay called on the standard of refereeing in the women’s game to be better, with today’s result doing little to change her opinion, and her side will be disappointed not to have secured at least a point in an evenly contested game.

They certainly started the brighter of the two sides, bolstered by the return of Grace McCatty and Emma Kelly after suspension and injury respectively, with the latter finding space in the box and firing wide.

Maria Farrugia, who was a constant threat throughout, then jinked her way past the Palace backline but her left-footed effort, which looked to be creeping in, was superbly tipped around the post by Chloe Morgan.

Moments later, Abbey Joice flashed a shot across the six-yard box before Sunderland’s shouts for a penalty were waved away by referee Abby Deaden when Emily Scarr looked to be tripped just inside the box.

Palace had opportunities of their own but couldn’t find a way past Alison Cowling and when they did, they were denied by the woodwork. After Scarr had struck the bar with a powerful curling strike from out wide, the Eagles broke quickly, Isabella Sibley’s inch perfect pass playing in Millie Farrow who scuffed her chance against the foot of the post.

Sunderland were forced into a defensive reshuffle just before half time, the returning Abby Towers coming on for Megan Beer with the youngster slotting in alongside McCatty, as the hosts finished the half strongly but Farrugia, Kelly and Scarr unable to find the goal their performance deserved.

They did have the ball in the net at the start of the second period – Keira Ramshaw’s powerful header from Kelly’s corner fell to Farrugia whose turn and shot flew past Morgan, but the Malta international was flagged offside.

Less than three minutes later, it was Palace who opened the scoring through Sharpe with those in red and white, their coaching staff and fans behind the goal believing the forward was a good three yards offside when she made contact.

The lack of a flag from the assistant incensed Reay, who vociferously challenged every decision given against her team. They were far from out of the contest – Joice and Ramshaw having shots blocked before Scarr’s low cross was almost bundled into her own net by Gracie Pearse.

At the other end, Cowling pulled off two outstanding saves in quick succession to keep the Black Cats in the game – first diving low to smother a deflected shot then flying across her goal line to somehow tip Sharpe’s header onto the bar.

After making a triple substitution with three minutes remaing – Grace Ede, Holly Manders and Faye Mullen entering the fray in place of Libbi McInnes, Emily Scarr and Louise Griffiths – a series of niggling fouls and contentious calls saw Reay’s frustrations boil over and she was given her marching orders in stoppage time.

Sunderland are yet to win in 2022 despite some excellent performances and although they are currently 10 points clear of Coventry United with seven games remaining, they will be looking to halt their run of poor form at home against Charlton Athletic in a week’s time without their head coach in the dugout.

Sunderland: Cowling; Brown, Beer (Towers 26’), McCatty, Griffiths (Mullen 87’); Kelly (Watson 68’), Ramshaw ©, McInnes (Ede 87’), Joice, Scarr (Manders 87’); Farrugia.

Subs: Moan, Boyes, Burt, Blakey.