Whilst the men’s team of Sunderland AFC may be starting to get back on their feet (fingers crossed) following a summer overhaul including new ownership, a new manager and new players, Sunderland Ladies have faced a major barrier with their licence application to participate in the FA Women’s Super League - the highest tier of women’s football in England - being rejected by the FA.
For context, the FA have had a massive revamp in their pyramid structure for women’s football. Previously, the top league name was “FA Women’s Super League 1” (FAWSL 1) and the second league name was “FA Women’s Super League 2” (FAWSL 2). After these leagues came the “Women’s Premier League Northern Division” and the “Women’s Premier League Southern Division” on an equal level. It’s also worth mentioning that these leagues were formed by the FA in 2014, so in the scheme of things, they are quite recent.
Following on from this, the FA decided to have a re-brand for the 2018/19 season. “FA Women’s Super League 1” has become “FA Women’s Super League”. “FA Women’s Super League 2” has now become “FA Women’s Championship”. Ultimately, the FA have realised the previous league names were a bit of a mouthful, and have opted for something a bit snappier.
However, along with this re-branding came another element - the FA deciding which teams should play in these leagues. Sunderland Ladies have played in the old FAWSL 1 since 2015 and finished seventh in the league last year, which is more than commendable. Each club had to apply for a licence last season to take up a place in their league for this season.
The FA rejected Sunderland Ladies’ licence to be in the top tier of women’s football this year. Instead they have placed Sunderland two divisions below, in the third tier FA Women’s National League Northern Premier Division. It must be remembered that Sunderland Ladies have attributed more academy gradates to recent Lionesses squads than any other side in England.
How on earth the FA can justify this is beyond me - it’s a shambolic decision. Sunderland Ladies have been in the top two tiers of women’s football for four years.
Looking at the teams in the FA Women’s Super League for 2018/19, the majority are southern teams, with Manchester City Women being the north-most team in the league. To add further insult to Sunderland Ladies’ injury, West Ham ladies have been bumped up to the FAWSL from the third tiered FA Women’s National League Southern Premier Division.
Luckily, new owner Stewart Donald confirmed at the start of June that Sunderland Ladies would be appealing to the FA in an effort to secure WSL status. It’s refreshing to see an owner who cares about every aspect of the club, including the women’s side of the game.
I feel it’s important that for the club to progress - it’s vital that all components of the club are looked after. Sunderland Ladies well-being must also be a focus for the new boys in charge because, like it or not, women’s football is on the rise and gaining more attention.
I played football for a team as a goalkeeper up until I was about 13/14 before packing it in. Growing up I was aware of women’s football being a concept but didn’t really know where to go to watch it, whether that be on TV or actually going to games. The first time I saw a women’s football match was in 2013 when my school’s P.E. department took some of the girls football team to Burton’s Albion’s ground to watch England v Japan - though I can’t remember the score nor find the final score, unfortunately.
Usually women’s football is completely dismissed, simply because it’s played by women. But I remember thoroughly enjoying watching that England game. Coincidentally, I feel like after I saw that England game, women’s football was getting a little more publicity.
I remember staying up and watching England getting knocked out by Japan in the semi-finals of the 2015 World Cup in the USA (it was also very pleasant to see the men’s team follow this precedent in this year’s World Cup) after Laura Bassett scored an injury-time own goal which was truly heartbreaking to watch. More recently, I remember watching England play in the Euros in 2017, they again got knocked out in the semi-finals by the Netherlands.
Women’s football has been perennially present, but never really getting the recognition it truly deserves. The success of the women’s England team has arguably given rise to more attention being drawn to the women’s game. There are now more matches televised for a start, I was surprised to see BBC Two last year aired some of England women’s matches, plus BT Sport sometimes broadcasts WSL matches.
The growing influence of women’s football has led to the formation of women’s football teams from “big” clubs. I’m thinking here about the recent formation of Manchester United Women following a thirteen-year absence from women’s football leagues.
For me as well, the rise of women’s football has one key advantage over its male counterpart, and that’s ticket prices. I think Sunderland AFC ticket prices are fair to be honest, with £20 for an adult, £12.50 for an U22 and £7.50 for children being very reasonable. This issue rises for “bigger” teams like Manchester City or Chelsea.
An adult ticket for watching Manchester City’s men’s team starts at £46.50, with U18 tickets starting at £26.50. However, for Manchester City’s women’s team ticket prices start at £6 for an adult and £4 for U16. Already that’s a massive difference in pricing, the lower ticket prices of the women’s game make it more affordable and accessible for people of all ages to go and watch a game of football.
So, how does this rise of women’s football link back to Sunderland Ladies and their problems at the moment? Sunderland Ladies has always been a key player in the development of women’s football. They’ve produced a lot of talent for the England squad, including hard-as-nails centre half and captain Steph Houghton. In fact look at the England squad from their last major tournament, the Euro competition last year, six of the 23 have been brought up through Sunderland’s Academy and played for Sunderland.
Sunderland Ladies have played a vital role in the rise of women’s football. The academy have produced some of the finest players in the women’s game, and they’re from up here.
It’s a disgrace that the FA believe that they can overlook the role Sunderland have played for the development of women’s football by demoting them two tiers below their capability in the league. I sincerely hope that, in the future, the FA consider Sunderland’s position very carefully and re-think their decision with regards to Sunderland’s league placement.