After facing a series of set-backs before their season even began, Sunderland Ladies finished second in the National League’s Northern Division with a smashing 48 points under their belt.
High-flying league champions Blackburn Rovers, who only lost one of their games this season to Sunderland, finished with 69 points. This remarkable run meant Blackburn had secured their place in the play-off final, where they played Southern Division champions Coventry United, and subsequently beat them 3-0 to secure promotion to the Championship.
Blackburn’s incredible form means that Sunderland Ladies are playing third-tier football for another season, much like their male counterparts. Sunderland shouldn’t be disheartened by this, however - their first season in the third tier has been a really good one, with plenty to learn from and take away into the next season.
Just take a look at their stats - fifteen wins, three draws and six losses; this is a great run of form for a team who were clouded with external affairs at the start of the season.
Before the season even began for the Lasses they were faced with uncertainty.
Sunderland Ladies demoted to non-league despite finishing 7th last season, with 7 current national team players having played for the club in their careers. And all because they have no money to throw at the FA to buy a league place.— Charlotte (@charlsafc) May 28, 2018
Despite being a top-tier club, failure to successfully obtain a licence to join the new top two restructured leagues meant that Sunderland were demoted to the third tier of the women’s football league, the National League Northern Premier Division.
Nonetheless deterred, Sunderland made a return to their home at the Hetton Centre to start their campaign to get back to the top.
The first half of the season was a chance for the lasses to illustrate just how strong of a side they were for third-tier football. Before Christmas, Sunderland had lost just three out of eleven of their league fixtures. They delivered some smashing results along the way too, most memorably, an 8-0 walloping to Nottingham. The big score-lines kept coming as Doncaster Belles were beaten 5-0 and a 5-2 victory over Derby ensured that Sunderland had established themselves as one of the main competitors in the league.
Come the new year Sunderland had an absolutely perfect run, picking up where they’d left off with a massive 10-1 victory over Bradford. Sunderland were scoring goals for fun in some fixtures, with a 6-2 win against Hull and a 6-0 win over Nottingham being some of the standout games.
In the second part of the season, Sunderland won a total of seven out of thirteen games. Much like the men’s side, draws proved to be a sticking point for the lasses this season. Doncaster reaped their revenge with a 2-2 draw, a frustrating game against Boro forced Sunderland to settle for a point with a late equaliser and the game against Stoke ended in a 4-4 draw.
Unfortunately for Sunderland, there were two sides who stuck out as bogey teams for them this season. Blackburn, of course, were incredibly tough opponents, but Sunderland were unlucky against them.
In the first half of the season Rovers won 3-1 to knock the lasses out of the cup. Regarding the league, they beat the Black Cats in February 2-1. However, Sunderland dished out Rovers’ only loss in March, knocking three past them.
Undoubtedly, the ultimate bogey team that the lasses faced this season though was Fylde. In all competitions Fylde proved to be a massive pain in the arse as they beat the lasses three times in all competitions - proving themselves to be that bloody annoying side.
Whilst all the team put in a fair amount of graft throughout the course of the season, some individual performances also stood out. Kiera Ramshaw has been a rock for the lasses this season, providing strong leadership on the pitch and putting in the performance to match it. The skipper was Sunderland’s highest scorer this season, with 25 goals under her belt.
Additionally, performances from the likes of Bridget Galloway and Mollie Lambert have been incredibly important for the lasses this season, providing consistent displays across the entire season.
Although Sunderland didn’t achieve promotion this season, they shouldn’t be deterred from their efforts, they performed extremely well throughout the year.
Blackburn’s form was absolutely extraordinary, and I’m sure that fans would agree. However, promotion will still be firmly in the lasses’ minds as they look forward to the upcoming season.
Under the stewardship of coach Melanie Reay, Sunderland are in safe hands as they give promotion another crack. Additionally, retaining key players is hugely important for the next campaign.
Going into next season, it is important to bear in mind the talent that Sunderland’s Academy produces in both the men’s and women’s game. Of Phil Neville’s 23-woman squad for the World Cup in France this month, seven of the players are former Black Cats - including captain Steph Houghton.
Whilst the FA continue to develop the women’s game, it’s looking like the North-East is becoming increasingly neglected. Therefore, it is important as Sunderland looks to rebuild under new ownership that the women’s team won’t be left to fester, and instead have their profile raised and backed.