This season the WNL Northern Premier Division has so far proven much tougher than the last for Sunderland Ladies, but Sunday’s game against second-from-bottom side Sheffield FC offered the opportunity for Mel Reay’s still-developing side to gain their third successive win and stay in touch with the leading teams.
Following the dramatic late win against high-flying Fylde last week, Grace McCatty said she on social media that she was “excited to be going into Game Day”. Mel Reay’s pre-match comments focused on the need for the team to build on the recent successes game-by-game and to implement the good work done in training on the day.
With big fixtures against the midland sides so far dominating the division to come, this game had something of a must-win feel about it for Sunderland. With so few games scheduled so far this season (only a total 11 fixtures have been arranged for each club), if they are to stand any chance of recovering from their poor early form and mounting a serious challenge this was the kind of game they knew they simply had to win.
There was no word from the opposition manager before kick off, but a 5-1 home defeat to Derby County last weekend had left the world’s first football club, an amateur side formed in 1857, sitting second bottom of the league with only three points from their five games.
In a nice new addition to Sunderland AFC Ladies’ social media offerings, a poll of their Twitter followers showed a level of confidence before the game that reflected the recent upturn in form, but the build up to the game was overshadowed somewhat by the shock news that summer signing Olivia Watt has left the club due to a knee injury. According to the Sunderland Echo, she will take some time out of the game to recover and concentrate on her education. Hopes remain, however, that the former Middlesbrough player may return to Sunderland at a later date.
So, with fans still inexplicably locked out of Sunderland Ladies matches and with that sad news to digest along with our Sunday lunches, we all settled down in front of our Twitter feeds to see the team news and follow the action.
It’s time to submit your pre-match predictions...— Sunderland AFC Ladies (@SAFCLadies) October 18, 2020
Sunderland now seem to have a very settled side, particularly at the back, with Reay only making one change to the line-up that started last week with midfielder Faye Mullen replaced by forward Jessica Brown. The versatile Maria Farrugia back dropped into the midfield as a result.
Holly Manders, who came on to seal the Lasses win against Fylde, had to settle for a place on the bench once again and was joined by summer signing Beau Studholme.
Sheffield FC made several changes following last week’s disappointing result, with Paign Crossman dropped out of the side and Ashley Edwards and Jen Parson left on the bench. Defender Sammy Conroy, Rebecca Knight and Charlie Docherty came in to freshen up The Club for their visit to the Academy of Light.
Sunderland started the game very brightly, with Sheffield ‘keeper Laura Parsons making a smart save from Jessica Brown’s chip after 3 minutes and captain Keira Ramshaw shooting just wide from distance a minute later. After a lull in goalscoring opportunities, the next clear-cut chance for the Lasses came on 28 minutes when Brown was again foiled by Parsons following a burst into the penalty area - almost drawing a foul from Katie McLaughlin in the process.
The visitors offered little threat for much of the first half, but on 38 minutes Rebecca Knight was brought down in the Sunderland box and Housley converted the resulting penalty to give them the lead against the run of play.
It didn’t take the Lasses long to respond, and within a couple of minutes of the restart, a corner from the left-hand side was headed in from close range by Ramshaw to bring the scores level.
The second half saw more dominance from Sunderland, Emily Scarr hitting the bar from a free kick on around 58 minutes, before Sheffield’s Charley Docherty had a fantastic opportunity to give her side the lead for the second time, only to see her shot held by Claudia Moan in the Sunderland goal.
Holly Manders came on to bolster the Lasses attack and Maria Farrugia was given the freedom to roam forward as Mel Reay pushed for the win, and the attacking intent was rewarded on 68 minutes when the Maltese international’s mazy run beat several defenders, and she scored a wonderful solo goal.
Sheffield struggled to get back into the game and, as the clock ticked on, further chances for Sunderland fell to Brown, Manders and Farrugia. The celebrations the final whistle recognised that it was a job well done, and Sunderland move to the toughest part of the season in good form.
Hard fought game today and another important 3 points ⚪️ https://t.co/fOc1Xp0EzJ— Melanie Reay (@mel_anie_7) October 18, 2020
Mel Reay expressed her satisfaction with a job well done by her increasingly hard-to-beat Sunderland side after the game, and Grace McCatty tweeted out her post-match reaction:
Hard fought win today but another important 3 points on the board as we continue to build! Lots of positives to take forward as we look to gain some momentum
The theme of building set-by-step and maintaining momentum was also taken up by fans who commented on social media to celebrate the victory.
Sheffield FC’s graffiti artist manager, Graham Abercrombie, was interviewed for their YouTube channel after the game - once again proving that even the smallest (and oldest) amateur clubs can actually provide their fans with some video content.
He was happy with the performance but disappointed that his side were not able to come away with at least a point for their visit to Wearside.
The reaction to the result from our Lasses-supporting Roker Reporters very positive. Writer Rebecca Johnson was glad to see Sunderland building on their good recent form:
Another good win for the lasses today. I think we’re starting to see the team gel together and become more comfortable. It sounds as if we’ve got some good link up play and goals coming from all over the pitch. Hopefully this builds up some momentum to take forward into our next games!
Lasses fan Graeme Field reflected on the importance of winning games the hard way, and had warm words of encouragement for the inured Olivia Watt:
Great win for the lasses. I think grinding out results is going to be a feature for the season; not a bad thing at all. It’s always nice to win when you’ve been behind in the game. The team are getting more minutes under their belts and will be becoming more comfortable with what the manager is asking of them.
Good luck to Olivia Watt. I’ve heard good things about her from her time at Middlesbrough Women and she will definitely come back stronger.
Buzzing, well done girls!! ⚪️ ⚪️ https://t.co/9bdLp60nd0— Faye mullen (@Faye_Mullen) October 18, 2020
Ant Waterson also sent his best wishes to Watt, but is disappointed that we’ll never get to see Maria Farrugia’s wonderful individual goal that gave Sunderland all three points:
Another good win for Sunderland today and fair play to them for showing grit and determination to come back from a goal down. The only downside for me is we won’t be able to see Maria Faruggia’s goal which was meant to be a beauty. That’s three wins in four now and hopefully Sunderland are on the up now.
I would also like to wish Olivia Watt all the best in her recovery from injury and hopefully she will be back playing in some form very soon.
Reflecting on the importance of coming from behind to win, Roker Report editor-in-chief Gav saw Sunderland’s victory as providing the kind of confidence boost they will require as they gear up for the business end of this truncated season:
I’m over the moon with the win - it’s great that the Lasses are managing to grind out victories, which is important at this stage as it builds confidence and, importantly, momentum.
There’s still plenty of time for them to add finesse to their game. Right now it’s about registering wins and taking it one game at a time.
Elsewhere in what is becoming a hotly contested division, Nottingham Forrest retained their place at the top of the division on goal difference following a 2-1 defeat away at Huddersfield, who join them and Fylde, who beat Derby County on Sunday, on 13 points. West Bromwich and Stoke City also gained victories in a league that sees the top eight teams separated by only four points.
It’s shaping up to be a fantastically exciting end to the season, and it remains a source of great frustration that Sunderland fans will probably not get to see any of the action unfold as the club continues to be utterly silent about the growing calls to #LetFansIn to see the Lasses play.