Women’s football is returning, with a Community Shield match scheduled for 29th August. As the game emerges from hibernation, fans would have been relieved to see that the official Twitter account of Sunderland AFC Ladies active for the first time in a while yesterday morning, retweeting announcement of the start of the new season on September 20th.
Until yesterday, there had been silence since for over a month - the previous the update from the club being news of l the departure of a host of former first-team regulars including Bridget Galloway, Charlotte Potts and Molly Lambert.
Prior to that, the club’s social media accounts had been silent ever since the announcement back in March that the FA Women’s National League North Premier was not merely to be ended early and decided on average points per game - as was the case for the men also playing in the third tier - but was to be cancelled and expunged from the records altogether.
Despite going through last season unbeaten in the league and being 11 points clear when Coronavirus struck, the Eppleton CW-based side will not be granted promotion into the FA Women’s Championship for the upcoming season.
As some the Lasses began preparing for the new season this week, their fans will surely be concerned that the club has been so quiet when it comes to fighting their cause for inclusion in the second tier, celebrating their achievements last term, and communicating what has been going on with Mel Reay’s side for the last few months.
Amidst a sea of negativity and uncertainty surrounding the future of Sunderland AFC overall, their performance last season should have been something for football fans in the city to look back on with pride - yet we haven’t even seen a compilation video of last season’s best goals during lockdown.
Many club staff have been placed on furlough over this period, and presumably this includes the person with the log in details for their social media accounts - so it’s good to see them back online. Yet this doesn’t explain why updates about the Ladies have also been absent from the main club accounts, which has been pretty active throughout the crisis.
Reay has another big job on her hands this summer, rebuilding her squad of dedicated semi-pro footballers and devising socially distanced training routines. Without such key players as Galloway, it will surely be difficult for Sunderland Ladies to maintain their overwhelming domination of the division when it returns, hopefully in September.
Given the financial pressures across the whole of English football and the state of wider economy, it is likely youth will once again feature heavily in Sunderland’s plans.
It takes huge sacrifices for many of the squad to balance training as elite athletes with other commitments, and in a time when thousands of jobs are going to be lost across the region, much will depend on the financial resources made available to the women’s side of the club by the owners.
The players’ commitment to the shirt is unquestionable - they give their all for a fraction of the remuneration received by their male counterparts. So it was encouraging to hear that, when fan groups met with the club last month, SAFC’s Finance Director Angela Lowes claimed, according to Red & White Army’s notes:
...everything [is] in place for them to be admitted to the WSL if they achieved promotion. The end of the season due to coronavirus, prevented this, but should we wish to go through process the FA will be supportive of a future application to the WSL. Sunderland Ladies are set to announce new players.
No such player announcements have been made so far, and therefore we, as Sunderland supporters, must be prepared to hold the current owners of Sunderland AFC to their public commitment to continue to support the Ladies as the countdown to the season ticks ever closer.
Sunderland have been the victims on more than one occasion of the ever-shifting format of the elite women’s game in England.
In 2010, Manchester City took Sunderland’s place in the inaugural WSL on “commercial and marketing” grounds, and were relegated two divisions from the top flight. The blame for this ongoing scenario, where Sunderland are effectively locked out of their rightful position as a top-flight team due to non-footballing reasons, surely lies with the low priority that successive owners and directors of the club have given the Ladies side.
The club kicks up a stink about the unfairness of salary caps and squad limits for the men, yet takes the FA’s decisions on the chin with little more than a whimper of regret.
The structure of the women’s football pyramid will be reshaped once more in the next couple of years, with an expansion of the Women’s Super League (WSL) on the cards; Reay’s challenge is to bring on another set of talented youngsters and ensure that, if and when the WSL is sold to the Premier League and more TV and commercial sponsorship money is available, the lasses are in pole position to be included.
It is no fluke that many of the current stars of the game have been developed by Sunderland; the North East is a hotbed of grassroots girls' football, and we have until recently been the pre-eminent club in the area. Demi Stokes (Man City), Lucy Bronze (Lyon), Beth Mead (Arsenal), Lucy Staniforth (Man United) and, of course, England skipper Steph Houghton, are all products of our talent identification and youth development system.
This summer, the cub admits, “some players wish to play at a higher level so have moved on” - the frustration for the fans and for the coaching staff must be that this keeps happening year in, year out. The independent and forward-thinking Durham Wildcats, who play in the Women’s Championship, are now able to take our best players.
Rather than simply being a production line for the WSL and national team, basking in the reflected glory when our former stars grace World Cup Semi Finals, we as a club should be aiming to get back to the top.
It should be part of the club’s overall strategy and ethos - in pursuit of excellence - to regain its position as a force across all the footballing competitions it participates in; be that the men’s senior side getting back to the Premier League, the men’s U23s being competitive again in Premier League 2, or the women being included in the reformed WSL structures.
The club needs to put in place the modest amount of money that will prepare the ground for Sunderland Ladies to gain promotion at the end of the 2020-21 season. The directors’ claims to support the return of the lasses to the big time, which will inevitably require a commitment to employ players as full-time professionals, means the work in recruiting and supporting players that can perform at that level surely needs to start now.
If we are to avoid the situation developing at other clubs lower down the financial league, where the women’s side are disassociating themselves from the men’s team in a bid for survival as well as an independent approach to commercial and marketing, then Sunderland AFC - whoever the owner many be - needs to live up to the #OneClubOurClub hashtag that so galvanised support for the Lasses from across the wider fanbase last season.