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Are the club letting down Sunderland AFC Ladies right now?

Women’s football risks losing ground if fans cannot watch the game in person or online - should Sunderland AFC be doing more to support the Lasses?

Sunderland Ladies players celebrate their goal against Burnley last Sunday. Photo by Chris Fryatt
Chris Fryatt

Sunderland Ladies’ FA Women’s National League campaign started last Sunday with a disappointing 2-1 home defeat to a strong Burnley side.

The season opener was played at the Academy of Light, in a behind closed doors encounter. But with local non-league football and other WNL clubs welcoming small crowds, I would like to take a look at whether and how the club could be doing more to engage with Ladies fans, even in these difficult times.

I felt that the opening game was always likely to be played behind closed doors. This was something that became increasingly likely once local restrictions were tightened in the week preceding the game. Other locals sides are allowing fans to attend their games and with some planning, Sunderland could also do this for their games.

The Hetton Centre is a ground that could accommodate a socially distanced crowd and thus allow fans back to see their side in action, but the ground currently doesn’t have the go ahead to have fans back. I do understand there would be concerns at not allowing too many fans into the games, as social distancing can’t be compromised, in order to ensure the safety of all. With some careful but not too difficult planning, fans could be asked to pay in advance online and make games all ticket, thus limiting the amount of spectators attending each game.

Middlesbrough Women Football Club, who play in the same league as Sunderland, demonstrated, in their league opener against Hull City, that by showing a willingness to plan ahead and engaging with their fans, that they could then attend the game.

This commitment to getting fans to games brought funds into the club that otherwise would not have done so and will help grow the sport in the area. At the weekend, ‘Boro were careful to ensure the safety of the players and supporters, with. fans submitting contact information as part of their ticket purchase so, should the club need to get in touch with them for track and trace purposes, they would be able to do so.

Despite tightening coronavirus restrictions putting pay to experiments to bring fans back to men’s professional football, the club have announced that fans will be allowed in to see the upcoming game away at Hull City. But Sunderland have given no indication if and when our home matches may be opened up to the public.

Mel Reay took charge of the side at the Academy of Light at the weekend. Photo by Chris Fryatt
Chris Fryatt

With the virus not going away anytime soon, I feel that clubs like Sunderland need to be innovative with the way they engage with fans. An alternative or complimentary way of allowing fans to watch the team would be to stream the games on social media platforms like Facebook or YouTube. I’m well aware that the club is being careful with costs in these difficult times, but there was a member of staff from the club at games last season filming the action.

If staffing is an issue, could they even collaborate with a local or fan media outlet to provide a stream perhaps?

When we polled our Twitter followers earlier in the week, over 52% of the 1,535 respondents said they’d like to be able to watch the upcoming Wear-Tees derby match in one form or another. Whilst not overwhelming, this clearly demonstrates a desire on the part of a proportion Sunderland fans to be able to follow the Lasses more closely as the season progresses.

Looking at Sunderland Ladies in a broader context, they don’t appear to be high enough on the priority list of the club. Playing some of the games at the Stadium of Light and the Academy of Light is a sign that the club can do excellent things for the ladies team when they want to. Yet it was disappointing that, unlike last year, the club did not involve the Ladies team in the new kit launch this summer, for example. And it’s surely not too much to ask for the club to release player and manager interviews before and after every game.

Also, and perhaps most importantly, there needs to be a clear overall strategy from the club regarding the Ladies team. There is a huge opportunity to get Sunderland into the WSL, the top league in women’s football, in the near future as the leagues face another restructure as the Premier League is expected to take over the top flight for from the FA.

When you consider the amount of talent that is available in the north east, as well as the players which have gone on to represent their country from here, it is absolutely astounding that there is no team from our region in the top league.

Football market experts forecast that much of the potential revenue growth in the sport as a whole is to be found in the women’s game, which attracts a different demographic to the men’s game and brings new people to football both in person and when broadcast live.

The way things are going at the moment, however, I don’t see enough from Sunderland AFC off the field to suggest that they have ambitions for the Lasses to play at higher level than they currently do on the field. If that were to continue, we will lose more talented players from a quality young squad.

I know there are a lot of fans who are frustrated at seeing our best players picked off by other clubs over the summer. It would be fantastic to see players fulfilling their career ambitions at this club instead of going to Reading and West Ham for example, and, in the last close season, to Championship side Durham Wildcats, who are currently the north east’s leading women’s team.

Sunderland put Burnley under pressure in their first WNL home match of the season. Photo by Chris Fryatt
Chris Fryatt

There is no logical reason why that has to be the case, other than the Sunderland’s owners not having the resources to support Mel Reay’s side any more than to the minimal degree that they currently are.

With the backing of the club there is no reason why Sunderland cannot regain their position as one of the top ladies teams in the land. Come on Sunderland, support these ladies in the way they deserve!

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