Rich Speight: So Ian, I’m interested in when you started watching women’s football, Sunderland women’s football in particular, and how you ended up as a fan who will travel the length of the country
Ian Todd: Well, that’s an easy story to remember. I’m pretty sure it was in the season 2009 – I live in London and I had a free weekend. So I looked a the sports papers on a Saturday and discovered that Sunderland Ladies were playing Watford at Watford the following day. So I looked it up to see where it was being played, and it was at North Wood, so I thought right I’ll go along there. So I went along on a Sunday afternoon and apart from 15-20 Watford fans the only recognisable Sunderland fans there were a couple who were obviously the parents of one of the players and a lady who was the parent of another of the players.
So I identified myself to them as a Sunderland fan, and funnily enough the couple were the parents of Ellie Christon who is now playing for Durham and the mother was the parent of Natalie Guttridge, who is now the physio at Durham. And I said to Ellie Christon’s mum, “Who’s that blonde girl playing up front for Sunderland,” and she said, “Oh, that’s Beth Mead – we’ve just signed her from Middlesbrough…”
RS: So that’s a really good point to get into supporting the club then…
IT: I’m not claiming to be the talent scout who spotted her, far from it. But it was interesting that in that particular game Beth Mead was the player who stood out for me – I think it was a 1-1 draw but I can’t be absolutely certain.
It was also interesting because I’ve always been someone thinks that you can get results through constructive criticism, rather than slagging people off. And over the years, through my involvement in the Sunderland London Branch – which was at that time the biggest Sunderland supporters group in the country – I was seen by the football club as somebody they can trust and would respect me views, so I said to Ellie Christon’s mum and Sue Guttridge, “what sort of level of support do Sunderland Ladies actually get from the football club”, and the answer was basically “diddly-squat!”.
I said that I would do a little bit of prodding through my contacts at the football club and see what could be done. I thought that a club of our size should be doing more than a little bit more than just allowing them to wear the strip. When I found from their website out that they took sponsors, I thought right – I’ll personally sponsor them – but I spoke to Sue who ran the website and said can I make it for the whole team rather than sponsoring one player – and they were very happy with that.
Then later on I persuaded the London Branch to take out a sponsorship – it was only a small amount – minimal really. And whenever the Ladies were playing in London and the South West, I tried to publicise it through the Branch and 10 to 15 would come along to the games.
RR: What was your next stage of involvement in supporting the team?
IT: When the club was putting forward its initial application for their place in the WSL, we allowed our Sunderland London Branch name to go forward in support of that application. And, of course, it failed at that particular time.
But then when they expanded to WSL2, I do think it was helped by having a female Chief Executive, Margaret Byrne, and there was a lot of oomph put behind the bid and of course we got into WSL2.
RS: I think it does help to have women in senior positions in an organisation, so I can see how that would have been the case.
IT: Once they got into WSL2 I said to the London Branch now, “what else can we do”, and I met with the General Manager Sonia Kulkarni and we arranged that, whenever we could, we’d arrange for a young member of the Branch to be mascot to go along with their parents, and come out with the team. On one funny occasion, I think we were playing Reading we had a male mascot who was only 14 but looked about 18 and was bigger than some of the Ladies!
RS: You obviously then start to follow the team really closely and you saw the team when they were really on the up, and saw Beth Mead’s meteoric rise…
IT: Whenever there was a men’s game on the Saturday and a Ladies game on the Sunday I generally stayed over to watch the Ladies game before travelling back to London. I saw them gain promotion – I was on the pitch at Millwall. And there were end of season awards dinners and all sorts.
RS: It would be nice for those kinds of things to be rekindled, wouldn’t it?
IT: Oh yes, it would be. It was one of the things I talked about in a meeting with Chris Waters [SAFC Supporter Liaison Officer] and Alex Clark the new General Manager, and they said yes, it was something they wanted to do. But we’ll have to wait and see.
RR: Sponsoring players and the team is really important and there’s a new section of the SAFC website – it’s now £500 to sponsor a player. Your Branch’s sponsorship went even further in the end, didn’t it?
IT: When we were having an AGM one year, I said to them, now we are in WSL2 can we do more as Branch. And so we decided to ring-fence £1 of everyone’s membership fees to go towards club sponsorship, and that came to around £400. So I went to Sonia and said “look, we’ve got £400, it doesn’t fit in with any of your rates of sponsorship, what can we do?”
That’s how we got a board that was put on the fence at Hetton [featured in the photo at the top of this article] which said ‘Sunderland London Branch – Proud Sponsors of Sunderland Ladies” and had our Weardownsouth.com web address on the bottom of the board. And that remained there until the team was forcibly removed to Mariners Park and to Hebburn – but is now lost and never been re-found.
After we got that board up, the next season the £400 provided the matchday volunteers with bibs, which said “Matchday Volunteers – Sponsored by the London Branch” and also, whenever there was a spare page in the matchday programmes we had a full-page ad in there.
Now, when we were relegated back to the National League, we didn’t manage to arrange how the £400 would be spent – and whether I’m going to be able to persuade the Branch to do it again is an open question. But we’d need some marketing from it, it’s from our marketing budget. So, we’re looking at possibly sponsoring a coach for one of the away games.
RS: There’s loads of scope for fans to get involved isn’t there?
IT: When I presented the awards to Keira Ramshaw and Molly Lambert at the BLC Awards dinner a couple of years ago, I suggested to other Branches that they each organise a Branch day out to Hetton and sponsor the team for that game, so each game would be sponsored by a different Branch. So they need to be persuaded again!
RS: I guess then Covid got in the way of that little initiative and there’s been a lot less opportunity for Sunderland fans to actually see the Lasses. I also want to get your perspective as someone who has followed the women’s team over many years on what it is that draws you to the game…
IT: One of the nice things about the women’s game is that it’s a much more friendly atmosphere, players will come and sign autographs and take pictures with supporters. The girls get clattered, and they just get up and get on with the game, they don’t go and surround the ref, they don’t argue, there’s a much more pleasant spirit to it. And to be honest with you, over the years it’s been more enjoyable watching the successes of the ladies’ team than watching the failures of the men’s team.
So I’ve really enjoyed going to the games over the years, and I’ve seen some tremendous players – the girls who are now with England, Beth who was with us in WSL2 and WSL1 and there’s Lucy Staniforth – but other great players too, some of them holding down teaching jobs at the same time as playing for Sunderland, and one wonders how they managed to fit that all in. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and although it’s cost me a bit of money over the years I think it’s well worthwhile in terms of value for entertainment. I will continue for as long as I can.
RS: That’s a really encouraging message, that there’s real enjoyment, real entertainment, and really good football to be found at Sunderland Ladies…
IT: The frustrating thing is that I still can’t get a lot of men to get an interest in it. One of the games we did go to, we played Barnet, and a member of the North Herts Branch came with me to a game, and afterward he said “eee, this is really good, I’ll come again!”.
So if people would just come to their first game, they would realise it’s not as bad as they seem to imagine it will be; “women can’t play football, there’s not a place for women on the football field”. I even came across a woman football fan who told me stridently that “I don’t think women should be making a career out of playing football.”
RS: And that’s the point of Women’s Football Weekend isn’t it? To introduce new people to it. We’ve also written about some of the issues at Eppleton CW. So how do you think we as fans, as RAWA and the club, can encourage more people to go - what’s the next stage of development to get those attendances up?
IT: There’s a lot more on TV now, but I don’t know. There’s certainly been an improvement this season. There has been announcements on the PA system at the Stadium of Light and on the big screen. I do remember going to games for the men at both Watford and Liverpool where they had videos of the women’s game on the big screen before the game and at half time. Certainly, Frankie and Danny’s coverage of Sunderland men having the women’s highlights at half time is great. But we’ve got to get more people going for the first time, and I think Sunderland AFC are doing a lot more now and there’s a much more positive attidude from the ownership now, and Steve Davison has been at both of the home games at Eppleton and presumably also the ones at the Stadium of Light as well. So there’s a positive attitude to want to push that along.
But in terms of new ideas, I don’t know... I think we’ve just got to chip away, try to get more publicity. Because the Watford game on Sunday is out at King’s Langley, I’ll be pleased if there are more than five London Branch members in attendance.
RS: Well, you can but try can’t you and do your best, and we try our best too… I just want to finish up by asking for your views on the current team. You’ve been going to the games, you were at the Conti Cup game at Blackburn the other week,
IT: I think it is a young team, it is developing, I think already it’s shown that it can come with the Championship at this level. I’m not expecting us to get promotion. So, I think a solid mid table position this season, possibly a couple of signings coming in too. The signs are good with the support we’re getting now from the club, and it was very interesting to read that Mel has had a meeting with Speakman to develop a 3–5-year plan for the Ladies, which is hugely promising.
One last thing, the Football Supporters Association has had flags produced for every club celebrating 100 years of the Women’s game, and that will be presented to the club and will be unveiled at Hetton at the next home.
RS: What a lovely thing, a fantastic gesture to mark an important anniversary, and we will certainly make a feature of that at Roker Report. Thank you so much for your time this morning, Ian.
IT: All the best.