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Memory Lane: Sunderland’s future stars begin to shine in the WPL Northern Division

In the first in an occasional, non-chronological series - we look back almost two decades to an SAFC team that featured some very notable names indeed.

Star-striker and future Sunderland manager Mel Reay

In 2000, Sunderland Women’s manager Mick Mulhern had faced a dilemma. His side had been relegated from WPL National after two seasons following the departure of his best players on scholarships to the United States.

As former player and mainstay of the defence, Jen O’Neill, told me on this week’s Roker Rapport Podcast, Mulhern needed to rebuild from the bottom up, and so he embarked on a scouting mission to unearth some of the hidden gems in the talent pool of the North East.

Sunderland already had side had some fantastic young talent, none more so than current Head Coach and then prolific forward Mel Reay. Sunderland AFC Women were, eleven games into the 2002-3 season, unbeaten in 10 Northern League games since an opening day defeat away at Liverpool, nine of which had been victories.

21-year-old Reay, who had come through at Sunderland’s predecessor club, the Newcastle-based Cowgate Kestrels, had been prolific throughout the season, including getting both goals in that loss on Merseyside. She also had much love for Messers Henry and Beckham.

An excerpt from the SAFC matchway programme interview with Mel Reay, 2002-03

But Reay was supported up front by a talented 14-year-old youngster from Durham by the name of Steph Houghton, had 14-year-old Monkwearmouth lass named Jill Scott in the squad too, and had teenage goalkeeper Carly Telford in between the sticks.

Yes, you're reading that correctly. If we think having Grace Ede at 16 playing for Sunderland now means we have something of a child prodigy on the bench, we had three of the game’s modern greats playing in our senior side before they started studying for their GCSEs.

That’s a group of girls playing against full-grown women, but they would prove themselves more than capable and go on to win a combined total of 301 caps for the senior England side (and counting) and countless honours for the clubs they would go on to represent right at the pinnacle of the women’s game.

A young Steph Houghton, future England captain

I remember being enthralled by the story of the women’s team at the time, and O’Neill’s match reports in the men’s programmes were my either pre-match or half-time reading at the Stadium of Light. They trace the ups and downs of this season, starting with an undeserved opening day away defeat at Liverpool which was followed a ten-match unbeaten run in the league, including victories over Manchester City, Wolves and - interestingly - Bangor City, the north Wales side competing in the English women’s structures.

This run came to an end at home to Aston Villa in mid-November, who came away with a 1-4 win which gave them a crucial three point advantage over second placed Sunderland that they managed to maintain for the rest of the season.

Sunderland had their chances to catch them, but away defeats at Oldham Curzon and Lincoln City, and a draw against Garswood Saints, meant they were relying on miracles come the final round of games.

Sunderland won their last match 3-0 away at Sheffield Wednesday, but this left them 11 goals behind on goal difference and gave the Midlanders the opportunity to win the title on the final day of the season, with the Lasses having already completed their fixtures. The Villains took their chance, and were duly promoted to the WPL National League.

Mick Mulhern was disappointed but philosophical about the way the season panned out when he spoke to O’Neill after the Sheffield game:

I’m pleased with the way we’ve finished. We’ve had a good season, but we should have had the league wrapped up a few weeks ago. But if we play next season like played today then we’ll be back in the shake-up once again.

We have plenty of young players coming through. We had a 14-year-old making her debut today as substitute for the last 30 minutes - and we also have two or three experienced players who’ve been out injured this season who will be back next time.

Soccer - Women’s FA Cup - Final - Arsenal v Sunderland - Pride Park
Sunderland Women’s manager at the time, Mick Mulhern
Photo by Mike Egerton - PA Images via Getty Images

There was cause for celebration on an individual level for the prolific Mel Reay, who had a fantastic season with the Lasses. She scored a total of 17 goals and sharing both the top of the scoring charts Kelly Dean of Oldham Curzon, and the pair shared the Northern Division Player of the Season award at the FA Women’s Football Awards that summer.

She’s now following in Mulhern’s footsteps and rated as one of the top coaches in the game. We’re very lucky that she’s stuck around to develop another group of youngsters with whom she can share her experience of battling to get back to the bigtime with Sunderland.

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