It was a tense Sunday afternoon of refreshing Twitter for Sunderland Ladies fans, as the team took on a strong and resilient Burnley Women at the Arbories Memorial Sports Ground in Padiham.
Unable to watch the game, the best supporters could do was to send their virtual best wishes to the players and staff, and then await news from Lancashire, which came in snippets of 280 characters or less every few minutes. Each update carried the same scoreline; 0-0.
Despite chance after chance at both ends of the pitch, the deadlock could not be broken.
And so it was, after more than two and a half hours of nervously checking for notifications, and after 120 minutes of football in weather that fluctuated between bright sunshine and flurries of snow, the FA Women’s Cup Third Round tie would be decided on penalties.
Mel Reay had two training sessions with the squad in preparation for the game this week, and along with her coaching staff she did everything possible to prepare for what everyone knew would be a tough fixture between two evenly matched sides with similar ambitions of playing their football in the upper-echelons of the women’s game in England.
The prestige of hosting a top-four WSL side at home was up for grabs, a perfect stage upon which to showcase the clubs’ potential, and five spot-kicks would determine who would claim it.
Sunderland and Burnley are perhaps the best northern teams at tier-three, and Reay had made one change to the starting line-up that beat Sheffield so convincingly last weekend, bringing Jessica Brown in for Megan Beer. Burnley’s team also only had one change from that which snuck past in FC Fylde in extra time in the second round, with Chloe Mapp coming in for Katie Thomas in attack.
Sunderland started the game really brightly, with Eve Blakey having a shot in the first minute that brought a comfortable save from Laura Bracewell in the Burnley goal early and Abby Joice breaking through for a shot on target. Holly Manders also went close, and further opportunities fell to Joice and then to Scarr, whose free-kick once again tested Bracewell’s resolve.
We controlled possession for most of the first half, limiting Burnley to very few shots on goal, and on 42 minutes we almost got a goal to show for it, the ball hitting the bar before Jessica Brown’s follow up was again denied by the busy Burnley keeper.
In to the second 45, and Sunderland were again clearly the more likely to score, but chances were few and far between, despite an all round improvement in the performance. Then, on 74 minutes, confusion in the Burnley defence left Bracewell stranded and presented substitute Emily Hutchinson with an opportunity that she could only send the wrong side of the post.
Brown, Grace McCatty, Faye Mullen and Neve Herron made vital defensive interceptions throughout the match, but Burnley were always looking to apply pressure and had a big chance on 78 minutes when Nic Worthington shot over the bar.
The effort was all there from Sunderland players, and according to those in attendance we were clearly the better side throughout the match, but the ball simply would not go in for the Lasses.
In the dying moments of regular time, Holly Manders came excruciatingly close to grabbing a deserved win, but her shot went agonisingly over the bar.
Both sides pushed for the win in stoppage time, with Mullen making a vital tackle at one end before one final corner presented Sunderland with a chance that, once again, slipped wide of the Burnley goal.
The pace of the game did not let up at the start of extra time, and Sunderland had a wonderful opportunity to make the breakthrough on 94 minutes when Scarr was put through on goal by Keira Ramshaw, but Bracewell was there to save magnificently. A minute later, and another chance for Scarr but the keeper stopped it once again. The tension was almost unbearable.
Owen had a free-kick sail over the bar for Burnley, and Claudia Moan was forced into a great save too, but the additional 30 minutes took their toll on the players. Mel Reay later described how some of the girls were playing through the pain barrier after only two weeks of training following months in lockdown, and several had to be substituted on both sides through injury before the end. The final opportunity came two minutes before the final whistle when Megan Beer’s crossed free-kick deflected off a Burnley player into the keeper’s arms once again. Nothing could separate the sides in open play, and with no replay on offer, pens it had to be.
The shootout was won by Burnley 3-1. We’ll not dwell on the details here; suffice to say Sunderland missed their second, third, and fourth kicks and Burnley only their third. After the match, a clearly gutted Reay described it as a ‘lottery’, and football can indeed be the cruelest of games at times, especially in the cup.
Bracewell must ultimately be credited with this victory for the Clarets, her saves throughout the game and then in the shoot-out were ultimately the difference between the two sides. She took the best that Sunderland’s often free-scoring attackers – all of whom probably count among the best footballers outside the top-two divisions – could throw at her, and gained her side the prize of a visit from Manchester United in the next round. Best of luck to them.
This was an awful way to end the 2020-21 campaign for the Lady Black Cats. Grace McCatty called it brutal on Twitter, and it’s hard to disagree with her on that. These players are playing for little more than the love of the game, and have given their all for two coronavirus-hit seasons in a row. They will be feeling bad today, this setback will hurt.
But, with the right framing, experiences like this can make them stronger, and with the backing of a proper plan from the club and the prospect of fans back cheering them on next season, hopefully this crop of players can have a bright future as an increasingly important part of what makes Sunderland AFC a great footballing institution.
We believe, and I hope they do too. Ha’way the Lasses, and Keep the Faith!
Player of the Match: Emily Scarr
Burnley FC Women: Bracewell, Wilson (Owen ‘96), Brown (Shirtcliffe ‘117), Bickett, Cooper, Hope, Worthington, Hamer, Greenhalgh (Fleck ‘85), Priestly (Thomas ‘69), Mapp (Dykes ‘53)
Sunderland AFC Ladies: Moan, Brown, McCatty, Herron, Griffiths, Ramshaw (Beer ‘106), Mullen, Joice, Manders (McInnes ‘89), Scarr, Blakey (Hutchinson ‘64)