In September 2017, Ellis Short’s representative on Earth, Martin Bain, implemented the second part of a three-stage attack on the status of Sunderland AFC Ladies.
With Sunderland AFC’s cash-cow - the men’s senior team - relegated from the Premier League after a decade in the top flight, cost-cutting was the order of the day, and women’s football on Wearside was seen as an expendable luxury by the short-sighted board and owner at the time.
A proud history of competing at the top of the women’s game and producing the creme-de-la-creme of talent for the national team was seen as much less important than Jack Rodwell or Didier N’Dong’s wage packets or, indeed, a cryo-chamber for the CEO’s dodgy back, by people who knew or cared little about what having a successful women’s section means for a modern football club.
First, in January 2017, using the academic commitments of some of the young players as an excuse for not turning the side fully professional, Sunderland AFC made the decision to make the team part-time, so they have to train in the evenings.
The media reports at the time highlighted the falling average attendance at Lasses matches, something the club had done little if nothing to address through investing in marketing, promotions, or accessibility schemes.
Second came the announcement on this date four years ago to make the team train away from the Academy - in Newcastle no less - in order that men’s age-group squads could use the facilities in the evening, and also move them out of their permanent home ground at Hetton.
In these dying days of the Ellis Short era, short-sightedness was the Modus Operandi of the whole club. Suzanne Wrack, writing in the Guardian, took Sunderland’s news as “a sign that women’s prove elite women’s sides play second fiddle to men’s youth teams” in England and beyond:
What we do know is that on the list of a club’s priorities, the men’s team will always come out on top. The women must clear off the official Sunderland training pitches and head to Northumbria University’s Coach Lane campus to make way for the men’s youth teams. It’s also what is happening in Paris, where according to Le Parisien the Champions League runners-up Paris Saint-Germain are being forced to find a new home, with pitch priority being given to the boys’ youth teams at the Camp des Loges training centre. Even at the top, women’s football doesn’t even play second fiddle.
In north-east England, following on from the decision to switch back to part-time players, Sunderland’s commitment to its women’s team has to be questioned.
The future for a Sunderland women’s team who reached the 2016 FA Cup semi-final looks bleak. A move so far from their home, within touching distance of their local rivals Newcastle, could be devastating. BBC figures showed the Black Cats were one of three WSL clubs in 2016 to see a drop in attendances on the previous year. Turnout at the Hetton Centre fell by 24%, the biggest drop in WSL 1, to an average of 710.
A logistically problematic move for fans could well send those figures plummeting further, increasingly harming sustainability. Yes, balancing conflicting schedules is hard but in the men’s game solutions to problems are found. There is no challenge too big – a World Cup in the searing Qatari heat is doable, Tottenham can play a season at Wembley; there are many examples. In contrast the women’s game logistical barriers, even relatively small ones, become insurmountable.
The third and final stage of Sunderland’s abandonment of the Lasses came six months later when the application to rejoin the WSL was submitted relatively late, in March 2018, as Short looked to sell his loss-making asset to whichever Tom, Dick, or Stewart would take it off his hands.
The evident lack of financial commitment for Sunderland Ladies from the wider club ultimately meant an FA licence for the top two tiers was not given as the leagues were restructured.
Stewart Donald, to his credit, did appeal the decision after he took over in the summer, but with the likes of Manchester United keen to take part and put their money behind the rebranded WSL, Sunderland tumbled down two tiers to play two covid-curtailed campaigns in the Women’s National League North Premier.
The Madrox cost-cutting and the lowly, essentially amateur status of tier three women’s football, meant the only option for the club was to rely on the conveyor belt of youth that has always emerged from the local area. Mel Reay and captain Keira Ramshaw remained, along with a few other stalwarts, and they’ve been rebuilding almost from scratch ever since.
With the Women’s World Cup in 2019, the game got exposure like never before. Today, the WSL has a big new sponsorship deal and can be seen live on the BBC and Sky, and next summer’s European Championships are already creating a buzz.
As for Sunderland, they’re now top of the second-tier Women’s Championship after blitzing the opposition in tier three, they’re training at the Academy once again four nights a week, and with the vocal support of Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman for the job the manager is doing, things are definitely looking on the up for the Lasses. And a good thing that is too.