Sunderland fought hard to earn a point and maintain the only unbeaten record in the FA Women’s Championship on Sunday afternoon, in a game that saw the Lasses secure their second successive 1-1 draw against a Lewes side who rarely threatened to take the game away from the home team.
It was a difficult start to proceedings as Lewes opened the scoring (before the FA Player’s stream had kicked in for those of us not able to get to the game live). The goal came after only 12 minutes, when Lewes captain, Rhian Cleverly, got ahead of the defender at the front post and flicked the ball past Claudia Moan - who had come to punch clear - and into the back of the net.
But after their good start, the visitors rarely came close to scoring a second and the Sunderland keeper didn’t have anything to do for long periods of the match. The bits and pieces she had to deal with, including a dangerous cross-shot that looked like it could have crept into the corner late in the game, were handled very securely indeed.
Sunderland’s defence were solid throughout, with Charlotte Potts, Megan Beer, Louise Griffiths, and particularly Grace McCatty dealing with the not insignificant threat of the talented Umotong with an ease that bodes well for the rest of the campaign.
McCatty’s Player of the Match performance showed her poise and experience throughout, even when took a yellow for the team as Lewes broke away dangerously mid-way into the second period, it was absolutely the right thing to do, and indicative of a commanding performance.
On the flanks, both sets of Sunderland fullbacks and wingers struggled to get any room as Lewes pressed and harried, effectively nullifying the pace that has seen Abbey Joice, Jess Brown and Neve Herron terrorise opposition defences in previous games. Lewes had clearly done their homework, doubling up and denying space whenever the youngsters looked like breaking away, whilst denying space in the middle of the pitch.
The first half was generally a disjointed affair, meaning Sunderland’s flowing passing game couldn't really get going, and the few opportunities we did create were hardly clear cut. Megan Beer did well when trying to drive the team forward, but ultimately to no avail.
The second half started in the same way as the first, with the visitors on the front foot. But the Lasses pushed them back into their own half. Yet Keira Ramshaw, despite some intelligent lay-offs, remained isolated at the head of the Sunderland attack, and Maria Farrugia, playing as a number 10, struggled to use her trickery to create opportunities for herself and others.
By the time Mel Reay made a triple substitution on 64 minutes, Sunderland had almost complete control of the game but still lacked a cutting edge.
The changes - Beer, Herron, and Brown being replaced by Faye Mullen, Emily Scarr, and debutant Iris Achterhof - certainly made a difference, and the pressure built on the Lewes goal. Emma Kelly Provided some great quality from corners throughout the game, and moved the ball well in the middle of the park, but wasn’t able to create a great amount against a tight and disciplined backline.
Achterhof came close with a shot that was deflected just wide of the post on 70 minutes, and as the game entered the last 15 minutes the home crowd of just over 400 began to sense that, if another goal was to come, it would be for the girls in red and white - their vocal support spurring on wave after wave of attacks.
Occasionally Lewes broke away, and both Grace McCatty and Louise Griffiths picked up intelligent yellow cards to stop promising attacks and the resulting free kicks and corners were dealt with effectively by the Sunderland defence, who look very solid and capable at this level.
Sunderland were always the more likely to get a goal, and it was substitute Mullen who finally put the ball in such a dangerous area as to force an error from the otherwise faultless Rooks defenders. Her searching cross to the back post had to be dealt with, but the unfortunate Rebecca McKenna, who had been on international duty with Northern Ireland all last week, sliced the ball into the top corner of her own goal, leaving Saunders with no chance.
The equaliser seemed to kick Lewes back into life, and they had a couple of moments late on that could have resulted in a goal. Firstly, after Moan had spilled a cross, Umotong - who scored the winner against London City last week - skewed a shot so wide it went for a throw-in.
As the clock ticked over into an additional four minutes, there was just enough time for a little late drama. Sunderland looked like they'd thrown the point away as a cross from the right caused chaos in the six-yard box and was hammered home, only for the Lewes players to find that the referee had rightly blown for a foul on Moan. When the final whistle blew, both sides seemed relieved to have come away with a point in what is still a tightly contested division.
Lewes were very tough opponents, perhaps the best outfit we’ve come up against so far this season, and the Lasses will be pleased to go into next weekend’s game away at Bristol City with a record of two wins and two draws in their first four league games of the season.
Manager Mel Reay, speaking to the club’s official Twitter account after the game, was candid in her assessment of the performance overall:
I thought it was a good point in the end. Really disappointed with the first half, I thought our in-possession stuff just wasn't good enough, didn’t get our passes together, didn’t create many chances, and obviously, they’ve scored off a corner.
It was a good reaction when the substitutes came on, I thought that they made a real impact, and we were just happy to get a point in the end.
I thought it was a little bit of a bitty game. We’ve not really tested the goalkeeper, which is disappointing because in the previous games we really have, we’ve been really good at that, and so we’ll keep working hard and go into the Bristol game hoping that we’re better than what we were today.
Mel Reay assesses today's draw at the Stadium of Light.— Sunderland AFC Ladies (@SAFCLadies) September 26, 2021
Full interview... pic.twitter.com/VUol1BSgYX
Player of the Match
Grace McCatty - truly a commanding and confidence-inspiring performance from an understated but consistently excellent player, Grace is showing herself to be equal to the best that tier two has to offer.