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Sunderland Ladies v Liverpool Women- FA Women’s Continental Tyres League Cup

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Opinion: How will Sunderland reach the WSL?

Does Sunderland AFC have an ambitious strategy for women’s football? Kristjaan Speakman’s interview with the Echo last week raises more questions than it answers, and now the Mags are making moves. It’s time for KLD to act!

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

It’s great that Sunderland’s local newspaper, the Echo, interviewed Sunderland AFC’s Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman on the topic of the club’s women’s section at the start of January.

This is fantastic, because the more coverage the Lasses get, the more people will come and watch the games, the more sponsors will take note, the more income can be generated and the team will become an ever more important part of the “brand” that Kryril Louis-Dreyfus wants to build on Wearside.

When it comes to critiques, that’s where we come in. As a fansite, we’re fiercely protective and supportive of the players and the coaching staff, we’re appreciative of the work that’s been done across the board to ensure that we are playing and competing well in the second tier this season, and we’re generally supportive of the overall direction of the club in both men’s and women’s football.

First and foremost, it’s good to read that General Manager Alex Clark has completed the much talked of two-year plan for the Ladies and that there’s a commitment from the ownership.

But, unfortunately, there was absolutely nothing in the article to suggest in terms of what the end goal of that plan actually is. Nothing has been said publicly about a timetable for professionalism at the club, indeed the word never seems to appear in the language used by the club, although it is absolutely central to the FA’s overall strategy for the game in England.

Looking again at what was said in Speakman’s interview with Phil Smith about the strategy itself, there is very little clarity indeed, even about whether the strategy is in place or not. Two sections of the article provide different answers:

We have drawn up our strategy...We’d mapped out what would probably have been quite a skeleton blueprint in terms of how we saw it [developing], and Alex has been employed as our General Manager and will build that out moving forward.

But then, this...

So we’re just trying to stabilise at the minute and we’re just trying to build all the pieces of the jigsaw behind Alex and Mel...We’re going to run women’s football in exactly the same responsible, sustainable manner that we run the men’s and boy’s programmes.

It’s a bit of a slow burner just in terms of getting everything together and giving Alex the opportunity to map out exactly what the strategy looks like and all the relevant financial implications that come with that.

These are inconsistent statements. Is there a strategy that has been drawn up, or is it being mapped out currently, is it being implemented, why is progress so slow when there’s a clear sense of urgency for progress on the men’s side of the club?

And to what end? Strategies have goals at their heart - that’s what they’re about. They set out what you want to achieve, by when, by whom, and how you propose to get there. The end goal - the vision - the ambition - has not been communicated to fans, potential new recruits, or to potential new sponsors.

Where do the key men in this process, Messers Clark, Speakman, Davison, and Louis-Dreyfus, see the women’s team in three, five, and ten years' time?

Sunderland Ladies v Liverpool Women- FA Women’s Continental Tyres League Cup Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

One thing that worries me is the ambiguous use of the word “sustainable”; because sustainable in women’s football is not the same as sustainable in men’s football. In men’s football, it’s basically matching revenues from TV, commercial activities, merchandise, sponsorships, and player sales with the expenditure on player wages, infrastructure, and player development.

Beyond the notable and inspirational exceptions of the few remaining independent and fan-owned clubs, such as Durham and Lewes, sustainability in women’s football means sustained investment for the future, sustained cross-subsidy from the income-generating men’s section (with all the benefits it has accrued over very many decades without competition for resources from the women’s game), and sustained commitment and support to progressively improve every aspect of the women’s section of a club from the low, part-time base it is at now.

Although transfer fees are starting to be paid, there’s nothing really stopping a WSL club from coming in and taking one of our young players this summer for next to nothing. The market doesn’t work in that way as yet, and any fee we could command for the rising stars in our squad would not make a dent in the resources required for the future.

However “sustainability” is often used by the men who control the purse strings as code for “self-sufficiency” or “living within your means”, and if in practice is a break-even model that will have as an end goal that Sunderland Ladies will have to cover most if not all of their own costs in the short-to-medium term through gate receipts, TV deals, and sponsorships, its a recipe for stagnation if not regression.

It also fails to recognise the historic and systemic disadvantages and underinvestment, and how this lack of competition has aided the men’s game over a century.

We should remember, it was the lack of a commitment to finance professionalism - the “unfair” license conditions imposed by the FA - that saw the Ladies relegated two divisions from their well-earned place in the Women’s Super League; their place taken by clubs with more foresight and commitment than Ellis Short was willing to provide.

We want to believe that Louis-Dreyfus is going to invest significantly in the playing side in the short, medium and long term, but nothing to suggest that the leadership of the club have an ambitious strategic view of the place of women’s football in Sunderland AFC that has the goal of re-establishing ourselves in the top tier within the foreseeable future.

Millwall v Sunderland: WSL 2
The last time we reached the bigtime... : Sunderland Ladies team celebrate after winning the the FA WSL 2 in 2014
Photo by Tom Dulat - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Speakman is keen to highlight the great things that have been done and how quickly it has happened and how they never expected it (as if they only realised that Sunderland had a women’s section after they took over the operation).

On the men’s side, the messaging is very much forward-looking and ambitious - we want promotion to the Championship, we want to be in the Premier League, we will bring in the players who will get us there, we’re backing Johnson in the transfer market to achieve these goals... nothing of that nature comes through in what they say publicly about the future of SAFC Ladies.

We hear nothing on the prospect of transfer activity... nothing about the analysis that has been done to look at the current squad and what will be needed in the future, nothing that demonstrates he has looked at anything beyond the league table in terms of his understanding of exactly where the current squad is and what’s actually required to progress in FA Women’s Championship and beyond.

Liverpool are setting the standard this season - they’re fully professional and, despite some unsavoury episodes, amazingly well resourced for a side at this level. They should take the one promotion spot on offer. We will reach our goal of survival as it seems very unlikely that Coventry United will have their points deduction overturned.

Either Birmingham City or Leicester City will probably come down, and the other sides linked to professional teams in our division - Charlton, Blackburn Rovers, Bristol City, Sheffield United, Watford, and Crystal Palace - will not rest on their laurels either. I mean no disrespect to them or the fans of other teams at our level, but none of these clubs have the size of fanbase and the history of Sunderland AFC as an institution in the women’s game.

Next season we need to be challenging right at the top, and hopefully, there will be more than one promotion spot up for grabs at that point. We have a brilliant base to build upon, some wonderful young players, some fantastically experienced older heads, a brilliant coaching team, some amazingly committed fans. What they all need and deserve is a vision of the future.

Sunderland Ladies v Liverpool Women- FA Women’s Continental Tyres League Cup
Grace Ede... the next superstar off the production line
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

If club officials are to be believed, the new Sunderland AFC is being built on the idea of being everything that Newcastle United are not - a place where the money is clean, the stars are home-grown, the ticket prices are low and the community comes first.

But noises coming out of Newcastle United in the last couple of days suggest strongly what I have feared from the moment the Saudis took control and placed Amanda Staveley in charge at St James Park - the people behind the Mags are willing to invest in women’s football to promote their brand and wash the Saudi blood money clean using the good news stories and inclusiveness inherent in women’s football.

To see Mag supporting ex-Sunderland players and Mag supporting current Sunderland AFC employees cheering the sight of MBS’ placewoman meeting the Newcastle United Women’s side after their 10-0 victory over made me shudder, and should be a wake-up call to the all-male hierarchy at Sunderland AFC.

Newcastle are two promotions away from the Championship, where we currently reside, and are second in their division right now. Until relatively recently we’ve been the club of choice for parents and players in the north east, alongside the relatively non-partisan Durham WFC, as the only professional football club that has a significant history in the women’s game in our neck of the woods. This monopoly will come to an end sooner rather than later.

There is the prospect of expansion and restructuring on the horizon, with the WSL likely to be taken over by the Premier League in the not too distant future. The FA have said what they want - two fully professional leagues - and the likes of Newcastle and Leeds, and some of the other bigger EFL Championship sides and Premier League outfits not currently represented in the WSL structures will want a slice of the pie.

With all this in mind, it is self-evident that organic growth, purely through youth development and gradually increasing crowds at Eppleton CW, is not sustainable for Sunderland if we are to retain our advantages and regain our status back amongst the elite.

Let’s be absolutely frank about this. It is entirely possible to build a WSL side in less than three years for the price of one journeyman striker from Burnley. There are professionals, many of whom that have made their way in the women’s game in red & white shirts that would probably have much preferred to do it in their beloved barcodes.

The risk to Sunderland AFC of not being seen - visibly, loudly, demonstratively - to be taking women’s football seriously should be clear to those in high places at the club. They need to act, act boldly, and map out a professional future for our club and a roadmap to establishing ourselves back in the WSL before it’s too late.

Sunderland Ladies v Liverpool Women - Barclays FA Women’s Championship Photo by Nigel Roddis - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

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