Sunderland AFC Women’s season is not going to plan.
There’s a lot of talk about “fine margins”, about how they’re “almost there”, about how we’ve not had the decisions from the officials or the “run of the ball” that would have made a difference to our lowly position in the Barclay’s Women’s Championship table.
But luck in football should even itself out over a few games, and right now we are using up our allocation of good fortune in having Coventry United cemented into the single relegation spot.
The accumulation of little things going wrong on the pitch points to bigger issues off it, and one thing’s for certain - if the Lads were having the kind of season the Lasses are, there would be no end of opinion and analysis, of calls for inquests and demands for change and action. Letters would be written, and crisis meetings with fans would be called.
Now, I’m not here to dig out individual players. I can’t criticise their commitment, their desire, their willingness to run through walls and play through the pain barrier for the badge and the shirt. None of that is in question. The players were visibly upset at the final whistle on Sunday after yet another home defeat.
Nobody can doubt that they are giving their all, but the same can always be said for the opposition too and that’s why all the effort and desire in the world are never really going to be enough. Expecting Sunderland’s part-time players to perform at the same level as full-time players over 95 minutes of football is unrealistic and unfair.
This is the underlying reason why we, along with Coventry and Sheffield United, make up the league’s bottom three with only three wins between us. The table doesn’t lie, and money talks.
I’m also not here to have a go at Alex Clark, Mel Reay, or Steph Libbey. Although they are not beyond criticism, we’ve got a really impressive team off the pitch and it’s growing all the time. These are top people doing their very best day-in-day-out for our football club and our community. They’re in it for the long haul, and are essential to the project.
When I sat down with Libbey for an interview a few weeks ago, it was difficult not to be struck by her sincerity, her passion, and her enthusiasm for getting the opportunity to work full-time in the game she’s loved since she was a child.
She spoke of how the “bold, creative and industrious” values that have been set at the top of the club, and how excited she was to be able to work with all of the top professionals across the football side of the operation - the access to performance analytics, to dieticians, to strength and conditioning.
Yet I have continued to be struck by the lack of interest in the women’s side from anyone closely associated with the men’s side of the club, and particularly the silence from the men sitting at the top very table.
When we do get a minute or two in an hour-long interview with the Sporting Director or a single question tacked on to the end of a Q&A with fans, we hear talk about the “one club” mentality.
“One Club, Our Club”, or so the motto goes - it’s etched above the tunnel at the Stadium of Light. Yet it seems only to extend to the Lasses' use of the Academy on an evening, the employment of the kind of support team that footballers should expect at this level, and their inclusion in the end-of-season awards.
The few words from the top are surface-level stuff, platitudes offering little or no insight into the actual plans, hopes and ambitions for women’s football from those who ultimately fund it.
We hear that progress is inextricably linked to the progression of the men’s side of the club, which is where almost all of the revenues are currently generated. But there’s little evidence of care or attention from the top being dedicated to raising the revenue of the women’s side, which is where the majority growth potential is.
Clark is the one charged with overseeing the day-to-day operations - footballing and commercial - and when we’ve spoken to him he’s been candid about some of the mistakes that have been made but also confident that the club is progressing overall. He points towards the investments made in coaches and to the new full-time commercial and fan engagement roles.
“Sustainability” has been the watch-word for the whole club, but when pressed on what this means for the Lasses, Clark was clear that sustainability is about avoiding both the financial problems that caused our demotion from the WSL in 2018 and sustaining our position in the upper-echelons of the game.
Right now, on that second measure, we are only sustainable due to the fact that Coventry United almost went bust last year and didn’t have any players until a few days before the start of the current campaign.
Our “sustainable” women’s football model is a part-time one based on youth and local talent, things that have in the past brought us a degree of success in women’s football and certainly has benefitted the English game overall. It allows older players to continue with their careers and the kids to stay on in education.
But it does not allow much room for recruitment from outside of our region and, as much as the focus on local player development is welcome and admirable, we as fans wouldn’t accept it on the men’s side of the club if it meant that we were at serious risk of relegation and we hadn’t scored a single goal in the last four games.
This season feels like one full of missed opportunities. Despite the wonderful success of the Lionesses in the Euros having had a telling impact on attendances across the WSL and Championship, this boost in interest seems to have passed by Hetton-le-Hole almost entirely.
Yes, there are young flagbearers on the pitch and they’re playing the same pre-match music as the Stadium of Light, and yes we can watch the matches on Twitter and we’ve started to get post-match comments from the gaffer, but there’s still no merchandise on sale.
There’s no sign of the Lasses shirts being made available, no Lasses scarves to buy, no way for the kids who attend to get a poster of their favourite player to put on their bedroom wall. The radio commentary has disappeared. Even the matchday programme is hidden away on a PDF upload.
The attendance issue in particular must be demoralising for the players. They give their all and then they see their friends and former teammates playing regional football up the road playing in front of tens of thousands, but when they are invited to perform at the Stadium of Light, tens of thousands walked away.
The Lasses side of the club doesn’t really talk to anyone who is not following them on Twitter. It hardly ever addresses the wider fanbase. The “good luck” tweets from the Lasses account ahead of big games for the Lads are never reciprocated.
Something, somewhere, is missing. The new people employed in the commercial and fan engagement roles have their work cut out to make up for lost ground and to regain some momentum.
It gives the impression that the men who inhabit the Academy during the day hardly notice the fact that we have a women’s side at all.
I have written about the need for leadership from the top before, and there is still absolutely no visible support from the men who run SAFC. Since taking over almost two years ago, KLD has not shown his face at a Lasses match. He hasn’t said a single word about them in public. This is an inexplicable omission on his part.
Chief Operating Officer Steve Davison, on the other hand, is spotted at almost every match at Eppleton but, from what I can tell, this has no more significance than any other part of his relaxing Sunday routine, like a visit to Clay’s Garden Centre or a stroll along the seafront - a way of decompressing from the stresses of the “real” work of running the men’s side of the club.
Louis-Dreyfus family lawyer Igor Levin, who is meant to be the director in charge of women’s football as part of his Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) brief, has been spotted once or twice. But having the Lasses discussed at board level as part of EDI, points to where the hierarchy sees our women's team, that is as an added extra, something nice to have but not something of particular importance.
By all accounts, Kristjaan Speakman has a genuine interest and he has overseen a welcome investment in the analytics, physical performance, and coaching side of the Lasses setup - but these are long-term solutions that are unlikely to have an impact on what is an immediate and pressing problem on the pitch.
To what extent he’s holding Mel Reay and Alex Clark to account for the results on the pitch, and providing them with additional support to find solutions to the obvious goalscoring problem, is an open question.
Nobody would seriously question the fact that progress has been made on the women’s side since KLD took over Sunderland AFC and installed Speakman to oversee football operations.
But our issue is a relative one - it is an issue of the pace and degree of progress in relation to the other teams in our league and the other clubs in our region. It’s also, in my view, an attitudinal issue on the part of the men who make the decisions and hold the purse strings. Women’s football is a business that needs investment, not a charity that needs handouts.
Our application for upward movement in 2021 has been spoken about like it is something the Lasses should be grateful for, although it’s clear that it’s something the incoming regime had not thought about before they put pen to paper on the initial deal. In fact, it is the least that they deserved then, and it cannot be used as cover for inaction now.
I doubt our young stars - the England age-group internationals that we rave about every week - will see much of a future career here if we’re at the bottom of the league year-on-year and they’re still having to work other jobs or live with their families to make ends meet. A professional future in the game is what they rightly expect.
So what can be done off the pitch to boost us on the pitch now?
A clear and unambiguous signal needs to be sent out the club is preparing for full-time football; nothing less will suffice. Indeed, if we look at Southampton, who’ve invested consistently, full-time football should be the norm whether or not we stay up this year.
The owners could do worse than guaranteeing a minimum annual investment for a sustained period, possibly in the form of a trust for the sole and exclusive use of women’s football.
For the ambition must surely be top-flight football for both men and women at Sunderland - and the sooner the better on both fronts. That’s where we were in 2017. That’s where we were in 2009. That the two sides rise together should be a given, but neither should be held back by the lack of progress of the other.
That they are both important parts of our future should be clearly and unambiguously the message from top to bottom. Investment needs to be made on the pitch - both in terms of retaining the best of our youngsters and attracting players from across the country and beyond to play for us.
So, if we’re to break beyond the 550 regulars at Eppleton, we need to start to think seriously about what the future of Sunderland AFC Women is as part of their overall business.
As much as we want to be our own brand and our own club, we should be willing to look up and look outwards and learn from others. We should be asking these questions:
Is the Hetton Centre really a long-term solution for us as a club? Leasing the ground will be fine for us in the National League, but will not be sufficient for the WSL. There’s no obvious ready-made alternative inside the city limits, so what’s the plan for three, four, or five years' time?
In terms of marketing and recruitment , what is it that likes of Durham, Sheffield United, Bristol City, Brighton, and yes even Arsenal, do that we need to do to win on the pitch and off it?
Why have they succeeded to grow their crowds? Why can they attract players from outside their local areas? It’s not good enough to just say “we are doing it our own way” and “being sustainable” when we’ve got four points from 27 this season and haven’t scored a single goal since the middle of October.
Sometimes it feels like we are the victims of circumstances - geographical, and historical - that simply cannot be overcome. But I don’t believe this has to be the case. And if this all sounds like stuff you’ve read here before, that’s very probably because you have.
So let’s just call this one last howl into the darkness from yours truly. It’s time for others to pick up this baton and run with it, both inside and outside the club. I now just want to get on with watching the footy and supporting my team, starting with a much-anticipated away day at the Academy Stadium on Sunday.