While our owners schmoosed with Sheikhs and sunned themselves in Dubai, the past and the future of English women’s football in the north east and Manchester clashed.
Sunderland Women did our club proud against the big guns of Man City, working tirelessly to ensure that a routine home Continental Cup win for the WSL side, didn’t turn into a drubbing.
The defining moment in this game came not with any of their goals, rather in a small but significant incident a couple of minutes into injury time.
Neve Herron went in for a 50:50 with Demi Stokes just to the right of the Sunderland box. Both former Gateshead College players were fully committed, eyes only for the ball, and it was the youngster in red and white who came away with the ball.
It felt symbolic, like the passing of a torch between generations.
Herron’s full range of talents were on show from the very outset and no doubt the eagle eyes of the City Group will have been keenly trained on the versatile youngster.
She was nominally playing on the right of three central defenders but was everywhere - popping out of defence to break up play, clearing loose balls in the box, dashing down the wing to create counter attacks, crunching through multiple players in the last few minutes to ensure the scoreline remained respectable.
There were fleeting movements and moments in this game where we looked very much their equals. Had Brianna Westrup hit the net with her first half header from a corner, it could have been a very different game.
Man City’s quality and depth was pretty awesome to see up close and in person. Bunny Shaw is a wonderful footballer and when our defenders saw her name on the teamsheet, their hearts must have dropped.
Physically imposing but with a deftness of touch and an intelligent positional sense, the Jamaican centre forward was quite literally head and shoulders above anyone else on the pitch. When she latched onto Steph Houghton’s beautifully weighted through ball to make it three nil, all I could do was applaud. If you don’t appreciate that kind of quality, football’s not the game for you.
Sunderland’s forwards - Gears, Dodds and Manders - never stopped running, and the same goes for their replacements Grace Ede and Abby Holmes, but had a hard time getting any change from Alex Greenwood and Houghton and there were moments when our propensity to be careless in possession meant decent opportunities to break went to waste.
As hard working a defensive display as this was from the Lasses, City hardly broke sweat for large portions of the game. The gulf between a side crammed with internationals and a group of women who will be back in work in their other jobs tomorrow morning was always there, only compensated for by the pure graft and organisation that Mel Reay and Steph Libbey have trained into their team.
The Manchester City Academy Stadium is a great place to watch football and the physical representation of a club that sees its female stars as an important part of its overall brand.
Etihad’s greenwashing adverts scrolled around the perimeter advertising as the DJ tweaked nobs on her digital decks to get the pre-match atmosphere pumping. A HD neon screen showed the clock and a crystal clear PA announced the substitutions. The catering was spot on - Vegan Chickpea Curry Pie and a free cuppa.
Everything was slick, professional and very much not a non-league experience. Abu Dhabi’s money has indeed created a world-class setup in all areas of the club.
But the lasting impression I’ll take from our visit is of a club whose fanbase consists of a much younger, much more female, much more diverse demographic than I’ve seen elsewhere on my travels in the last few seasons.
Being situated in the heart of the East Manchester community, it there seemed to be a genuine connection between the players and the supporters. The 2,500 fans there were pretty noisy, and this was encouraged through the distribution of those god awful clackers. The chanting and singing, some very creative - “She’s big, she’s blue, she’ll eat a Kangaroo, Jill Scott, Jill Scott” - others were inexplicably North American (honestly, I didn’t think that “I believe that we will win” would ever migrate across the Atlantic, but each to their own), was really good to hear.
The lack of an away end meant we had to sit amongst it and endure the wondering looks and tutting disapproval of those around us, which sometimes seemed to suggest they couldn’t comprehend why anyone would support a team that wasn’t guaranteed to win 80 per cent of their matches.
What was also nice to see was the smattering of red and white throughout the stands - we saw a little girl with a Sunderland flag was there with her parents, I presume a family of exiles taking their kid to support their side. This is great, and one advantage of these Conti Cup ties is that a game against one of the big Manchester or Merseyside clubs is almost guaranteed every year. I hope it was a special and formative game for her despite the scoreline.
For someone with a long memory, however, there was more than a tinge of jealously wrapped up in this away day. Until they won the ownership lottery in 2008, becoming the pioneering state-run club in English football, there was little to separate us in men’s or women’s football.
Even in 2010, they didn’t apply for the inaugural Women’s Super League - neither did we. But Man City have been an ever present in the WSL since 2012, when they joined the top flight despite Sunderland topping Tier 2. It was the money from the UAE that was decisive then, but you cannot question their commitment ever since.
That many of Sunderland’s greatest ever female players made the impressive City campus their long term home is no surprise, and they wouldn’t have been the champions they are without the professional facilities and sustained investment on display at Eastlands.
Yet I left the ground wondering if we’re about to see a similar exodus - Grace Ede is already on a dual contract with them, and, after this game, they’d be daft if they weren’t trying to prise Herron from us too.