While storms raged back in the North East of England, Sunderland AFC’s women kicked off on a bright and breezy lunchtime in the West Midlands in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Following a couple of below-par performances in the FA Women’s Championship, Mel Reay mixed things up in both her team selection and formation.
Maria Farrugia spearheaded a 5-4-1 system, that allowed Jess Brown and Faye Mullin wingback roles while Neve Herron, Louis Griffiths and Megan Beer made up a central defense three. Emma Kelly sadly missed out on the chance to play against her former club, with Keira Ramshaw being the rock in the centre of the park with Libby McInnes, and Holly Manders coming into the side to complement the bright spark of Abbey Joice. Claudia Moan was brought back into the side in goal, with Allison Cowling rested after some great displays in recent weeks.
On the bench, we had three 16-year-old Regional Talent Club graduates - Grace Ede, Daisy Burt, and new signing Katy Watson, alongside recent recruit Grace Boyes and the not-quite-fit Emily Scarr.
The game started slowly, with both sides testing one another out - Sunderland sitting back in a disciplined formation while Birmingham huffed and puffed with little end product. The Lasses looked primed to hit the Blues on the break, and Maria Farrugia created the best chance of the early part of the game when she dribbled the from the half way line, cut inside, and hit a strong, accurate shot from the edge of the area that was well saved by Emily Ramsey down to her left.
The Maltese international spent much of the game pressing and harrying and looking to break off the shoulder of defenders whenever she had the chance. She chased every long ball and lost cause, and showed the kind of attitude that football fans love to see - a never say-die spirit that exemplified the whole performance.
Just as the Lasses looked like they were getting a foothold in the match, Birmingham scored the opening goal through a spectacular 20 yard strike by Veatriki Sarri that went right in the top left-hand corner of the Sunderland goal, leaving Moan with no chance.
The home side almost doubled their lead on 39 minutes when a well-worked short corner routine left a Birmingham player free in the six yard box, but the glanced header went mercifully wide, and then Moan made two comfortable stops from long-range shots.
Half time came with the score at 1-0, and the small but passionate and unsegregated crowd queued patiently for their hot drinks and pies to keep in the increasingly biting cold at bay. And then six minutes into the second half, I kicked off the Equal FA Cup protest on behalf of the SAFC contingent of the Women’s Football Fan Collective - with Birmingham supporters in the lower tier joining in with the “No ifs, no buts” chant that also featured at other FA Cup games across England this weekend.
It got the attention of everyone in the ground, opened up some interesting conversations with the people around us, and the video I filmed attracted the ridicule of some of the footy lads on Twitter. Our campaign, as well as the amazing work of Lewes FC, had already forced the FA to announce a “significant increase” in the prize money for next year - but there’s so much more to be done, for a start, there were no TV highlights of this round of the cup on the BBC on Sunday night.
The reprise of the chant on 71’ - marking the year that the sexist 50 year ban on women playing by the FA - got almost whole of the stand chanting, including the families and loved ones of the Sunderland players who were passionate about the prospects of their girls getting an equal slice of the resources from the game’s governing body whose task is to help to share that wealth.
On the pitch, the chances kept coming the way of Birmingham, with more amazing saves from Moan, including finger-tipping one shot onto the post that looked like it had beaten her. After weathering the storm, Sunderland grew into the game - looking the fitter and stronger of the two sides and having a good shout for a penalty waved away.
Ede came on for McInnes and slotted in on the left of midfield, showing glimpses of her undoubted talent. The counter-attacking play from Sunderland now turned into concerted pressure, and with the home side now pegged back inside their own half, there was always a mistake in the Birmingham backline.
Sure enough, with five minutes left on the clock, pressing from Sunderland forced a poor but intentional backpass, which was headed goalward before Ramsey scrambled back to palm it round the post. For a moment confusion reigned as referee Magdalena Golba consulted with her the assistant on the far side before rightly awarding Sunderland an indirect free kick on the six yard line.
The Blues put eleven players on the line, but Keira Ramshaw slammed the ball low into the net to send the travelling support into raptures. But there was still time for more drama as yet another save from Claudia Moan - the hero of the game no doubt - prevented last minute heartbreak.
The final action of regular time saw a crunching tackle from Holly Manders almost snapped an opposing midfielder in two, but thankfully the resulting free kick was cleared and the game was set up 30 minutes of extra time.
Manders and Brown were replaced by Boyes and Watson, who made her debut for the club and showed the speed and tenacity that has earned her rave reviews in the RTC, and Birmingham reinforced their attack by introducing Jade Pennock, who has been one of their standout players this term.
Ten minutes into the additional time Sunderland hearts were broken; a well-flighted cross into the box from Gemma Lawley finding Lucy Whipp free at the back post and her header looped agonisingly beyond the reach of the Sunderland keeper and into the back of the net. There were protests from the crowd and on the pitch about a potential offside, although supporters in line with the defence - and the video evidence - suggest it was a perfectly timed run.
Sunderland battled hard for the second half of extra time, and Eve Blakey came on to bolster the attack as Reay switched to a 4-4-2 formation. But it wasn’t to be, and the professional WSL side claimed the victory after being tested to their limits by a valiant and brave young team in red and white.
After the game, Assistant Head Coach Steph Libbey noted on Twitter that the average age of this side started the game at 20 and finished the game at 19. They gained vital experience in this tie too, and will surely carry the confidence they’ll have gained into the rest of the season, starting on Sunday at Eppleton CW against Sheffield United.
️ Tickets are now on sale for Sunday as we host Sheffield United at Eppleton!— Sunderland AFC Ladies (@SAFCLadies) January 31, 2022
Player of the Match: Claudia Moan
A fantastic return to the side for the Sunderland keeper, her saves were the factor that kept Sunderland in the game at crucial moments. A string of spectacular diving saves, particularly in the second half, were vital in ensuring that the game went to extra time but her command of the penalty area - particularly in confidently intercepting crosses - was a delight to see and we now have great competition for the number one spot between the sticks for the Lasses.