Sunderland’s squad for the 2017 Spring Series - the short league programme that bridged the gap between the old summer-based WSL and the current August to May season - was already a pretty strong one. But we were without our iconic and prolific striker, Beth Mead, who had made her big move down south after dominating the scoring charts during her time on Wearside.
With Mead at the vanguard and having gained promotion to the WSL in 2014, we had cemented ourselves as probably “the best of the rest” in women's football behind the powerhouses of Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and newly dominant Champions Manchester City.
Rachel Laws had also moved on to Durham to fill a gap in their WSL 2 squad, so when manager Carlton Fairweather had the opportunity to recruit quality players from abroad to maintain our position and ensure we kept progressing, he moved for a couple of players from AGSM Verona Calcio in Italy who had international pedigree and experience in a number of different leagues.
German goalkeeper Anke Preuss had won the 2015 UEFA Champions League with Frankfurt - she impressed but only played nine games for the Lasses, before moving on to Liverpool in 2018, where she was between the sticks as they were relegated to the Championship in 2019.
Midfielder Dominique Bruinenberg, a Dutch Under 21 international, made a bigger impression. She was brought in on a professional contract, scoring five goals in her 31 appearances in her two seasons at the club, before moving on to Everton upon our demotion out of the WSL in 2018.
She would later tell the Sunderland Echo how training as a full-time pro in England compared to that in her native Netherlands or in Italy:
It feels like home already, the girls are really nice and the people at the club are really nice. The facilities at the club are amazing. Compared to the Netherlands and Italy, this is way more professional. I’m full-time at Sunderland, but I couldn’t do that in the Netherlands. This is totally different, it’s perfect. I train during the day at the Academy of Light and train with all my team-mates on the evening.
Fairweather was happy with the new arrivals, as he was quoted by the BBC Sport website on the day they signed:
Both girls have been on our radar. We are delighted to be bringing in two good quality players who both have experience of playing some of the top teams in Europe in the UEFA Women’s Champions League.
However, before a ball was kicked in the Spring Series, Fairweather was replaced as boss by his assistant Mel Reay, who took the lasses to a respectable fifth-placed finish over the eight games and achieved seventh in the full 2017-18 season, before the disastrous demotion ended our time amongst the elite in the women’s game and saw most of our star names - including Preuss and Bruinenberg depart.