On Sunday Newcastle United’s fourth-tier women’s football team won 5-0 away against North Tyneside’s West Allotment Celtic to reach the final of the Northumberland FA’s Bluefin Sport Insurance Women’s Cup, whilst Sunderland Ladies went down 1-0 at home to Crystal Palace in the FA Women’s Championship.
The two division gap between the two giants of football in the north east that causes such heartache for the men’s side is reversed in the women’s pyramid. Newcastle United as an institution have traditionally neglected the women’s game, leaving Sunderland free to hoover-up the talent from across the region without much competition - until Durham WFC came along to challenge our monopoly in the mid 2010s and take many our best players when we were demoted out of the WSL.
However, when it comes to ambition for their women’s sides - in pubic at least - the regions top football club’s are now leagues apart. Newcastle director and front women for the takeover of the club by the Public Investment Fund of the murderous Saudi Arabian state last year, Amanda Staveley, spoke to The Athletic this weekend about her ambitions for the Lady Magpies:
I’d like them to have a race up the league against the men. We’re hoping they’ll do a walk-on at St James’ before the end of the season and we want them to play a match there, too. We want a financial plan that takes them through the next few years. We have to pay them as professionals. That’s a big thing.
It is a big thing. It’s actually a huge thing, with significant implications for our club. A move to professionalise a women’s football club in Tier 4 will disrupt the balance of power in the game in the region, and inevitably lead to suspicions that they will seek to use their Premier League status, as well as their owners’ blood-soaked billions, to jump up the leagues by hook or by crook over the next couple of years.
Only last week Newcastle announced the signing of 16 year old prospect Ella Wilson from Sunderland’s Regional Talent Club (the equivalent of the Academy system for under 16 girls). In the past, many Newcastle-supporting girls have gone on to don red and white stripes and made names for themselves on Wearside rather than Tyneside - but that era is now clearly coming to an end.
— Newcastle United Women (@NUFCWomen) February 22, 2022
Becky Langley adds England U16s star Ella Wilson to her options for the season run-in. Welcome, Ella! https://t.co/gXVzKyOjCW
At Roker Report, we take women’s football really seriously, and the topic of investment in and future planning for the Lasses is something that I have written about before, and will continue to write about until we see it happen.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned recently as a fanbase is that we should not be satisfied with warm words and half answered questions. If I’ve learned one thing during my time writing about the club it is that asking hard questions, raising unpopular or difficult matters, is a vital function of fan media.
We are not here to make friends with the powers that be at Sunderland AFC - we’re here to challenge them to do more, do better and support our club in the way we support it, i.e. with everything we’ve got.
My colleague Charlotte Patterson wrote last week about her frustrations with the answers gleaned from the minutes, so I won’t labour the points about the lack of advertising and general half-heartedness that is the mark of the club’s approach to women’s football.
What I will emphasise is that we have a uniquely gifted set of young players - the youngest squad in the division - who have been nurtured by a manager, Mel Reay, who is one of the top rated coaches in the country. They deserve our support, and to be more than the last agenda item for either fans our the board.
What we have seen this season is that, despite their youth and inexperience, they’re able to mix it with the professionals and the hardened women of the Championship, pushing WSL sides to the brink and scaring the likes of Liverpool with their skilful and determined play, as as well as their tactical flexibility.
They might not always win, but they’re attracting attention and plaudits wherever they go. I talk regularly to supporters of other teams up and down the country who note with pleasant surprise how impressive this team is, even when the results don’t go their way. They are a credit to the shirts they wear (shirts we as supporters can’t actually buy!).
But let me be explicit about this - my focus is on the fundamentals of the future of our club not the marginal issues of how many tweets are sent out by the SAFC Ladies account over the course of the average week. If Sunderland AFC do not take firm steps to professionalise and pay our female footballers to we will loose our best players to the benches of WSL clubs, if not directly to Newcastle United.
If you had the option of a £30,000-a-year contract up the road, or getting part time wages here, what would you do? If you had ambitions to be an elite athlete, to compete at the very top, it’s an absoute no-brainer.
Just as Mag-supporting lasses have held their noses and played for us in the past, do not be under any illusion that loyalty to our club will see our Mackem girls put their careers to one side. Are we really going to ask them to wait for the men’s senior side to get back to the Premier League before they can even think about making any real money from the game they’ve dedicated themselves to?
By going fully professional and paying good wages, the club will certainly lose money in the short term. Breakeven in women’s football is a recipe for stagnation and underinvestment. We have billionaire owners, not states but at least one statesman. These losses are nothing compared to the long term the cost to our club and our city of not doing so.
As these 16, 17, 18, and 19-year old young women look to their futures in the game, they will see Beth Mead, Jill Scott, Lucy Bronze and Steph Houghton in the England squad at the Euros this summer and rightly say “I want that to be be me in four or eight years time”.
Will they be able to do it here, or will they go to Manchester, London, Liverpool, the States, or even Newcastle to make their fortunes?
Steve Davison was once again in attendance at Eppleton yesterday. If he knows anything about football, he will see the potential on the pitch (and sitting below him in the stand too, as Neve Herron was banned for this one) and also see that there’s a hell of a lot that needs to be done off it too. He needs to be the voice on the Sunderland board, along with our new lead Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, the Louis-Dreyfus family lawyer Igor Levin, pushing for a huge increase in the resources pushed the way of Mel Reay and Alex Clark in the way that Staveley is on Tyneside.
The club has said that we fans need to engage with women’s football if they are to even bother streaming home games (like Lewes and Bristol City manage to do). We say show us that you’re engaging seriously with our women’s team, and maybe then the kind of crowds that the FA expects (1,000 in the Championship, 3,000 in the WSL in the next couple of years) will get engaged in the project.
We hear that new floodlights are needed for Eppleton. It’s an old and pretty low-level venue, one that the club needs to think seriously about replacing in the long term if we are to see our future as at the top tables of both men’s and women’s football.
But well before then we need to secure our future on the pitch as the premier place for girls to play the game in our region, and that is only possible if this is the final season that any of Sunderland AFCs footballers are part-timers.