The news that Sunderland AFC are to launch a LadiesUnder 23 squad this summer has been met with great positivity and hope from Lasses fans, as the club looks to take a step forward in developing women’s football at Sunderland.
We have already seen the success of the Regional Talent Centre (RTC) and the calibre of players that Sunderland have acquired from that set-up. The likes of players such as Neve Herron, Jessica Brown and Eve Blakey have all come through the RTC and shown their maturity, skill and commitment to perform at this level despite their young ages.
Then you also have the likes of even younger players such as Grace Ede, Katy Watson and Daisy Burt who have just been acquired and brought into the team this season from the RTC. The implementation of a clear pathway for progression through the youth teams, RTC and now U23 is fantastic to see.
Knowing that the first team will garner so much homegrown and regional talent, suggests that the club are creating an ethos and philosophy of ‘’built, not bought’’ and providing a career route for locally produced footballers.
Fantastic news for us! This will only continue to strengthen what we do moving forwards, by providing an opportunity for young players coming through to progress into the Senior side @SAFCLadies https://t.co/Jr8Sx2nOqB— Grace McCatty (@gracemccatty) March 14, 2022
The club has announced that the U23 team will train alongside the seniors at the Academy of Light and have full access to all of the world-class facilities and resources available there, including a fully equipped gym, swimming pool, 3G pitches, as well as benefitting from first-rate coaching and analysis.
Sunderland AFC is historically a club that has produced so much talent in women’s football. With no less than 8 England Lionesses players originating from the Sunderland Academy, the names that have come through the club’s set-up are well-rehearsed and prestigious.
Whilst there has been no formal word on which league the U23s will play in, it has been stated that it will be a local league and that players will have the chance to participate in the Durham County Cup.
Naturally, the U23 Lasses will have the platform to showcase their abilities, skills, earn match experience and play against teams of a similar level to aid their development. Players who do well within the U23 may well pique the interest of first team gaffer Mel Reay and earn a spot in the first team.
Towards the end of the announcement, it was revealed that in June 2022, open trials will be held for those who show interest in joining the U23 side prior to the 22/23 season starting in September.
It is worth noting that there is a FA Women’s National League Reserve Division, which is split into North and South respectively. Other northeastern clubs such as Middlesborough and Durham WFC already have their teams competing in this division and doing quite well, with Middlesborough taking up 4th and Durham 5th in a league of 11.
There is also the FA Women’s National League Division One North which the U23 side could participate in. Currently, it includes Durham Cestria, Newcastle United, Chester-Le-Street Town and Norton & Stockton Ancients, amongst teams from the North West as well.
When you look at fellow division sides such as Durham Women, the club itself was founded out of grassroots football. Starting off as Cestria Girls in 2007, they went on to merge with South Durham and become County Cup winners on numerous occasions before gaining promotion to the Women’s Premier League. Shortly after, their bid was accepted into the FA Women’s Championship with Durham University.
Durham Cestria now serves as the pathway into the first team, with the second squad producing the likes of Beth Hepple, Zoe Ness and Jen Jennings. Their close ties to sister clubs, regular trials, and the development of youth teams show a clear structure and pathway. With this new U23 team, the Lasses are seemingly following a similar model.
For some time we have questioned, and rightly so, the club's interest in and motivation towards the women’s side. Seemingly forgotten, in one sense, perhaps understandably so with the focus being on getting the men's team out of League One.
But this announcement doesn’t just hint at the formation of a new team, but it also demonstrates a clear structure to the women’s game. It could be an indication that the lasses will at some point go professional, an indication that they are taking seriously and an indication of a vision and plan.
How fantastic would it be to see both the men return to the championship and the women become professional and possibly eye up a promotion back to the WSL? With a fanbase as passionate, loyal and committed as Sunderland’s, we deserve to have two incredibly talented and successful teams.
It’s early days, of course. But the goals for the future are being set and we can take solace in knowing there does seem to be a plan in motion.