For the young Lucy Bronze, the three-hour round trip from north Northumberland to train with Sunderland AFC in the mid-2000s was the only way she could continue her development as a footballer. Despite school and car sickness, it was the first step in her journey to true greatness in the game.
Last night she was at the heart of the England team, providing an assist and plenty of creativity down the right for the Lionesses in front of over 15,000 fans at Windsor Park in Belfast on the same day that FIFA released a new half-hour documentary focusing on her career.
If she avoids injury, in July Bronze will be a shoo-in to face Austria at Old Trafford in front of over 70,000 supporters in the first match of what’s promised to be a game-changing summer for women’s football.
She was by far the best player in the local U11s boy's team, but the FA rules meant she was barred from taking part in the next age group “in case she got hurt”. When her family asked what she should do next, the game’s governing body’s recommendation to her mum was straightforward - get her down to Sunderland.
Our tradition of producing England internationals goes back to the Munitionettes and the heyday in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Our first international Minnie Seed also played in front of 10,000 for England in Belfast on 29th March 1921, only months before the FA’s sexist ban came into place, the impact of which was still being felt by the Bronze family eighty years down the line.
This tradition has continued into the modern era. After being founded by Mick Ferguson under Sunderland’s Football in the Community scheme in 1989 and then integrating the Kestrals into the club under Mick Mulhern in 2000, our city became the best place for the girls with the talent in the region to take their game to the next level.
And as a teenager with the Lasses, Bronze played at the highest level in England - appearing alongside her international teammate Jordan Nobbs in the FA Cup Final in 2009 and getting the assist for Kelly McDougall’s 97th-minute consolation goal in the 2-1 defeat to Arsenal.
She then won a scholarship to play at the University of North Carolina in the States, where she’d attended summer schools throughout her teens. In the documentary, she describes this as a turning point as she was surrounded for the first time by players who all shared her competitive drive. She played alongside footballers of the highest quality, including future World Cup Winner and current Arsenal player Tobin Heath.
However, on her return to Sunderland in 2010 after her spell in the USA, Bronze suffered a knee injury that was compounded by an infection. She had surgery, played through pain without the advice and support of a physio, and as a result damaged her other knee. She’s suffered ever since.
This, injury and the lack of expert attention that exacerbated it would not, I expect, have happened to Jordan Henderson who was coming through the men’s side of the club at the same time.
Sunderland’s patchy history of intermittent support for these young women, which has only really turned a corner in the last couple of years, prevented investment in the right kinds of care they needed.
The issue of the off-field support and attention to the health, wellbeing, and welfare of the players in women’s football, has continued to be an issue, especially outside of the elite at the top of the WSL, where Bronze now plays with Manchester City.
A new player contract with terms and conditions is being introduced across the WSL and Championship in the next year, and as more players in the second tier are taken on as professionals, they will gain the support of the Professional Footballers Association.
However, Sunderland AFC’s landmark decision to move the Lasses back into the Academy of Light, giving them all the training support and physical conditioning coaching has been transformative. It has allowed them to compete well, even as part-timers, within the top 24 clubs in the country once again.
It’s a testament to Bronze that she’s played through the pain barrier to achieve the same heights as the Liverpool men’s captain, winning the English League, Champions League, and reaching a World Cup Semi-Final.
But as Sunderland finalise their strategy for the future of women’s football, which promises to herald an exciting new era at the club, Bronze’s story can serve both as inspiration to the current crop of exciting youngsters we have at the club, and as a lesson to those in charge to learn.
The current international break sees Sunderland players representing England at Under 17 (Grace Ede), Under 18 (Libbi McInnes), and Under 19 (Neve Herron). The new Under 23s squad will provide even more routes for local youngsters to progress and play competitive football, and the Regional Talent Club (RTC)’s tie-in with Gateshead College offers education and training under Mel Reay’s tutorage in a way that makes it a full-time occupation for the emerging players.
Education is so important too. A scholarship and a thorough education in physiology have helped Bronze to develop her game and manage her knee injuries. With the top-level support on offer from the City Group she looks in the condition of her life at 30 years of age. Understanding how to manage your body throughout your career is a vital element in the modern professional footballer’s skillset.
If Sunderland’s off-field leadership wants to take all aspects of the club back to the top level of English football, they need to keep offering the men and women they employ to represent us on the pitch all the support they need to be fit, healthy, and mentally prepared for the physical and psychological impacts of modern football.
They also need to offer a proper career pathway, one where staying on Wearside can go hand in hand with representing their country as full internationals in the future.