On April 4th, 1989, Sunderland AFC, took on Plymouth Argyle at Roker Park and won 2-1. Gordon Armstrong scored both goals and Brian Atkinson made his senior debut for the club. It was a good day.
In the crowd was another budding local footballer, Jen O’Neill, and opening the matchday programme, she saw an advert that would change the course of history for Sunderland AFC.
Below the announcements of a 50p senior citizens’ tea dance and weekly aerobics classes was something Roker Park hadn’t seen since the FA banned women from playing on their clubs’ grounds in 1921; the club was recruiting players for a new “Ladies’ Soccer” team.
Former Birmingham and Coventry City player Mick Ferguson, a Geordie by birth who’d made his career in the midlands, was in charge of Sunderland’s Football in the Community scheme at the time, and it was his initiative to start the new team.
Sunderland was the self-styled “Caring Club” and O’Neill suspects that Ferguson was perhaps inspired by some of the pioneering examples at other clubs like Millwall who had done a lot to develop the talents of young players like Hope Powell in the mid-1980s.
For O’Neill, it was a clearly life-changing moment - she went on to play for the club she loves, on and off, for a decade and a half whilst establishing herself as one of the most respected writers, editors and pundits in the women’s game.
Although they were an enthusiastic bunch of lasses, from the initial kickabouts with Ferguson it was clear there wasn’t an awful lot of talent within the first group of applicants. So he then went searching for more experienced players and found them in the Wednesday night 5-a-side league at the old Northumbria Centre in Washington.
The women who made up a couple of teams from Easington emerged as the core of the new Sunderland Ladies' side, and O’Neill joined one of them for their indoor games too.
Sunderland trained over the summer, playing friendlies against other teams in the region, including their first game of 11-a-side; a 2-0 friendly victory over Darlington Ladies at Cleadon on 26 July 1989, with both goals reported to have been scored by Jackie Whittle but as we now understand it was Tracy “Wiggles” Mallam who got them.
A squad photo marking the historic game appeared amongst the men’s team’s stats in the Roker Review for the 2-1 home win against Middlesbrough on 27th August and is the lead art for this feature.
The team's participation in 1990 of the Lasses at a tournament in Sunderland’s twin town of St Nazaire in Brittany, where O’Neill starred alongside other youngsters like Sue “Buddha” Smith, was a key moment where the club began to be - relatively speaking - more organised in its approach to women’s football.
15-year-old O’Neil was presented with the player of the tournament award by Tony Norman on the pitch at Roker Park. We entered the Yorkshire & Humberside league and competed in the Women’s FA Cup, travelling across the country to take on the likes of Southampton.
This historic move by the Sunderland stood in stark opposition to the situation up the road in Newcastle, where both the Magpies' old-school private shareholders and then the incoming John Hall regime both refused to have themselves associated with the women’s game.
Their neglect was, ultimately, to our benefit. Cowgate Kestrels would emerge as the force to be reckoned with on Tyneside and our primary rivals before turning nomadic - moving between Newcastle, Blyth and East Durham throughout the 1990s. O’Neill played with them at Blyth Spartans, where the tradition of women’s football stretched back to the munitionette era and the great Bella Reay.
At the turn of this century, the Kestrels WFC had linked up with a local college had developed a squad full of young talent, and were merged with the Sunderland Ladies to create Sunderland AFC Women under Mick Mulhern.
The amalgamation of the two clubs created some ill-feeling as members of Sunderland’s existing squad were squeezed out in favour of players such as England international Aran Embleton and Lasses future boss Mel Reay, but it cemented our place as the leading club for women’s in the north east, a status that we’re now battling hard to regain from our rivals up the River Wear!
Sunderland now has a fantastic infrastructure and pathway for women’s football built on the best traditions of youth development and community outreach of our club, with a successful Regional Talent Club, a new Under 23 squad under construction, and dedicated coaching staff at the Academy of Light.
In our interview last year, O’Neill shared some classic anecdotes of drunken coach journeys, John McPhail’s cast-off Hummel shorts, and the joy of being part of the first generation of female footballers to emerge on Wearside in over six decades. 33 years later we’re still building, and the podcast is still well worth a listen.
[Ed’s Note: This story was updated on 18/4/22 with more accurate information regarding our first ever game that was provided by members of the original Sunderland Ladies squad]
There are so many gaps in this story that need to be filled. Do you have memories from following or playing for the various incarnations of Sunderland AFC Ladies over the last 33 years that you’d like to share?
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