This weekend is going to be an exciting one for everyone involved in Sunderland AFC. Beyond the make-or-break game at the Stadium of Light on Saturday afternoon, Sunday lunchtime brings the latest instalment of the River Wear derby in the FA Women’s Championship, with the Lasses travelling the short distance up the A690 to Durham.
Due to the situation in the league this season and the one-up-one-down nature of promotion and relegation, it could be said by the casual observer that Sunday’s game is a dead rubber - a meaningless fixture where players could lack motivation. Nevertheless, it is a big game - these are the region’s two premier women’s football teams.
Over 1,000 tickets have been sold for the game at Durham University’s Maiden Castle sports centre on the outskirts of the cathedral city, the second time they’ve managed to break the kilo mark this season (the first instance being in the Conti Cup against Manchester United).
Yet Durham have underachieved by their standards in tier two, dropping away from their early-season title challenge into a midtable spot in tier two, whereas Sunderland have surprised many in the division by picking up six wins and being competitive in every single game they’ve played (whereas Watford, who were promoted alongside up, have struggled).
We've got a - day of activities planned for Sunday's game with Sunderland!— Durham Women FC (@DurhamWFC) April 19, 2022
Here's what's happening and when ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/KFpueCEhne
When Durham emerged as a new side in WSL2 in 2014, they were offering something different to the north east football scene. Here was an independent and ambitious team that would never be cast aside by the owners and directors of a men’s team. They’d never be the first line on the balance sheet to be cut when the higher paid blokes messed up.
They’d appeal to families, seeking Sunday support from Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, and Darlington fans as well as those who’ve traditionally been put off from football altogether.
As such, they maintain the affections of a fair proportion of those who go to watch Sunderland Ladies; our home fixtures are generally on alternate weeks you’ll often see the same faces at both teams’ home grounds so we’re often not directly competing for audiences.
Our new writer and seasoned women’s football reporter and Sunderland fan, Josh Bunting, follows the fortunes of both sides whilst covering Arsenal Women on a daily basis. He considers this to be a game that can certainly stir the passions of our football-mad region:
When two north east sides collide I believe that it will always be a big game. Of course it’s not the same as any Sunderland game against Newcastle United and the intensity that would generate, but the game with Durham - with local bragging rights at stake - it is a derby and for me always will be a proper derby.
Even if off the pitch the supporters may happily stand side-by-side, on the pitch, there’s been needle from the very first fixture we played against them just over eight years ago at New Ferens Park in WSL2. We’ve come out on top in that and in every other encounter prior to last October’s clash at Eppleton, and regaining our supremacy will be motivation enough for our players.
As more money comes into the game and professional men’s clubs like Sunderland begin to realise the commercial imperative of investing in women’s football, the intensity of the rivalry will only grow. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that, come this time next season, the clubs on the banks of the River Wear will be battling it out for the top positions in the Championship.
The geographical isolation of our area means both clubs compete for the signatures of local talent. You have to drive a long way to get to our next closest teams in the top 24 women’s clubs in the country - Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield United. Sunderland has world-class facilities and billionaire owners, Durham has that singular focus on women’s football and close links to one of the top universities in the world.
The Rovers and the Blades are both much closer to Manchester and the Midlands, where numerous other WSL and Women’s Championship sides are based. As such the Wildcats certainly reaped the benefit of our demotion in 2018 and the covid-19 season cancellations in 2020 and 2021; their side is now packed full of former Sunderland players including Mollie Lambert, Bridget Galloway, Becky Salicki, Sarah Robson.
@rr_lasses #SAFCLadies #footballhistory #woso #sunderlandafc #SAFC #Sunderland #Durham #DurhamWFC #RiverWearDerby #wsl #womensfootball #retrofootball #retrolook @bethmead_ @sunderlandafc @shekicksmag @shekickspix ♬ Get On It - Chris Alan Lee
So this Sunday’s game really does matter. The return fixture in October saw over 700 attend Sunderland’s Eppleton CW ground, with a large contingent of that crowd wearing the dark blue colours of the away side. Sunderland AFC will hopefully return the favour of bumper gate receipts, and the club be bringing the flags that are often handed out at home games to ensure there’s plenty of red & white on show.
We’ll be assembling behind the goal at the far end of the ground to wave them and cheer on the Lasses, bring your scarves and flags and let’s cheer the Lasses on this weekend!