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Lasses Legends: Sunderland Ladies pioneer Sue Smith - The sweetest left foot in the north east!

No player has scored more goals for a Sunderland AFC team than Sue Cox (née Smith), so we caught up with her to find out about her life & career.

Sue Smith playing for Sunderland against Newcastle United in 1993
| Photo courtesy of Sue Cox

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When Sunderland Ladies were first getting going in the spring and summer of 1989, the club’s Football in the Community Officer, Mick Ferguson, found a rich source of talent in the Easington Ladies 5-a-side team who played on a Wednesday at the Northumbria Centre in Washington.

This group formed the backbone of our club’s new women’s squad for the next few years, One player from that crop truly stood out - a little dark-haired lass from Seaham who went by the name Buddha, who described in Jane Ashworth’s seminal memoir of Cowgate Kestrels ‘Kicking the Boys Balls’ as having “the sweetest left-foot in the north east”.

With an immense goalscoring record that surpasses anything any other player has achieved over 12 years in our club’s colours, she can rightly take her place as the first of our Lasses Legends.

Buddha pictured during the Saint Nazaire tournament in Summer 1990

Buddha - or Susan Smith as she was born - now Sue Cox, grew up in a red and white household in East Durham with a football-mad dad and a natural talent for the game. In an exclusive interview she kindly told me all about how she got started:

From as early as I can remember I had a ball at my feet would play footie with the lads at school and at home I would have a kick about with my dad or the lads down the street.

I used to play for St Cuthbert’s but only in friendly games as I wasn’t allowed to play in cup and league games. I also played for Eastlea Spartans which was a neighbourhood team , you had to be 8 to 12 years it was hard at first as most people were against a girl playing but once they seen me play they were my number ones fans!!

Then when we went to secondary school it was pretty much the same, I played in friendly games but wasn’t allowed in League or Cup, then I found Easington Ladies 5 a side youth team I played for them from 12 till 14 years.

We played at Washington in a league and reached the national finals down in Luton, then we heard about Sunderland starting a team up and went for trials.

The man said you had to be 16, and my dad said “aww she nearly there, she’s 15 in September”. But once again they seen my play age just didn’t matter as I could hold my own. Every game every training session my dad was their backing me up 100%.

From that point onwards and despite her young age, Smith was a mainstay of the Sunderland setup. She featured in (and crucially kept records of) the Lasses first season of friendly games, not realising that as a kid she was actually was making important historical documents that would have significance

Didn’t really think about why I was recording all the results and things at the time so glad I did now though. I wish I had done them all but I do have over 50 matches recorded. I’ve even got a vhs with footage of the Silkworth tournaments.

Sue’s original records of “Sunderland WAFC” games, starting with our first fixture on 26th July 1989 vs Darlington Ladies - a 2-0 win

After a year of playing informal friendly matches against the other emerging sides in the region, Smith went with the Lasses on the seminal 1990 trip to play in the Saint Nazaire Tournament. She finished as top scorer, her mate Jen O’Neill won player of the tournament, and it set the marker for a new and slightly more organised approach to women’s football at the club.

Yet records from the early days of the team are really sketchy, and video footage is rarer still (so that VHS Smith has really needs to be digitised soon!):

I remember playing against Newcastle and someone was filming it professionally and dad said to me “so your stuff, it’s been filmed”. I scored a hat trick in 15 minutes and I’m still waiting to see the footage, I guess they were mags and when we hammered them they mustn’t have bothered!

Thankfully, along with her handwritten notes of scorers, Smith kept clippings from many of the early local newspaper reports that document her progress including that very first game against Darlington, our Silksworth International Tournament victory over the Mags, and their successes in the All-England Under 16 Cup.

Simply Red & White

Sue is a proper Sunderland supporter, a season ticket holder to this day who cut her teeth on the terraces at Roker Park in the mid-1980s.

My first memory of roker park was going with my brother in law Ant when I was about 9/10 and when we scored we ended up in a totally different part off the stand as everyone went mental!

Sunderland vs Amble in 1993

Her talent was there for all to see. She estimates that she bagged around 320 goals in total for the Lasses, including one particularly prolific season in 1994/1995 where she got an amazing tally of 70. Speed and accuracy of shot were her main attributes.

I was very fast and had a cracking left peg , I would shoot from edge of box Kevin Phillips style - if I saw a gap from put it there!

My dad said “I will give you £5 per goal” when I first started for Sunderland, but that soon became a £1 as I was scoring for fun. I would average around 30 per seaon over a 12 year period.

On the day in 1995 that Newcastle United announced the signing of a new £6 million striker, the Newcastle Journal - Sunderland Ladies shirt sponsor and the club’s Football in the Community Partner - carried the following story:

Les Ferdinand may have met his goalscoring match in Roker’s Susan Smith. Susan has totted up a staggering SEVENTY GOALS for the Roker Ladies team as the completed a League and Cup Double in the Yorkshire & Humberside League last season...

...Sue, 18, from Seaham, works as a machinist making men’s and ladies’ trousers. Off duty, she’s a football craxy girl who’s Roker through and through both on the pitch and off it...

...“I think more fathers should play football with their daughters. If they haven’t got sons, the first thing they do is stick a doll in their daughters’ hands.

“There must be a lot of girls who have never played football, who would have loved to have had the chance if somebody had given them the same encouragement as my dad gave me.”

Newcastle Journal, 8/6/95

I asked her whether her abilities meant that she ever got recognition from beyond the north east, and her answer betrays the lack of development in the game at a time when the Football Association had only recently taken over responsibility for women’s football.

She was playing, so it seems, too far from the centres of power and influence to be noticed. Nevertheless, she was invited along to regional training sessions with then England manager and the FA’s Regional Director of Coaching for the North of England, Ted Copeland, and attracted attention from other clubs in the area too.

Back then you had to play for the likes of Leeds to even get looked at by England, it was like we never existed [though] I did go to a few England training sessions. Newcastle and Middlesbrough wanted me but I was Sunderland through and through and wouldn’t move

Susan Smith with England Manager Ted Copeland, regional training, 6 April 1994

A different game

Sunderland AFC entered a new era in 2000 when they integrated the Kestrels into our club and brought in a host of new players, many of whom Smith had played with and against down the years including Jen O’Neill and Mel Reay. After an unfortunate series of injuries and illnesses, Sue left the club in 2001 and went on to play for Carlisle and Gretna before settling down into a new career and domestic life:

Then I just went to lower league teams then eventually stopped. I miss the game so much but have a bad leg hip now so my movement isn’t the best.

I am a barber now and live with my wife Bev, my 3 dogs and 4 cats and we both have season tickets for the Lads. Fingers crossed we’re in a different league next season!

She certainly was in a different league to most Lasses playing the game back in the 1990s. We can only speculate about how far she could have gone if she had come through in a different era, one where medical support was available and scouting networks were better developed.

What’s clear is that she paved the way for the subsequent generation of Sunderland supporting young women - the likes of Jill Scott and Steph Houghton - to make their names. They in turn are now coming to the end of their own highly decorated and immensely successful careers and leaving a legacy of professionalism that others will benefit from too. Smith sees the connection:

Absolutely buzzing for the young girls coming through the ranks now and obviously I am jealous. How couldn’t I not be? I would have loved to have the opportunity these have now!

I would have loved to see my full potential as back in the day we had to fight for everything, but I’m glad we’ve made a good pathway for the girls today it’s amazing for them.

So we should honour and venerate our very own little Buddha, the Seaham girl with the sweet but deadly left foot, as without her the Neve Herrons, Libbi McInness, and Grace Edes wouldn’t have a club to play for and a tradition to follow. She’s also kept a treasure-trove of material that will inform our understanding of the origins of Sunderland Ladies for the future.

A true legend - and one worthy of proper recognition by the club and our fans.

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