As achievements go in the 21st-century history of our club, Sunderland AFC Women reaching the 2009 FA Cup final is right up there.
Our opponents, Arsenal, were then – as they are now – the most successful women’s team in the country. Their manager Vic Ackers, who had founded the team 22 years previously, arrived at Pride Park chasing his and his side’s 30th trophy and 10th FA Cup. They had also won the Cup for the previous three seasons, so Mick Mulhern’s Sunderland faced an uphill battle to get their first national honours.
23,291 people attended Derby County’s Pride Park, which remains the largest crowd any north-east women’s team has played in front of in the modern era, and making the final itself was a huge achievement for our club.
Mulhern had assembled a side that mixed the cream of the region’s young talent with a few established stalwarts to great effect. We had just been promoted out of the Tier 2 WPL Northern Division, a league we had won at a canter, but our 3-0 semi-final win against top-flight Chelsea at the Stadium of Light was still a major upset.
It was unsurprising, therefore, that Arsenal, fielding legendary players like Rachel Yankie and Katie Chapman, dominated the final from the off. After only three minutes Susan Grant found herself clean through on the Sunderland goal – her shot beat onrushing keeper Helen Alderson, but went narrowly wide of the left-hand post.
Sunderland looked to counter when possible, Sophie Williams squaring a ball to Jordan Nobbs in the centre on 12 minutes, but she was closely marked and her shot was a tame one.
Grant then had what looked like a certain goal cleared off the line by a Sunderland defender, who then collided with the post!
The deadlock was broken with 31 minutes on the clock, Alderson couldn't hold onto Gemma Davison’s long-range shot after she had cut inside and, with the Sunderland defence static, Chapman pounced to put the Gunners ahead.
Sunderland offered little going forward in the second half, but were still in it as the game reached the 90th minute. However, two minutes into injury time, a lovely flighted ball by Champan found a young Kim Little – who today captains Arsenal in the WSL – who spun magnificently before slamming the ball home for their second.
The match, however, was not quite done. Two minutes after conceding, Sarah Danby, who had replaced Nat Gutteridge midway through the second half, shot from 25 yards out and forced back-peddling Irish international ‘keeper Emma Byrne to tip the ball over the bar as it looked like dropping into the net.
And Sunderland would grab a very late, but very famous, consolation goal with the very last kick of the game. The ITV commentator, Jon Champion, described it like this:
Bronze... a chance... McDougall!!! The biggest cheer of the day! And it comes right on 97 minutes, and we were told seven additional minutes!
The final whistle blew and Arsenal celebrated lifting the trophy once more, but Sunderland AFC had been done proud by our brave Lasses.
Some of the names on the Sunderland teamsheet that day are now recognised around the world, players such as 16-year-old Lucy Staniforth in midfield alongside current Arsenal star Jordan Nobbs, a teenage Demi Stokes on the right-wing, and of course a 17-year-old Lucy Bronze in defence.
These women have formed the backbone of both the Lionesses and WSL sides for the decade since and will go into this summer’s Euros with the opportunity to lift the first major international trophy for English football since 1966, and this game was their first taste of the bigtime.
Others stand out too, captain Steph Bannon was the heart and soul of our club for a long time, Kelly McDougall scored goals for the lasses right into the middle of the 2010s and won nine England caps along the way, and Alderson now employs current lasses stopper, Claudia Moan, in her own coaching academy.
They, along with Sophie Halliday, Nat Gutteridge, Victoria Greenwell, and Sophie Williams would form a strong unit that would finish fifth in the WPL in 2009-2010 but were demoted for non-footballing reasons to Tier 2 as the WSL was formed at the end of that first campaign.
We then won Tier 2 three times in a row without readmittance into Tier 1, before eventually regaining their top-flight status by winning WSL2 in 2014, only to have this taken away from them in 2018 when Ellis Short and the FA combined to ensure our licence wasn’t renewed as the league went fully professional.
The 2009 Cup final is one of the proudest days in many Lasses fans’ lives and those of the players and their families too. It is one day where we got to showcase the amazing production line of talent that was emerging in our region – a production line that continues churning out young Lionesses now. It’s also a reminder of our status as the premier club in our great footballing region, one we’re battling hard to reestablish today.
Arsenal Ladies: Byrne, Bassett (White 90), Ludlow, Flaherty, Fahey, Little, Chapman, Ciara Grant, Yankey, Suzanne Grant (Lander 58), Davison (Ross 82).
Subs Not Used: Spencer, Pond.
Goals: Chapman 32’, Little 92’
Sunderland Ladies: Alderson, Bronze, Halliday, Bannon, Greenwell, McDougall, Staniforth, Stokes, Nobbs, Williams (Devine 58), Natalie Gutteridge (Danby 84)
Subs Not Used: Laws, O’Brien, Holmes
Goals: McDougall 97’