RR: The first part of our interview ended with a discussion of attendances. There isn’t anything particularly different about people in Sunland when it comes to women’s football and location is huge issue for all the Championship clubs, especially those that play outside of the main urban area that they represent.
But, another thing is leadership.
Don’t get me started on the whole Newcastle ownership issue, but their owners came in and they have been very vocal in support of their women’s team who obviously play regional football down in the National League.
We are yet to see Kyril Louis Dreyfus or Juan Sartori at a Lasses match, whereas Amanda Staveley is all over the media promoting their women’s team.
Some of our fans are concerned, probably including all of us in some ways in the Roker Report group, that the Lasses will always be an afterthought for the club.
And so we just wanted your view on how committed, from your meetings, the board see the business growth opportunity in women’s football?
AC: Yeah, they are massively committed. It was under this Sporting Directors and Kyril that the application was done so we were able to join the Championship. Obviously, we’ve hosted the Lionesses’ game at the Stadium. It’s difficult when they live out of the country, but, Igor was back over recently.
I think if you look at day-to-day in the Academy, there’s a real sense of the women’s team are now our team at the club. I think if you back only a few years ago and the team were trained out of Bullocksteads and things like that.
Everyone’s now in the same building, Alex Neil comes and asks how, how the team’s done, “I seen your result of the weekend” and that, and that’s great that the the first team manager’s doing that.
I think when Lee Johnson was in, he, he invited Mel and all the staff in to do, a day in the life, sort of how he ran a match day, which was invaluable for the staff. The staff that work across the men’s section actively give up to their staff members to come and support the women’s team.
And whether that be ticket office, staff, media staff, Steve the kitman printing us extra shirts, things like that, there’s a real togetherness.
And then if, if board level with, with, uh, Steve Davidson and Kristian Speakman are fully on board. Steve’s regularly regular at the games, massive supporter of the team, and yeah, everyone’s really behind the team and, and we’re just all trying to move together really, it is that “one club”.
RR: Yeah, to be fair, it is really evident. And I’ve, I’ve seen Steve,at Eppleton as well, he’s a familiar face amongst the crowd there. That is good to see, and it’s good to know that the guy in charge of the commercial side is seeing what it’s like as an ordinary punter at Eppleton. And hopefully that helps to drive investments in the matchday experience as well.
So Igor Levin - a man with a lot of experience in the game at Marseilles - was given the Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion lead, which was a request from Red & White army to the board.
What’s his role in relation to SAFC women? And how does it kind of interact with your role and that on the football side with Kristjaan Speakman?
AC: So, yeah, Igor one of the directors both of Sunderland AFC as a whole but also of the women’s team in particular. So basically the way it works, the board directors then give executive control to Steve and Kritjaan, Steve essentially manages the business, and Kristjaan the football operations.
And then through that, Kristjaan gives me elements of control to work and to run the women’s team. So Kristjaan and I work very closely together on a lot of things.
Obviously, he heads up the football side, and my role, if you like, is very similar to Louis Dickman, who’s the Academy manager. We feed into Kristjaan around our different areas of the football club in terms of the football side.
RR: Right. So Kristjaaan, his role working with Mel and Steph and the other coaches on developing the players and the tactics, and recruitment and stuff like that?
AC: So Kristjaan kind of over oversees it, and then underneath Kristjaan is Stuart English who is head of coaching. Stuart leads on all coaching matters for the club, whether that be first team, academy, or women’s, it’s kind of all in the domain model that we have set up.
Stuart is kind of the one from the coaching side, then Kristjaan sits above Stuart and kind of forms around football strategy, and then we kind of all funnel into Kristjaan that way.
RR: You mentioned as part of the strategy is around data and analytics, and you also mentioned in the strategy is recruitment.
Obviously, recruitment is very different, you’re working with a pool of potential new recruits, I guess, this summer who mainly be around the north east. When we’ve spoken to Mel in the past, she’s been quite frank about, the fact that if we can’t offer professional contracts, we can’t attract players really from outside of the north east of England, or at least those with roots up here.
So, what does recruitment look like? How do the recruitment team at the club and the analytics department feed into what’s gonna be coming up over the summer?
AC: Yeah, so we obviously have quite big analytics team headed up by James Young. James is a relatively new hire, been here for a year or so, and we have access pretty much to everything that the men’s first team would have in terms of WhyScout reports, OPTA data, GPS data, things like that. Well, GPS from our internal point of view. So it all kind of fits together.
In terms of myself, I’m given a budget from the board, I then control that budget, I liaise with Mel and Steph around their targets where they think there are needs in the team, where they’re looking to progress in certain areas. And then from there, we then have access, to the recruitment department, to the analysis department, and we can get that kind of raw data to back up essentially what Mel and Steph are seeing with their eyes.
I think Mel and Steph have a vast, vast knowledge of the women’s game and in particular, the north east women’s game, so they kind of have an idea already of what they need, what they want, who might be available, who they might be interested in, and then they link in with the other departments to almost confirm what they already know.
So again, it’s all linked in through the domains.
RR: So it’s interesting that there’s a real clear kind of mirroring of the way recruitment works on the men’s side in that approach.
Another way the women’s side is starting to mirror the men’s side of the club is in the creation of a new Under 23 squad, which has been out there for a little while, adverts have been going out inviting people to put themselves forward for that squad. How’s that going?
Crucially, one big question I think lots of our readers and listeners have asked is what league are they going to be playing in?
AC: Yeah, so the under 23’s has basically been born out of a need really for the RTG stopping at under 16, and then the first team got promoted to the Championship.
Obviously, we have the likes of Grace [Ede], Katie [Watson], and Daisy [Burt] coming through, and doing fantastically, but it’s quite a big jump as I’m sure you can appreciate.
So we really needed something to bridge that gap between the RTC finishing and then coming into tier two. First of all, in terms of the league, is that we are looking to apply to is the Durham County FA women’s league. So we’ve submitted an application, and then it needs to be ratified by the member clubs at the AGM, which I’ll be attending in June.
So the basis of this really is that that’s kind of the entry-level for the pyramid. You’ve got to start the bottom and work your way up. The other option was the National League Reserve League, and we just felt on balance that it was probably best to go down the route that we’ve chosen because points matter to teams, you look to progress, you look and get promoted. It’s an opportunity to play women’s football, and it’s an opportunity to work your way up through the north east regional women’s leagues, and then so on and so forth.
We also see that there’ll be a number of showpiece games, so the team will enter the Durham County Cup, hopefully, all be well at the AGM as well, where, some of the higher-level teams enter; so your Chester-le-Streets and Nortons, [Durham] Cestria, teams like that.
And then we also plan as well to get a series of showcase games in against a variety of sides, whether it’s college sides, university sides, or WSL academy sides as well.
The team will train at the same time as the women’s first team, and then there’ll be a real crossover in terms of training, and then there’s an opportunity for those under 23 players to progress and then potentially get involved in a first-team matchday squad as well.
RR: Are they going to be playing at Eppleton, or another ground set up for fans to go and watch?
AC: Yeah. So they’ll, they’ll train and they’ll play at the Academy of Light, because we are predicting that there will be scheduling clashes as well in terms of when we, the first team kick-off and the Under 23s kickoff.
But there is a view as well to also get the team to play at Eppleton wherever possible, to allow to allow fans to come and watch.But the, the starting pointis that it’ll be the Academy is the predominant home ground, because obviously we need to protect net’s pitch as well in terms of the [men’s] Under 23s and the women’s team playing there, because we have had a few Sunday and Mondays back to back. But, yeah, we wanna make it accessible for fans to come and watch as well.
RR: You mentioned that they’re gonna be going into the Durham county women’s league. I was just wondering, is that League One or is that the Development Division?
AC: So that’s again for the member clubs at the AGM. Obviously we would like to go in as high as possible, it’s essentially a vote at the AGM, so it, it’s not possible to say at the minute, but hopefully, in June I’ll know more.
RR: So, that’s, that’s really interesting Obviously there’s loads of areas off the pitch and on the pitch that are developing but we are all fans, we call come to Eppleton, and we all want to show our support for the club.
When we’ve been to other grounds in the Championship this season and we’ve probably all experienced different things at the different clubs.
You go to somewhere like Durham and you can buy shirts, you can buy scarves, you can buy physical programs that you can take home and read, and pass on to the kids.
What are the plan to increase the merchandise that’s available for fans?
AC: Yeah, so the, the merchandise point, I’m working closely with Lindsay Douglas at the club who heads up our retail. So for new season we now have women’s fit shirts, which the club haven’t had in a while. So I think that’s a positive, positive step forward.
RR: Will they have all the Women’s Championship branding on them and stuff?
AC: So we’re looking into this, we are looking at the possibility of having merchandised ladies shirts, whether that be some form of online ordering and then kind of a click and collect if you like, or on a match day.
It’s kind of a conversation that me and Lindsay have flagged to one another that’ll develop over the summer once the playoffs have finished, to basically establish a plan.
There is an appetite there to have sort of women’s specific merchandise, and we are looking to see if we can do something on that. Where it becomes slightly difficult is that, in terms of the women’s branding on the shirt, if you think if you had small, medium, large, and men, small, medium, large in women’s, it’s just then we need to get the stock levels, right in terms of, of what we’re carrying.
But we’re confident these minor issues can be overcome and we should have a better offering for next season.
RR: One of the areas that we really all want to see an improvement is in the coverage that’s available. The streaming on Sunday was a lot better than not being able to watch the match, from my perspective. It was really good, but with no commentary.
Obviously there was the BBC Radio Newcastle commentary. What are your plans for maintaining and increasing the coverage the Lasses get?
AC: In terms of the streaming, we did a test on Sunday. It worked really well. The view is for that to continue next season with commentary, as long as we can monetise the stream. So then we’re looking basically to keep the price point free for fans, we really want the women’s team to be accessible for all.
I’m pretty confident, because there’s a lot of sponsorship and adverts we can sell on the stream. I’m pretty sure that we’ll be able to achieve that and that’s something hopefully, that will be able to continue next season. I haven’t heard that there have been any technical issues to the contrary. So fingers crossed on that one.
In terms of the lack of coverage, I think at the start the season we kind of had a model where all in the media department would work on the women’s game and then quickly it became apparent that that wasn’t working as well. So we now have one of the media team that no longer goes to first-team games and is a dedicated resource for the Under 23 men and also the women’s team.
So I think you’ll probably have seen an improvement, I’d hope, in the coverage sort of in the latter part of the season as we identified some things weren’t working as well, with a long term aim of then getting an extra member of staff in for the media department to work solely on sort of women’s media and marketing, in the sort of short to medium-term.
RR: One the thing that if anything’s gained the most traction in our increase in coverage that we’ve been trying to do all season is when we look back at our history in women’s football.
I wanted to know what the club, if anything, is going to try and do to celebrate that history because it’s a big part of what Sunderland Women’s fans are proud of is what we’ve achieved?
AC: Yeah, so to be honest at, at the moment, I’ve been fully, fully focused on, on this season and completing it.
But now that we’ve had the opportunity to draw breath, it’s something certainly to look at in the future. The club’s got the Former Players Association, so I’m to get the opportunity to speak to them and kind of build from there really - everything in line with the one club approach.
I think there’s, as you rightly say, a massive history and also a massive opportunity as well, to utilise these people as ambassadors for the club and for the team.
So it’s definitely something on the radar, just something that we haven’t had the opportunity to, to focus on at the moment.
RR: On a personal note, has anything surprised you this season? What’s been your highlight of the season? Have there been any lows for you? And your view of the season overall...
AC: I think it’s, it’s, it’s cliche to say, but I think it, has been a rollercoaster. I think the definite highlight for me was Charlton away. That was my first win in the role.
It was one of those games where the pitch was soaking with water wound show. It was gonna get played and the lasses just kind of rolled the sleeves up and got on with it and dug out a really good win. So I think that was definitely the highlight.
I think I’ve described it in some quarters as an enjoyable slog, it’s been a lot of hard work, it’s been a lot of challenges. I think hopefully now we’re in a lot better place than where we were in September. It now gives us the opportunity in pre-season and the off season to properly plan, properly get things in place, and be a bit more proactive rather than reactive.
But I think surprising the surprising thing is just being without doubt the application of the staff and the players. I generally don’t think it could meet a harder working group of people, and the collectiveness they’ve all got together. It’s just, just fantastic really.
I think one of the main things is that we want to be, I’ve talked lot about financially sustainable, but want to be sustainable within our position. So when we are up at the top of the league and when we are in the Super League, hopefully, we stay there.
No one wants a repeat of what’s happened in the years, gone by, not through sport and merit. But we very much want to ensure that our position is cemented.
RR: That sustainability is important, we don’t want a repeat of what what’s happened in the past, because for us as Sunderland fans, we’ve had our hearts broken at least three times.
So I am glad that I can be excited about the future. I think that’s something this season on a personal note it’s just been class to just be really excited about the future again. So thank you for everything that you’ve done personally to put us in a spot that fans can be hopeful again, and you’ve gone out of your way for a lot of people.
And for this team to finish where we’re finished, break our points target, it’s been amazing. I think it’s been a truly remarkable season considering the squad with an average age of about 20, it’s been absolutely brilliant.
AC: No, I appreciate that. I think the average age of 21 and the average age of a Championship side is 24. So it just shows the room for growth amongst the team.
RR: I just wanna say thank you very much for coming on the Twitter Space, Alex.
AC: No, you’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
Well, that was a bit epic!— Roker Report - The Lasses (@RRLasses) May 3, 2022
Massive thanks to Alex Clark, General Manager of @SAFCWomen for his full and honest answers to our questions.
The recording is there now and has everything a Lasses fan needs to know about the future of our team.#HawayTheLasses | #SAFC ❤️ https://t.co/4pyBE22bSb