Recent weeks have been an incredible time for Sunderland fans, and the good times continue to roll as Sunderland Women have announced the news of two new signings.
With the Lasses being one of only a few remaining part-time sides in the newly rebranded Barclays Women’s Championship, the question on the forefront of fans' minds has been where we could get players from.
Geographically and financially, Sunderland have struggled to entice players from other clubs. However, due to the promotion of Sunderland’s men to the EFL Championship and some news coming out around our neighbours down the A690, the Lasses have been able to add some much-needed experience and depth to the side.
— Durham Women FC (@DurhamWFC) June 9, 2022
Durham Women FC are set to take their next step ahead of the 2022/23 season - and will be transitioning to a full-time training model.
On Thursday morning, Durham Women announced that they were transitioning to a full-time model for the commencement of the 22/23 Championship season and in doing so, would say goodbye to players who could not commit to the new model due to their own external careers.
As soon as the news dropped, the speculation began and we started to surmise which players could potentially be available to us. By the afternoon, it was announced that we had in fact signed 29-year-old forward and winger Nicki Gears and ex-Sunderland defender Abby Holmes from the Wildcats.
Undoubtedly two brilliant acquisitions in areas where we needed to strengthen the squad and, two players who have plenty of experience playing at this level.
So, I’ve taken a look at what it means for the squad, their strengths, and what we can expect from them this season.
Gears is a brilliant signing. She’s been with Durham pretty much since their inception in 2014/2015 and has grown year on year. Unfortunately, she missed quite a lot of last season due to injury, but without a shadow of a doubt, we have a talented player on our hands.
We’ve been looking to add to our attacking impetuous and we have that with Gears as she can play right wing, attacking midfield, or upfront as a striker. The fact she has been given the number 9, suggests it is the latter position that she will play for us, perhaps with Emily Scarr at right wing, Abbey Joice as attacking midfielder, and Grace Ede or Holly Manders on the left wing.
I know a lot of Durham fans were sad to see her go, feeling that she still had a lot to give after being with the club for so many years. Unfortunately for Gears, she has had her career side-lined at times through injury and is currently working hard to get back to full fitness.
It is unclear just how long Gears has left in her recovery, but hopefully, she will be ready to go at the start of the season.
She’s always a dynamic and energetic presence in the final third; whilst she has been played at attacking midfield and centre-forward, she has been mostly used on the right wing, where she is allowed to cover not only her own channel but also the opposite side, as well as cut inside and play through the middle on occasion.
She prefers to cut in from the right side and drive at opponents from outside the edge of the box, normally receiving the ball on the wing or edge of the box, gradually shifting inside, dropping the shoulder and then waiting for the defender to make the first move, before either striking the ball towards the goal or laying it off for an onrushing teammate.
Her boldness and vitality are balanced by the methodical quality of her actions and decisions. Of course, there has been a roughness about her play upon her return this season, which stems from her time out due to injury and reintegration into the team, but she is unmistakably someone who is keen to make the most of her abilities and opportunities.
I envisage Gears adopting the role of a ‘false nine’ after being allocated the number nine shirt by Sunderland, as she is comfortable dropping deep to receive the ball or make herself an option.
She is more comfortable occupying defenders and bringing teammates into the game than simply waiting for the ball to come to her, offering different avenues and outlets for transition. Her deft mobility isn’t limited to the penalty area; she can switch between pinning defenders by threatening to attack the goal and peeling away from the defensive line to connect with teammates.
Opposing centre-backs are troubled by this movement. If they accompany her, they leave a space in the defensive line through which an attacker can slip through, and Gears will have enough time to receive the ball and turn if they maintain their position.
She has the ability to be dangerous in either circumstance. She can play a one-touch pass into the path of a teammate and expose the unsettled defence if she pulls a defender with her, or has the capacity to slide a teammate into the area behind the defence if the defender stays in their position.
The 29-year-old appears to be highly aware of her abilities and limitations. She has had time to reflect on her game, most likely as a result of her extended time away due to injury. She doesn’t take many touches, preferring to move the ball with her first touch wherever possible to help her team’s midfielders shift the point of attack. Abbey Joice, Emily Scarr, and Grace Ede, Sunderland’s dynamic wide and offensive midfielders, rely on this role to produce rapid counter-attacking opportunities.
On defence, Gears does not shirk her duties and is energetic in the press, which will work with Reay’s playing style, tactics, and structure.
Average stats over 19/20 and 20/21 seasons
- 29 Appearances
- Total Actions - 63.26
- Goals - 3
- Assists - 2
- Shots - 2.08
- Passes - 19.58
- Crosses - 3.69
- Dribbles - 5.22
- Duels - 27.24
- Aerial Duels - 3.14
- Interceptions - 4.06
- Recoveries - 4.2
Abby Holmes is returning to Sunderland having played for us between 2014 and 2017. She then went on to sign for Dutch side PEC Zwolle before returning to the northeast of England, playing with Durham for the last three seasons in tier 2.
Holmes is incredibly experienced, which can only benefit what is a largely young squad we have, she typically played at left-back for the wildcats but was flexible enough to play right-back and centre-back. I think having someone of her calibre alongside Grace McCatty can only sure things up at the back for us; she played in 20 matches last season for Durham, scoring two in a home victory against Blackburn.
Her defensive intelligence is fantastic; Holmes is generally aware of her surroundings, showing great vision and scanning to read the game and is attentive to opponents and their actions around her, whether that is playing at centre-back or left-back.
Her calm demeanour is evident in her performances. She rarely rushes her decisions or actions, and she handles a variety of situations gracefully. She also has impeccable timing when it comes to making a play for the ball, is difficult to defeat one-on-one, and is adept at intercepting deliveries into the penalty area.
Despite her short stature, Holmes possesses a strong core and maximises her mobility. When she pushes herself between the ball and the player to strip the carrier of possession, her muscular physique holds her own in aerial duels and is difficult to dislodge when she has the ball. She can dominate in close quarters using anticipation, speed, and strength.
Her attacking abilities have improved as a result of her shift to left-back for Durham. Holmes is dynamic and dangerous attacking the final third from a deeper position Her intelligence, and speed shines, she can get to the by-line with direct overlaps or attack inside channels with savvy runs that penetrate defensive lines, all while being difficult to track due to the timing and intensity of her moves.
She carries the ball into space well, which is why she benefits from playing deeper and is critical in the build-up and transition periods, protecting the ball from oncoming opponents with her strong stature.
She has developed a terrific awareness of space in the midfield. She can easily adjust between wide and deep positions, as well as present herself as a threat via the inner channels.
Holmes’ dribbling ability is good, she’s able to weave around opposition lines at high speeds while maintaining control. She has acceleration, directness, a variable weight of touch, an ability to time forward touches just as opponents commit to challenge her, and good usage of both feet.
All in all, Abby Holmes is a brilliant signing and many Sunderland supporters will be over the moon to have a player who was with us through our WSL years back at Eppleton.
Average stats over 21/22 season
- 20 Appearances
- Total Actions - 62.04
- Goals - 2
- Shots - 0.95
- Passes - 27.52
- Long Passes - 3.61
- Crosses - 2.72
- Dribbles - 4.73
- Duels - 24.9
- Aerial Duels - 4.61
- Interceptions - 5.28
- Recoveries - 7.73