Sunderland AFC’s women’s football set-up has one of the best records of any club ever to play in Tier 2 of the pyramid - winning that national level in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 before eventually making it to the Women’s Super League. Readmittance to the WSL structures came a year ago today and marked a milestone in the rejuvenation of our club.
In 2018, after three years in the top flight, Ellis Short and Martin Bain’s wrecking job almost destroyed nigh-on three decades of progress. Their abandonment of a flourishing side for the sake of a couple of months of Papy Djilobodji’s wages and a few sessions in the cryo chamber - their disregard for the work done by countless players, coaches, parents, and supporters to establish a club that had produced a fair chunk of the England squad - was one of the most unedifying and shameless episodes in Sunderland AFC’s 150-year history.
As the FA admitted Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur into WSL2, we were forced down to the third tier, playing regional football for the first time since the 2000s.
The Madrox regime did attempt to appeal the demotion, but this was always going to be unsuccessful with the authorities happy to see more of the Premier League clubs entering the WSL.
Some players left, rightly seeing no future with us and wanting to continue their careers as professionals with more ambitious clubs. Others like Keira Ramshaw stuck with us, mainly through blind loyalty to the shirt and the badge, determined to help us to regain our status amongst the elite.
Mel Reay remained, committed to the club she’d played for in the early 2000s, and that had given her the chance to develop young players in tandem with her day job at Gateshead College.
Over three years, Sunderland established itself as the best side in the north of England outside the WSL structures. In season 2018-19, Blackburn Rovers won the league and promotion at a canter, but we beat them along the way.
In 2019-20 we were way clear at the top of the division when covid-19 struck and the FA decided that all football below tier two would be declared null and void. The same happened again in 2020-21, leaving a huge unanswered question about which teams would progress up the pyramid.
But that period of pain and sense of abandonment by the club came to an end a year ago today, when the FA approved our application along with that of Watford, to step up from the National League Premier Divisions into the Women’s Championship, and rejoin the likes of Liverpool and Bristol City - teams we’d previously competed against in the WSL.
The application had to be rushed in after the Kyril Louis-Dreyfus took control of the club, and upon the announcement, Sunderland’s Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman told the club’s website how the application had come about:
We are delighted to have been awarded FA Women’s Championship status and we thank the FA panel for approving our application.
This success is a testament to Leann Cowperthwaite, who project managed the submission, and to the collaboration between our football and business operations, who produced a detailed proposal despite facing a quick turnaround.
It also represents a tangible reward for Mel and the team for their stellar record over the past 24 months and we now look forward to delivering on our plan and building our infrastructure to support the players and staff during the upcoming campaign.
We know what happened next... Mel Reay recruited a few trusted players with WSL experience under their belts, and her young side managed to reestablish the club in Tier 2, pulling off some fantastic results including the 1-4 win at Sheffield United, beating Liverpool on penalties in the Conti Cup, and taking Birmingham to extra time in the FA Cup.
And there’s more to come next season with the whole-club season card and the prospect of a double-header with the Lads at the Stadium of Light.