After a glorious summer of international football, the women’s domestic season gets back underway this Sunday. The River Wear derby at Durham’s Maiden Castle ground is the first of twenty two league fixtures in Sunderland’s Barclay’s Women’s Championship, and there’s going to be plenty of action and drama along the way.
I thought I’d give a bit of an overview of where I feel we stand - on and off the pitch - as the opening day approaches, as well as letting you know what you can expect from our Roker Report team this season too.
On the pitch and at the Academy
The Sunderland Women’s squad has come together nicely over the course of the last couple of months, after last year’s short preparation time, having a full window to build a robust and experienced roster that combines experienced heads with some of the best youngsters in England.
Durham’s switch to a full time model has been the catalyst for a string of movements between the two Wearside clubs. Older players with established careers outside of football - Abby Holmes, Nicki Gears and Danielle Brown - have chosen to combine their day jobs with Sunderland’s world-class training facilities, and Maltese youngster Maria Farrugia opting for the professional status available up the A690.
Two players have returned to the north east from Scotland to join the Lasses, local girl Tyler Dodds eventually rejoining after a season with Glasgow City and Brianna Westrup, the former Newcastle defender who captained Rangers to the SWPL title in May,
All in all, it looks like great business on the part of Mel Reay and General Manager Alex Clark. They’ve endeavoured to raise the average age of the squad to give us more steel and strength in depth, and the way that youngsters like Grace Ede, Libbi McInnes and Katy Watson came off the bench to add energy and dynamism in the second half against Forest last weekend may be a pattern we see repeated in the league.
Will we add one or two more player through the season? The new Under 23 squad includes some bright prospects who’ve played both locally up here like Daisy Stokoe and abroad like Monserrat Lomeli, a University student who was with Gateshead until recently.
We even saw Rhiannon Mallaburn, getting experience on the bench on Sunday. Who will coach this group of young reserves? That’s a big unanswered question, but we should expect more news on this in the coming weeks as the local Durham senior league gets underway.
On the coaching side, Mel Reay is now full time - meaning she will be at the Academy on a daily basis preparing things for the thrice-weekly evening training sessions. Steph Libbey is still ably supporting her and the club are also advertising for a full-time women’s goalkeeping coach.
The value of this position cannot be underestimated - since top-level dedicated goalkeeping coaches have become more prevalent in the WSL and elsewhere the standards have improved. Many female stoppers miss out on this specialist training in youth football, and the fact that Sunderland are taking it so seriously bodes very well for the continued development of Claudia Moan and Allison Cowling, as well as the youngsters at the club.
Off the pitch
The announcement of the arrangements for our first home game of the season - the double-header at the Stadium of Light a week on Sunday - was very welcome news this week and the fact that it met with such approval from the Sunderland faithful is very encouraging indeed.
I know that Alex Clark and others at the club have worked really hard to get the logistics of this event sorted, and everyone across the fanbase needs to pull together to make it a really successful day.
Media coverage of the Lasses games should increase this year in line with the general uptick in interest in women’s football after the Euros. We are aware that BBC Newcastle will be providing radio coverage of our games, and the club experimented with live streaming at the end of last season with a view to carrying home matches on the club’s YouTube channel.
We’ve not heard anything more from the club about this, but it will hopefully be in place for the first league game at Eppleton on 11 September.
The club’s official social media output is still... okay. Nothing flashy, nothing particularly interesting or innovative - just standard announcements and links to tickets and that’s about it.
The players seem to have increased their activity (on twitter at least), but I can’t help but feel that there’s a load more that could be done if the resources were put behind this aspect of promotion and marketing. But that’s pretty much the case across the whole of Sunderland AFC, it’s not unique to the Lasses.
Merchandise is, as yet, none existent. The Lasses were not involved in the Nike kit launch last month, and there’s as yet no word on if and when we will be able to buy a Women’s Championship-branded version.
Again, the lack of merch is in line with the general malaise in the retail operation at the club, but still disappointing when smaller operations across the division seem to be able to do what we haven’t. Perhaps this will drop in the coming few days, it would be a great boost ahead of the big day on 27th August.
The Championship Opposition
It’s really difficult to tell who the strongest sides in this year’s Barclay’s Women’s Championship will be. Everyone is talking about Crystal Palace, who announced their new look, WSL quality side in one go a couple of weeks ago and their fans seem confident that gelling a new bunch of girls together into a coherent title-contending outfit will be possible. Certainly Dean Davenport is a top manager and they will be hard to beat, but will they bother defending this season?
The ex-WSL sides, Bristol City and newly relegated Birmingham City, are both backed by men’s Championship clubs and will surely both be in contention. Bristol are a strong outfit, and have added Anita Asante to their backroom staff this summer who will bring the benefit of her long international career to what is already a pretty formidable setup at the Elite Performance Centre.
Birmingham could be a contender, but they were poor in the WSL and we gave them a hell of a fright in the cup. The quality of the Championship can shock teams, and it took Liverpool two attempts to get back to the top flight.
The top independent club last season was London City Lionesses (ex-Milwall, now owned by the wife of a crypto-baron), and they’re a real enigma - full time pros playing in front of one man and his dog at Dartford in Kent, but always really hard to beat and packed full of great talent. Nobody shouts about them, because, to be honest, very few people watch them play and they have no “natural” fanbase and no men’s club behind them. But I cannot see them keeping pace with the increasingly ambitious top sides in the division with Premier League.
The mid-ranking teams from last season are where Sunderland’s real competition lays as we seek to progress up the table by two or three places a season. The game against Durham will be a barometer of how much have we improved with our shrewd acquisitions, and how much have they progressed with their full-time model.
The games against our local rivals last year were lessons in the physical and technical standards that apply at this level, but it’s not out of the question that we can at least match them both on the day and across the season.
I see Sheffield United and perhaps Charlton Athletic as perhaps the teams we need to overcome and displace to make that step forward. Charlton are a funny one, they’ve taken Sheffield United’s big young star, Lucy Watson, on loan from her new club - the English champions Chelsea. They benefit from proximity to the rest of the capital’s big team but they are also the only side backed by a men’s League One club that has struggled to become sustainable.
The Blades will play all their games at Bramall Lane, and will be hoping that the magic of the Euro 2022 semi final will rub off on the players and public in that great footballing city. Neil Redfern allowed a lot of players to go over the summer, particularly those in pursuit of full time contracts, and as a side also backed by a men’s Championship club and with whom the Lasses had some classic encounters in league and cup last year, finishing above them in the table will probably count as success.
Lewes, otherwise known as Equality FC, is my other favourite team in the league. They’re simply lovely people, with a great ethos, a brilliant way of running a club and the kind of innovative, entrepreneurial spirit that every side across the whole of English football could learn from. Alas, the professionalisation and off-field technical advances of other clubs might, and competition from other sides on the south coast - particularly Southampton - might mean they slip back this season.
The Saints are possibly the hardest team to read. It should be a big leap up in quality as the promoted side, but they’re a full-time professional team with Premier League money in the background and Premier League facilities. They made it to Tier 2 the hard way, through the National League Playoff, and have signed league legend Katie Wilkinson from ailing Coventry United. I expect them to do more than consolidate, they’re the dark horses of this division and could shock some of the big names and established sides.
Then there are the teams we might expect to struggle. Blackburn do have the proximity to Manchester and Liverpool which allows them to bring in youngsters on duel-registrations, but in general their squad and whole setup always seems somewhat neglected by the rest of their club - and the pitch at Bamber Bridge is notoriously awful. But they’ve still got one or two experienced players who will likely ensure that they pick up enough points against some of the other lower and mid-ranking sides to be safe from that single relegation spot.
Minnows Coventry United have had a slow summer, and have only just started signing plyers. They survived in the final seconds of the season with the wonder goal of all wonder goals after the fairytale great escape following their near liquidation and ten point deduction.
A switch to part time is absolutely the right move for a small, independent team with a well-meaning owner of comparatively limited means, but this has meant an exodus of players to clubs above and below them in the pyramid. Although they have hired experienced boss Lee Birch, unfortunately it’s difficult not to think that picking up points in a division where the levels of quality have taken another huge leap forward will be neigh-on impossible.
Roker Report’s coverage
Finally, there’s what you can expect from us.
We’ll be running our weekly Live Twitter Spaces on Mondays with Katie, Ant and the gang, plus podcasts on the Roker Report - The Lasses feed with interesting interviews with former players, writers and figures from the women’s game in the north east.
On Roker Report you’ll get top quality analysis from Charlotte, matchday musings from Ant and Graham, opinion pieces from our young writer Amelia, Katie’s superfan insights, Chris will be offering his views, and the usual rantings on matters across the women’s game from me.
All in all, it’s going to be a great season. I can’t wait for it all to get properly started.