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The Lionesses Lift The UEFA Women’s Euro Trophy In Victory Celebration For Fans

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Opinion: We've celebrated Sunderland's Lionesses, now the hard work starts

What a weekend that was, one that will be remembered for decades to come. Now it's everyone's job to bring the momentum from Sunday's celebrations into the domestic game.

Photo by Lynne Cameron - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

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What a month, what a weekend, what a 120 minutes plus stoppage time. We've had an absolute ball, and it's amazing that so many people have joined us for the ride.

There were three Roker Reporters amongst the 87,000 at Wembley along with our respective loved ones, plus numerous other Sunderland fans and former Sunderland players in the crowd.

Brett took his daughter Millie, while poorly Chloe watched from home on the TV. My dad, my son, my nephew and I met up at Kings Cross and had an amazing, truly memorable day together. And, as I write, Katie was last spotted grabbing a selfie with Jermain Defoe having attended the celebrations in Trafalgar Square on Monday lunchtime... she may not surface for anther few days.

On the train back into Euston after the game, I stood talking to three women who happened to be from the north east - one sporting a red and white striped 1937 FA Cup final shirt. They and everyone else everyone else was buzzing from what they had just witnessed, stunned by being there as a proper bit of football history was made.

A fan holds an England flag with the message “I love (... Photo by Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

It seemed that every second person in London had an England shirt on and flag wrapped around their shoulder on Sunday night, and on the painfully long journey back home on Monday morning I had numerous conversations with people who had never watched women's football - or any football - yet had been switched on to the game over the courses of the Euros and were now eager to see more.

Tens of thousands of Sunderland supporters will have watched our former players Lucy Bronze, Jill Scott, Demi Stokes and, of course, Player of the Tournament and Golden Boot winner Beth Mead lift the beautiful European Championship trophy on the TV, part of the more than 20 million who viewed the game on BBC platforms.

Capitalising on this unique moment in time, building from this peak of interest, capturing the imagination, is now our task as a football community. This community is made up of the player, partners, parents, fans, coaches, referees, administrator, sponsors, and media who since the revival of the sport in 1971 and in the dark days before that, have all played their small part in getting England to the point of winning this competition.

England v Germany: Final - UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

The national media have chosen to focus on the crucial task of further building public interest in the WSL - the BBC and Sky have the broadcast rights to this league and therefore will push it, rightly, as the place where you can see these new national heroes week-in-week-out.

Crowds in the tens of thousands will, we hope, be a regular feature in the top flight, but in the Championship and National League, where the clubs from outside the Metropolitan areas of London and Manchester are based, need to build too.

For a club like Sunderland, whose status as a top-level women's side has always been precariously dependent upon the patchy interest (or lack thereof) from our various owners from Bob Murray to KLD, the attitudes of those in charge are now crucial.

Right now we have a proper structure in place, and a Head Coach, some real leadership and ambition from right at the top is absolutely crucial for us to get big numbers watching and challenge for a place at the top table once again.

Sunderland Ladies v Leeds United Ladies - FA Women’s Premier League Cup Final Photo by Pete Norton - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

This is not impossible. Only 12 clubs make up the WSL, and only one side per season has the chance of promotion into that league. Most senior women's football is played away from that spotlight, yet the interest in going to games absolutely plain to see.

Newcastle United in Tier 4 got over 20,000 into St James' for a game against Alnwick in May. Championship side Sheffield United and Bristol City have had thousands through the gates, other big clubs like Tier 2 newbies Southampton and Wolves and Nottingham Forest in Tier 3 are pushing hard to be in the next batch of fully professional sides and grow their crowds. Portsmouth (Tier 4) got over 3,000 through the gates for a friendly last week.

Sunderland's target for this season - to increase average attendances at Eppleton from 600 to 700. Given what's just happened, this seems meagre at best. The traumatic fall from grace we experienced in 2018 means that "sustainability" is rightly the watchword from the club, and there's been some wonderful work done by Alex Clark since he came into the General Manager position less than 12 months ago.

Sunderland v Sheffield United: FA Women’s Championship Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

But sensible and carefully future planning cannot be mistaken for conservatism. This is no time to be cautious. It's a time for optimism.

I have banged this drum over and over, like the Lionesses crowd counting down the beats before the decisive corner was sent into the box in extra time. Women's football can and should no longer be a marginal add on to the main job of football clubs and football authorities.

It is central, absolutely crucial, for the future development of our game overall and to the business models of progressive football clubs like Sunderland AFC.

How can they do this? Well, words matter, and so do actions. After Sunday, no longer can or will "England" automatically mean the men's national team. The same has to go for our club sides too.

Go on the Arsenal FC website and you can chose from Men, Women, Academy and Club news. We need to "add the M" into how we talk about the two halves of our game. Each different, each with its own proud history, intertwined but distinct, and each deserving of the respect of everyone in the game.

On the club section of SAFC.com the men's senior side is the named as the "First Team" - SAFC Women (itself a well-overdue rebranding) is listed after the men's Under 18s and the Board members. The last on the list.

This is a small but indicative thing, I don't want to hammer the club for these kinds of details. Yet the message the club conveys on its public platforms is absolutely vital to harnessing the interest from this summer and converting it into people going to watch Sunderland in the Barclay's Women's Championship every week.

Our Lasses are a combination of loyal servants, returning heroes, and some of the best young players in England. They deserve to be placed alongside the Lads in everything the club does, and promoted with them as integral to what it means to be Sunderland AFC.

I won't sugar coat things - sometimes covering the Lasses and women's football in general feels like a lonely and thankless task, one where the next pile-on is just around the corner. We're a lonely voice - the only outlet that gives serious time and energy to the Lasses.

The knowledge that the players and their families see, hear and read what we at Roker Report do and appreciate our promotion of them to the wider Sunderland fanbase is what sustains us.

The deafening indifference of the majority - even within the ranks of this publication - has been disheartening at times, but I really think a change has occurred and that more will now join the bandwagon. Those of us who’ve followed the Lasses and the Lionesses for years will welcome you into the fold with open arms - we want new people to get involved.

Last summer, when Red & White Army passed a motion at the AGM to support the establishment of an independent Supporters Group for SAFC Women fans, we hoped that a group of enthusiasts would come forward. I know from Chris Waters that the club actively wants this to happen, they want a group to engage with and work on new ideas for the club and for Eppleton CW.

Alas, nobody to date has put their hand up. It has dropped off the agenda entirely. Nobody in the north east has been willing or able to do this work, so there's a wonderful opportunity sitting there for newly enthused supporters to play a massive role in the development of our club.

As for the senior leadership at Sunderland AFC - it's now time for them to step up and make their support for the future of the women's half of our club clear, obvious and loud. It will take a relatively small amount of time and money to make a huge difference over the next couple of years.

We have trumped, quite rightly, the part that our club and our region has played in the careers to some of the biggest stars of the Lionesses’ historic win. But we also can’t over look the fact that each and every one of them, and Steph Houghton, Jordan Nobbs and Lucy Staniforth who all didn’t make the Lionesses squad due to injury, has had to leave Wearside to progress their career.

England Women Camp - FIFA Women’s World Cup Qualifiers Photo by Lynne Cameron - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

For talented young footballers Neve Herron, Libbi McInnes, Jessica Brown, and Grace Ede - their potential future as Lionesses can and should go alongside a well-paid professional career at Sunderland AFC. They should not have to move to Liverpool or London, let lone Louisiana or Lyon, to reach the top of the sport. We should be providing them with that option right here in the north east in the years to come.

There are ways and means for the club to show its intent to the sporting public of the region. Perhaps there's a really big name player we could tempt up north to spearhead our campaign to get back in the WSL over the next couple of years, but how would that fit with the "grow your own' model of sustainability planned by the club?

Perhaps there's a really interesting, innovative and outward looking marketing campaign planned that might seek to engage the new people who've never been to women's football but are now thirsty for more following the success of Euro 2022. Perhaps we might see KLD meeting his newly assembled squad at the Birmingham City match on 28th August at Eppleton.

Sunderland Ladies v Durham Women - FA Women’s Championship Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

But there's only so much the club can say and do if we are not willing to act ourselves. There's a really simple way for you to play your part in building a bigger and brighter future for Sunderland AFC Women. It needs you to go to see the Lasses play this season if you can. Use that benefit of the season card and spend a Sunday afternoon with your family and friends in Hetton-le-Hole, or get yourself an Eppleton season card.

If you're not in the north east, watch them on the live YouTube stream the club has planned for home games or on the FA Player, or go to an away game near you. Every extra person who attends can then bring a friend or a family member next time. And we keep building this game together. This is the sustainable root - one that involves the investment of time and resources from fans and club alike.

I promise that the returns on this investment will be great.

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