This last week, a combination of the FA and Birmingham City managed to steal Sunderland’s thunder by making public our club’s plans to stage both a men’s and women’s match on the same afternoon at the Stadium of Light.
I understand that this was not part of the plan, and probably wasn't the perfect start to a project that has great potential to transform the status and profile of SAFC Women within the club and the fanbase.
Nevertheless, the idea is bold and novel, it would be a first for the EFL and for the Barclay’s Women’s Championship. It’s clearly got a lot of potential, and news of it created a decent amount of positive reaction from the fanbase.
Wow! A Championship double header at the @StadiumOfLight on 27 August.— Roker Report - The Lasses (@RRLasses) August 3, 2022
⚽️12.30 #SAFC Men vs Norwich City
⚽️16.00 #SAFC Women vs Birmingham City
What a wonderful day of football for @SunderlandAFC @SAFCWomen it’s going to be! #HawayTheLads | #HawayTheLasses ❤️ https://t.co/YsViuVgvGA
Clearly, there’s a big and welcome upswing in interest in women’s football on the back of a successful Euro 2022 and, of course, the Lionesses bringing home England’s first major international football trophy in over half a century. It has been an amazing week, and our former Sunderland lasses have become household names and national treasures in the process.
The overall idea of Sunderland seeking to capitalise on the renewed interest in the women’s side of the game with a double-header was something we’d known about for a couple of months.
When we spoke with Alex Clark, the SAFC Women General Manager, back in May, he told us that this concept was being actively pursued and - despite the logistical challenges - this was how the club planned to ensure as many Sunderland fans as possible are introduced to the Lasses at the start of a big domestic season.
The day could be an absolute triumph and yet another watershed moment, but only if we do this properly. Sunderland, traditionally one of the strongest sides outside the “Big 4” in women’s football, will make one hell of a statement to the footballing world and are very likely to break the Tier 2 attendance record along the way.
Since Ellis Short’s abandonment of the women’s section of the club in 2017-18, Durham WFC have temporarily taken our mantel of the highest ranked and best-supported team in the region - this is a brilliant opportunity to restate the fact that we are indeed the most successful, biggest and best women’s football club north of Manchester.
Newcastle United, flush with energy and money following the Saudi takeover and with Amanda Stavely’s very public and very vocal backing, staged a stand-along Tier 4 women’s game at St James’ Park in front of over 20,000 at the end of last season. It would be great if we could match this attendance in this game.
Fully professional Birmingham will pose a stern challenge in the 4pm game - they were relegated from the WSL last term but caused the upset of the season when they beat Beth Mead and Leah Williamson’s Arsenal.
Yet we took them all the way to extra time in a cup match, a really exciting game that gave our side the confidence that they were able more than hold their own with WSL sides. If we were to beat them in front of a massive and vocal Stadium of Light crowd, who knows where the momentum might take the players this season.
But there’s a huge risk in this venture too; the risk that if the club and the fanbase don’t get this right, that the Sky cameras will be there to witness 30,000 fans leave between the two games and not reemerge to watch the women.
Only a month after Jill Scott, Lucy Bronze, Demi Stokes and Beth Mead and their wonderful England colleagues lifted the European Championship trophy in front of a record crowd for any Euros game - men’s or women’s - this scenario would reignite the (for now pretty much silent) ”nobody cares” narrative, within our fanbase at least.
It would also be grist to the mill of those inside and outside the club who I strongly suspect would, frankly, rather the Lasses didn’t demand any time, money or resources of the club at all, or at least should limit its ambitions to being a marginal extra, rather than an integral part of the future of Sunderland AFC as a business and a community institution.
Combining men’s and women’s games seems to work pretty well in T20 cricket - but that’s a sport where attending the stadium for a full day is a well-established part of the culture.
In rugby, experiments have been made and the results patchy - the ground has often emptied after the men’s game and on one occasion the corporate catering at Twickenham was served during the women’s match - meaning the posh seats were empty for the second game of the day.
Combat sports like boxing and UFC, and sports entertainment franchises like WWE, all showcase men and women to the same audiences - but their shows have always traditionally evening-long, multi-bout events rather than the single contest set-ups we have always had in our game.
In football, this idea has been tried elsewhere. Our resident Asian football expert Charlotte Patterson told me about a double-header in Japan that took place last year. Over two-thirds of the crowd left the ground in the two-hour gap between the men’s game finishing and the women’s game starting.
The 2012 Olympics had two-game set-ups in the football tournaments, and it did actually work pretty well. As a supporter, it was a long afternoon, but the venues were very much set up for this and it was a one-off event where you knew months in advance that you were paying to see two games in the same competition on one day.
The men’s fixture chosen for this event could hardly have been more challenging for the Lads, playing Alex Neil’s former side Norwich City, recently relegated from the Premier League and bolstered by renewed installments of parachute payments.
It shouldn’t matter, but it inevitably will matter; the mood in the stands come 2.30pm will hopefully be joyous and the crowd will be hungry to see more football and to keep the party going. But the odds in this game are unlikely to favour the home side heavily.
If the game goes the other way, however, it could be a pretty dejecting spectacle seeing tens of thousands of Sunderland fans walk out of the ground to go drown their sorrows - and as we understand it the Lasses will emerge onto the pitch to begin their warm up immediately after the Lads leave the field.
We might still break the attendance record for this level if two-thirds of the crowd do depart their seat never to return, but it will feel like a clear indication that for the vast, vast majority of Sunderland supporters simply don't care enough to stay and support the women’s section of their club.
If the men are successful, the next biggest challenge will be the gap between the games. A hiatus of up to 105 minutes presents a potential challenge, but also a huge opportunity. The club has at least an hour and a half where it needs to convince paying customers to stick about on their property before another game of football.
The options they chose to fill this time will be absolutely crucial to the success of the enterprise, regardless of the result of the men’s game. They need to make sure that people in the stands have something to see and/or do during the intermission, something exciting and unique that they - particularly the everyday men’s season ticket holders - will actively want to be involved in and experience.
The between-game programme could include a live Q&A with KLD and Juan Sartori, for example, perhaps with podcast host and commentator Frankie Francis having a chat for half an hour with the owners about their plans for the future of the whole club.
We’ve all been waiting for the chance to hear in detail what they have to say, and scheduling this for 3.15pm, and the whole “Podcast Live Show” concept is a well-developed format that shouldn’t be too costly to pull off.
It could be book ended with a couple of musical performances by famous local bands or artists, it could involve some fireworks, circus performers, and the Spirit of 37 flags - anything to keep people entertained. It could be lots of things, but it’s up the club to put the time, money and effort into making something special happen that will have the public enthralled from the very second the final whistle in the men’s match blows.
On the concourse, and indeed around the immediate perimeter of the ground, there could be special retail and catering options, with a bigger variety of beers and food on offer and pricing that makes staying and watching the Lasses at least as affordable as going back over the bridge to Wetherspoons or to the social club.
Extra provision should be made for families with young children - the amount of kids who’ve been at the Euro 2022 games is phenomenal and the day could and should be themed as a celebration of the whole football family coming together as one.
There will, of course, be those who can’t or won’t stay for the full afternoon, which is absolutely fine. There are also those who have purchased Eppleton CW season cards who were expecting to see the Birmingham City game on the Sunday, and these people should be allowed to attend the 4pm Saturday kick off - they have paid to see 11 home league games after all.
Birmingham City also have a loyal women’s fanbase, and we need to make sure that they are encouraged to attend, welcomed as our guests in the same way that we were at St Andrews in the FA Cup Fourth Round in January, and are given the opportunity to sit safely together in a dedicated section of the ground for both games if they so wish.
Over the next couple of weeks the whole of Sunderland AFC - the men’s setup, the women’s setup, both Head Coaches, both sets of players, the media teams and ticketing people, the retail side and the senior members of the club board, the Red & White Army and the BLC, fan media outlets, the press and the broadcasters... can all play our part in making the day a truly memorable, game-changing occasion for our club.
So the challenge is there. This is a highly ambitious project. It deserves to be backed wholeheartedly by KLD and Sartori. They have control of and responsibility for the whole of our club, not just the Lads.
We are one club - our club.