This weekend the Lads are on a break for the men’s internationals, but the Lasses play their first game of the season at Eppleton CW against Charlton Athletic in the FA Barclay’s Women’s Championship and I know that they would be buzzing if as many people as possible showed up.
As an added bonus, it is really affordable to attend, so grab some tickets or put Stadium of Light season cards to good use and join the die-hard regulars tomorrow morning (11.30am KO).
The Lasses, I’m told, prefer to play at their proper home in Hetton rather than in the vast bowl of the Stadium of Light. It’s a small ground with one turnstile, a little bit of covered seating and pitch-side standing. When there’s a good crowd in there, it produces a great atmosphere that the team thrives off.
We all get some of the reasons why many people might be able to get to the women’s matches too regularly. The kick off time is ridiculous and clashes with grassroots kids and men’s Sunday league football. It’s too far out of the way down in Hetton. The parking is a bit of a faff. The public transport links, especially on a Sunday aren’t the best. There’s no print programme on sale let alone any merch.
But the football is great. I can’t emphasise this enough - the Sunderland Lasses usually play good football in a style that is recognisably the “Sunderland way”. The other sides in the Women’s Championship are almost all names that you’ll be familiar with - Sheffield United, Blackburn Rovers, Crystal Palace, Southampton, Bristol City, and tomorrow’s opposition, Charlton Athletic.
Mel Reay’s side might not always win - the odds are against them playing against full-time teams like Charlton most weeks - but every single time they turn out for us they do what exactly Sunderland fans want their teams to do; they put their heart and soul into their performances, they give their all of the shirt and for the badge, and they make their supporters proud.
We’ve got some of the best young players in the country - if you come along to see one thing only, come and see Neve Herron ping a beautifully weighted 50 yard ball into the channel - and we’ve got some of the best coaches around too.
They’re still part time, with the players combining hard evening training sessions at the Academy of Light with full time careers and education. This becomes more of a disadvantage every year as more and more tier two teams turn pro, but it makes every point they gain in the league that little bit sweeter too.
For people who’ve got limited amounts of spare cash at the minute, there's no better value way to watch a Sunderland team play. Ticket prices are really good value at only a few quid for adults with little kids getting in for free. And of course, if you've got access to a Stadium of Light season card, all the Lasses games are included in the price.
So if you’ve got youngsters in your life who you want to introduce to the club, or know someone who has always resisted going to the match out of fear of the big crowds or a feeling that they won’t, for whatever reason, fit in, then this is the game to go to.
It’s really inclusive - it’s definitely not a testosterone-fuelled environment, it definitely is a place where gay and straight, male and female, young and old, can gather on an equal footing and have a shared experience.
It’s friendly, accessible, fun, and generally respectful - although I almost guarantee you’ll whinge at the refereeing decisions (made by officials who are also doing this part-time and for the love of the game).
In these ways, it’s different in all the right ways, you might end up chatting to one of the player’s parents or partners in the queue for some of the famously good chips, can you can even get a selfie with the team at the end of the game.
But it’s proper football, nonetheless. These players play hard and play to win. They put everything on the line. Last gasp sliding tackles, 50:50s in the middle of the park, lovely bits of skill on the ball, you’ll see the lot and see it up close at Eppleton.
Sunderland Women “play for each other” in a way that goes way beyond that hackneyed football cliche; their team spirit is something that needs to be seen to be believed.
The players are truly the heart and soul of this football club because they represent the best of us as north eastern people; a squad made up of working women who you can be absolutely sure are not just in it for the money - there are no mercenaries in that squad, it’s the love of the game that drives them forward.
The more experienced players in particular have often had to battle through many barriers to make their way in the game, almost all of their families have played crucial roles in getting them where they are today - up with the top 24 teams in the country. The youngsters are rightly ambitious, keen in the long term to build full-time professional careers in the game with the club they love. Players like England youth international Grace Ede bleed red and white.
And they’re young women that share the same kind of lives as many of their peers on the other side of the advertising hoardings, they are people who many fans can identify with on a personal level. They’re the best of their generation - hard working, talented, driven and absolutely determined to succeed.
We need to build a new and different audience, which will include some regulars at the Sunderland men’s games alongside people who are new to the game overall.
I do believe that these girls deserve your wholehearted support as a Sunderland fan and the wholehearted investment by the club overall in every aspect of what they do. This is a big part the future of our club and the other clubs in England, and everyone is welcome.