It was all going so well at “Fortress Eppleton” on Sunday lunchtime, but then one deflection and a red card changed the course of the game and left Sunderland Women stuck second from bottom of the Barclay’s Women’s Championship after their third successive defeat.
Mel Reay’s changes to the Sunderland starting line-up, bringing in both Abbey Joice and Neve Herron for their first starts of the season, meant a switch to a 4-5-1 or 4-1-3-2 formation for the visit of Charlton.
The plan was clear; more attacking intent, and a clearer link between the midfield and attack after last week’s defensive performance at Bristol.
It worked a treat in the first half. Sunderland were out of the blocks quickly, pressing high up the pitch and creating all sorts of problems for the Addicks’ defence. Joice in particular looked determined to take the game to them. It took Herron a little longer to get into the match, one or two wayward passes and heavy touches, but her tough tackling was breaking up any opportunity for the Londoners to have time on the ball in the final third.
Sunderland’s good work and control of the game was rewarded on 28 minutes when a long ball forward found Joice on the byline on the right of the Charlton box. Their keeper, Rogers, came to narrow the angle but the ball was pulled back to the edge of the box where Emily Scarr was waiting to slot it home.
It wasn’t the greatest piece of goalkeeping you’ll ever see, but our players celebrated only their second goal of the season wildly.
On occasions towards the end of the half we gave them a little too much time on the ball, but Charlton were unable to find any incisive passes and created very little in front of goal. Sunderland had an opportunity to double their lead when Dodds cut in and stood up a right footed cross for Joice who was in acres of space in the box, but the little playmaker couldn’t direct her header on target.
1-0 up at the break, and supporters were in a buoyant mood having witnessed a much-improved performance from the home side.
This pattern of play continued early in the second half, and Sunderland’s Scarr hit the bar from just outside the box, but it didn’t last. Charlton had their first shot on target after 52 minutes, but it was fielded comfortably by Moan, and after strengthening their attack by bringing on Tegan McGowen, they came more into the game and eventually grabbed the equaliser.
Following a period of sustained pressure, a corner from the left was met at the back post by the head of Ella Rutherford. 1-1 after 62 minutes, and a tiring Sunderland looked increasingly vulnerable and invited pressure.
A few minutes later a 50:50 ball in the middle was met by both Herron and Rutherford, leaving both players sprawled on the turf. The Sunderland youngster was subbed off soon after and Rutherford limped to the sidelines, but the break in play allowed Reay a moment for a quick team talk and a rest in our approach.
Then followed a two minute period with about 15 left on the clock that saw the scoreline go from 1-1 to 2-2 in the blink of an eye. First Sunderland retook the lead when a long Westrup free-kick fell to Kelly in the box, and her deflected shot crept into the Charlton goal.
Then, almost straight from the kickoff, Abbey Joice was robbed of the ball just outside her own box, and Keira Skeels’ shot was deflected and skewed past the helpless Moan in the Sunderland goal.
Things got worse for Sunderland a few minutes later when Abbey Holmes was sent off for a second bookable offence.
After that it could have been backs against the wall stuff for the home side, yet we kept pushing for the winner, Reay making a couple of attacking subscriptions with five minutes left. This, however, made us vulnerable to the breakaway, and McGowen should have scored on 88 but her shot when clean through was straight at Moan.
As we entered five minutes of added time with only 10 players on the pitch, supporters in the ground and watching at home on Twitter were left biting their nails. And, alas, we couldn’t hold on as the visitors grabbed a winner when the tall N’Dow rose above the Sunderland defence to meet a cross from the right after we failed to clear a corner.
The Charlton bench, who had been complaining about our “time wasting” in the lead up to the winning goal were cautioned and a player sent to the stands for re-entering the pitch to celebrate before the game restarted.
The Lasses tried desperately to rally in the final minutes, but they couldn’t find that moment of magic and fell to a third successive league defeat.
The result was harsh given the quality of Sunderland’s overall performance, but they were punished for losing control of the game in the middle of the second half by a strong full time side that will likely be right at the top of the league this season.
Claudia Moan: 6/10 Hardly troubled in the first half other than a couple of hairy moments distributing the ball. In the second half she dealt with crosses effectively and made a could of crucial stops. Wrong footed by the deflection for the second, there was little she could do to stop it.
Abby Holmes: 5/10 Hard as nails in defence, effective in support of Kelly down the right wing too. But two yellow cards marred a good performance and ultimately cost us at least a point.
Brianna Westrup: 6/10 Solid as ever, and showed a bit of class on the ball too. She banged in a great ball that led to our second goal and had a decent game all round.
Grace McCatty: 5/10 Guilty of not clearing her lines effectively on a few occasions, she was as dangerous as ever in the opposition penalty area and dealt with most threats in our box well.
Louise Griffiths: 6/10 Strong and solid in defence, she perhaps could have offered a bit more going forward. She looked tired as the second half went on.
Dan Brown: 6/10: Did the hard work in the middle of the park that generally goes unnoticed and did it pretty well.
Neve Herron: 6/10. Grew into the game, adding real bite in the middle. It was a shame to lose her in the second half after a heavy coming together with Rutherford. Hopefully she’ll be okay for next week.
Abbey Joice: 7/10 The standout player in the first half, she was less involved as Charlton saw more of the ball in the second. She missed a header in the first half when free in the box and was dispossessed in a dangerous area for their second, but everything good we did came through her.
Tyler Dodds: 5/10 She didn’t offer too much other than a couple of neat bits of play, including a cross that should have been converted by Joice before the break. Subbed in the second half, I suspect she’s wasted on the left wing.
Emily Scarr: 6/10 Up against a proper quality player like N’Dow, she ran her socks off as ever, pressed well, and was in the right place to convert for the first goal.
Emma Kelly: 7/10 She played well on the right before switching back to the centre - the vice-captain showed her quality and experience.
Nicki Gears: 5/10. On for Dodds in the second half, didn’t see much of the ball.
Jessica Brown: 6/10 On for Herron after she took a knock, she offered an option down the right and looked her usual tricky self.
Katy Watson: n/a Brought on in the closing stages as we sought to continue to pose a threat
Holly Manders: n/a Another very late substitution.
Player of the Match - Abbey Joice
We look a lot more dangerous with Joicey back in the side in support of Emily Scarr. She provided the assist for the first goal and a few other key passes that created opportunities. She did remarkably well for a first competitive appearance since the spring.