Sunderland’s most recent performance offered so much promise. Lasses players warmed up by firing shot after shot in repeated cannon fire at keepers Claudia Moan and Megan Borthwick.
Emily Scarr was pelted by an on-pitch water jet and the Haway the Lasses writers hung our new flag behind the goal. Fans were optimistic following this team’s excellent performances and grit.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. Every great side’s winning run comes to a halt eventually and for a hybrid-model club that finished 11th last season it’s impressive that this is our first loss.
It’s a difficult one to grasp however with the manner defeat. Although the Lasses were not at their best, the referee and other officials had an interpretation of the game that was as abstract as a Jackson Pollock painting. Indeed, even a Mark Rothko exhibit could not exhibit as much red tinted rage as the display of indecision with regards to timewasting, handballs and touchline behaviour.
To this end, I am forced dear reader to describe the first half.
Bitingly cold, really need to wear a thicker coat and gloves kind of cold.
Although there was balanced solid play from both sides in the first half, Sunderland looked to have the better of the chances fired off. Blackburn forced Claudia Moan into action a couple of times but never really looked to be a serious threat. Rather like a stray cat that wonders into your garden, and you feel you had best shoo it off before it ruins your petunias, though you’d rather wait for it to see itself out first.
Blackburn’s number 9, Chelsea Ferguson looked a threat, but Megan Beer kept her contained before a head injury led to her substitution at half time.
Mel Reay’s introduction of Jess Brown in the second half quickly changed the game. The pace and tempo of Sunderland’s attacking play immediately picked up and they looked a more invigorated side with a higher press and Mollie Rouse and Katie Kitching both contributing more to our chances.
Blackburn’s opener came in the 56th minute. A wide cross into our box fell to an unmarked Chelsea Ferguson whose mishit volley went low to a Moan dive to collect, which was then fumbled before being kicked again by a still grounded Ferguson, deflected off the keeper’s thigh, post and then into the net. I’d describe it as Shakespearean tragedy if it weren’t such a comedy of errors.
Blackburn sat deep for the remainder of the match, which lasted longer than an indefinite bus strike. With players dropping down for a rest and keeper Alex Brooks taking as much time with her goal kicks as HS2’s planning office, the flow of the game was interrupted with every Sunderland attack.
The game devolved into a repetitive cycle of Sunderland threatening outside the box but unable to bypass a solid backline of 5 or 6 defenders at any one time forcing us to play wide. Although plenty of crosses flew into the box, the absence of substituted Liz Ejupi, and a still injured Amy Goddard, meant that our aerial threat was lacking. Missed shots to goal kicks and repeat.
The fans’ firm reminders to the referee did little to help her identify that these kicks, throw-ins and substitutions drip fed throughout the remaining match, were taking rather longer than they should. Blackburn, unopposed to this carried on doing so. And admittedly, it was a smart strategy that reaped rewards.
What should have been a frustrating but semi-acceptable loss was then taken through the looking glass with two separate handballs by Blackburn in their box unseen by any match official. Sunderland appeals fell on deaf ears and left observers wondering what sense the ref had left, for sight and sound had long disappeared.
The Lasses did manage a couple of shots with salvos fired from Rouse and Scarr both missing the target after otherwise excellent build-up play.
Not even the introduction of Mary Corbyn could spark fear from the right wing. It was a game where we could have thrown the kitchen sink at it, and nothing would stick.
A final, derisory moment came with an added time of 6 minutes. It ought to have been 16.
The final whistle blew, and the players gathered around. They have been untouchable all season, but the gods love to humble the best of us. Now is the time for some reflection of what went wrong, a first half where we ought to have started stronger and a second that’s best forgotten.
Sunderland’s next match is at Charlton away. If this team wants to go all the way, this is the fixture to show that top of the table is where we want to be and that this hasn’t just been a fluke so far. The Lasses have a point to prove, and we’ll be behind them every step of the way.
Haway the Lasses!