Sunderland Women continue their fine start to the season with a strong point away to league leaders, Charlton.
Despite it looking like the Wearsider’s may have come away from East Sussex with no points following on from a 90th minute goal for The Addicks, The Lasses once again showed their grit, determination and resolve to fight to the last minute.
The game started with both sides trying to get a feel for the game. Knowing what the stakes were - how strong each squad was, how Palace and Southampton were breathing down their necks and this being pretty much the midway point of the season - both teams were happy for the other to keep possession and looked to counter on the break should a pass go wayward or be intercepted.
Emily Scarr and Mary McAteer made themselves a dangerous threat down their respective wings, with Liz Ejupi pressing from the front as usual and trying to force the Addick's into a mistake.
It was a fairly end to end opening 20 minutes of the match, but neither side could get any real shots off on goal or threaten Claudia Moan in the Sunderland goal or Sian Rogers in the Charlton one.
Katie Kitching’s deliveries from corners looked dangerous, swinging them deep towards the croscausing Rogers to scramble across her goal line as they suddenly started to change trajectory mid-flight to try and tuck in at the near post.
It was then Claudia Moan who was called into action on several occasions making good saves to keep The Lasses in it. One in particular, where she ran out to punch the ball after a headed defensive clearance went straight up into the air - Moan was quick to rush from her line and clear the danger from the onrushing opponent.
As the game neared half-time, Sunderland had their best opportunity of the game. A brilliant counter attack move was started by Kitching on the wing, who passed the ball to Ejupi despite being fouled in the process - the Kosovan international followed that up with a brilliant through ball whilst falling and being tackled to McAteer, who was through on goal. But her shot did not have enough strength on it to truly make the most of the chance, but credit went to the Charlton defence for closing her down and reducing the shots impact with a well-timed tackle just as she went to strike.
The second half got underway in similar fashion to that of the first, with both sides going for it and attempting to get forward, but failing to create any real chances or threaten either keeper.
It was a game which was exhausting to watch, so I can only imagine how the players felt given that the balls trajectory and possession changed hands every 20 seconds or so.
Charlton started to grow into the game and see more possession, making the most of it to try some one touch passing by the Sunderland backline in the hopes of drawing one out of position. Indeed, there was a hairy moment which an opposition player did break free of The Lasses’ defence and was fortunate enough to be curbed by Jess Brown as she got a last minute tackle to deflect the ball off the Charlton player and narrowly go over the crossbar as well as the onrushing Moan.
Moan was called to action shortly after to save a penalty after Fenton brought down a Charlton player in the box following on from a misplaced pass by the Sunderland keeper. However she duly redeemed herself after a brilliant diving save to her right hand side and got enough on it to take it away from danger.
In the 50th minute Katie Kitching was subbed off for Jenna Dear, making her return after picking up an arm injury against Durham in the league, which was a fantastic sight to see for fans given a few of us were worried she would be out much longer.
Mel Reay and her coaching staff made two more subs as the game grew on, wanting to add some experience in at left back and pace up top, with Grace Ede and Emily Scarr coming off for Louise Griffiths and Katy Watson respectively.
Tasha Fenton had a great opportunity to give the side the lead when a free kick was won just outside the penalty area. Her shot was a good one and looked destined for the top left corner, but Rogers was just equal to it and managed to tip it over for a corner.
From there, Charlton started to up the energy and were getting forward with quick counters. Godfrey broke down the left wing, beating Brown, but her cross to Muya was fired wide much to Charlton’s chagrin.
Despite Sunderland having a throw in in the opposition half on the 89th minute, Charlton quickly broke and looked to get in behind the defensive line. Brown did well to get back and slide into the ball’s path to stop the attack, with Brianna Westrup retrieving the ball. However in an attempt to play the ball from the back she was quickly closed down and the through ball was played in for McGowan to finish.
Unlike a Shakespearean tragedy, this tale had a good ending to it.
In an effort to salvage anything from the game, Mel made two more subs, bringing on Libbi McInnes and Mary Corbyn for Mollie Rouse and Grace McCatty respectively.
Three minutes into stoppage time, the ball was headed clear from a Charlton freekick and landed at the feet of Jenna Dear, who hit a perfectly weighted pass over the Charlton backline for Watson to run onto. Beating them with her pace. Her first touch appeared to have taken the ball away from herself, as onrushing defenders slid in to parry the ball to safety, but in doing so, they took the ball past the onrushing Rogers for Watson to run round and calmly finish - her teammates, fans and coaching staff celebrated wildly for the last minute equaliser.
It was always going to be a tough match, especially against a side which will likely be up at the top of the table and contending for promotion at the end of the season. An additional edge was added to it, with third place Crystal Palace taking on fourth place Southampton later that day. Only a few point separate the four sides.
Sunderland have reached the half-way mark of the season, sitting in 2nd place only on goal difference and having only lost one game of their first eleven, collecting 22 points in that time, already bettering their total points tally at the end of the 22/23 season by four. The entire team should be immensely proud of themselves for the hard work and grit put in so far.
There is now a two week international break in women’s football, with Sunderland waiting to discover their FA Cup opponent in December, before playing away against Blackburn Rovers in the Conti Cup and then finishing the year off with a home game against an inform Birmingham City Women team on the 17th December.