It was a cold winter night at Eppleton Colliery, as Sunderland Women once again faced their local River Wear neighbours but this time in the Conti cup.
Given that games are coming thick and fast for the lasses, gaffer Mel Reay and her coaching staff opted to play with an almost entirely new starting line-up, with only three players in Natasha Fenton, Grace Ede and Brianna Westrup being retained. Whilst the rest of the squad were made up of Sunderland Women U23 players and those that have had limited minutes this season.
Squad rotation was always on the cards. Mel confirmed this herself after our 1-0 win against Durham on Sunday. Sunderland’s focus is ultimately going to be on the league and retaining top spot as the look to keep their unbeaten run into the New Year. Whilst a win would have been nice, it was definitely a case of pressure off for Reay’s side.
Whereas it was definitely a case of pressure on for Durham following their loss to the Wearsiders in the league on Sunday. In case their seriousness was ever in doubt, you need only look at their starting lineup to see a very strong squad, with talented and proven goal scorers in Saoirse Noonan, Jess Clarke and Beth Hepple on the bench.
It was the visitors who started the game off the better of the two sides, putting the young Sunderland side to the sword with some direct attacking football down the wings.
The Wildcats quickly asserted their dominance and this paid dividends in the 5th minute of the game, as ex-Sunderland midfielder Mollie Lambert opened up the scoring for Durham with a brilliantly placed finished into the bottom left corner, just beating the outstretched Megan Borthwick in goal.
But Sunderland weren't about to give up the fight and lose confidence. Similarly to going a goal down against Sheffield United in their last Conti Cup game, the lasses fought back with wingers Mary Corbyn and Katy Watson linking well together and utilising their youthful exuberance and pace to beat the Durham backline.
Sunderland kept mounting on the pressure and were seeing much more success in their passing and getting a feel for the game as slowly worked the ball out to the wings and into the box.
Step up Natasha Fenton in the 15th minute to score the equaliser from a corner, rising highest to beat the jumping Durham players and putting it past a stunned Naoisha McAloon. Yet another goal from a set piece from Sunderland.
Rejuvenated from the goal, Sunderland once again began to press the Durham back four, looking to exploit their high defensive line down the wings to play in the likes of Katy Watson in on goal, but she just couldn’t quite get her shot off before she swarmed by players in blue. Mary Corbyn in particular was playing exceptionally well despite coming up stalwart Durham left back Abby Holmes and giving her a run for a money with wonderful bits of dribbling and cutting back onto her weaker foot.
The game continued to ebb and flow as it reached the 30 minute mark, with both teams going for it, but not quite doing enough to test either keeper. Although Durham’s Poppy Pritchard game close when her shot ricocheted onto the crossbar, but was swiftly dealt with by Jessica Brown at the back.
But just before the halftime whistle, it was the hosts who went ahead, this time courtesy of Captain Brianna Westrup soaring through the air to meet Natasha Fenton’s corner in the box, to head home for the Sunderland.
A brilliant goal to sign off a fantastic and commendable first half performance from the lasses despite the changes and conceding early. And of course, yet another goal from a set piece to add to the ever growing tally.
Three changes were made at halftime for Sunderland, with goal scorers Natasha Fenton and Brianna Westrup making way for Katie Kitching and Ella West for her first senior debut. Whilst Megan Beer replaced Grace Ede at left back.
The second half started with Sunderland looking the more fired up of the two. With Katy Watson again finding herself through on goal but drowned out by onrushing Durham defenders and not many options of teammates to late it off for. This the only downside of her speed - everyone else has to catch up.
It was promising though to see Katy utilise her pace and to get herself into prime attacking positions. As mentioned previously, herself and Corbyn were connecting wonderfully and it felt like a matter of when and not if the two would link up to score a goal.
However Sunderland wouldn’t have it all their way and once again Durham started to fight back and put the Wearsiders under the cosh. With the opponents maintaining their lions share of possession and trying to get forward. Any shots they did take were sent sailing far over Meg Borthwick's crossbar, more reminiscent of a rugby conversion than an attempt to beat the Sunderland keeper.
The lasses were still leading 2-1 and Mel Reay further reduced the average player age of the squad by introducing 20-year-old Ellen Jones into the fray to replace Mollie Rouse, whilst Durham were forced to bring out the big guns in Saoirse Noonan and Jess Clarke to try counteract Sunderland’s young and energetic squad. A sign that things were getting desperate.
The changes proved to be integral for Durham, as for the final 15 minutes of the game the Wildcats were relentless in their attack as veteran centre-back Grace McCatty tried to rouse the troops and commandeer them to an unprecedented victory for Sunderland given the squad, fighting off wave after wave of Durham players.
Despite putting up an incredible battle and almost seeing the game out, up stepped prolific goal scorer Saoirse Noonan in the dying moments of the game, to give Durham a 90+3 minute equaliser from ten yards out. Causing pandemonium amongst the Durham players, celebrating like they had just won the FA Cup.
Whilst the game finished 2-2 and it meant Sunderland extended their unbeaten run to eleven games, the Conti Cup dangles a strange carrot to teams by offering an extra bonus point if you win the penalty shootout. So despite the game finishing level, the match didn’t go to extra time, second legs or replays but instead straight penalty shootout.
It was the visitors who stepped up first, with goal scorer Noonan stepping up and sending Megan Borthwick the wrong way to back it 1-0 Durham. Katie Kitching approached the penalty spot next and empathically ensured that it returned 1-1 to Sunderland. Up next came familiar face and initial goal scorer Mollie Lambert to give Durham the advantage, but she saw her powerful shot beat Borthwick but ricochet back into the box off the post. Emily Scarr had the chance to make it advantage Sunderland, but McAloon pulled off a brilliant save to ensure it stayed 1-1. Then it was up to Amy Andrews to give Durham the lead, which she did by hitting it into the bottom corner to make it 2-1. Young starlet Katy Watson came next to try and get Sunderland back in it, but once again McAloon was on hand (literally) to save her shot and firmly swing the ball into Durham’s court. Becky Salicki made no mistake from the spot, putting all the pressure on Ellen Jones to score otherwise Durham would win the bonus point. The Welsh International came forward and looked to keep Sunderland in it, but once again and credit where it’s due, McAloon came in clutch for the Wildcats as she made her third consecutive save and earned Durham an extra point to give them the advantage in the group.
Despite the bittersweet end, make no mistake. This was a brilliant performance from a very young and inexperienced Sunderland side who had nothing to lose heading into this fixture. Every player out their should be proud of themselves and the shift they put in against a very strong Durham team, who needed their top forwards and scorers to gain anything from that match. Everybody performed admirably and Ella West should be immensely proud for a solid debut for Sunderland and Mary Corbyn pleased with her efforts with an incredible display.
The plethora of young talent coming through Sunderland’s doors, through the U23 side and into the senior team is wonderful and despite not getting the victory, they won over any remaining doubts that may well have lingered with some, that this team is something special. The girls should hold their heads up high and look forward to getting back to league business this Sunday at home against Blackburn Rovers
Hope to see you there!