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On what was a cold and windy day at Eppleton CW, Sunderland Women ended the year with their second loss of the season. Despite the warmth and hospitality of the club in offering supporters a 50% discount on their tickets and a complimentary hot drink, it appears that Birmingham didn’t receive the memo that it is the season of giving. Scrooges!
An important three points were at stake in today’s game. With news filtering through that North East neighbours Durham had won 1-0 over Southampton, Charlton were at the time losing, and Crystal Palace were drawing, the top spot was there for the taking.
However, as we all know, football is never that simple. Despite a good performance from the lasses, Birmingham ultimately edged it on the day.
The result doesn’t reflect the battle that ensued on the pitch, with both sides having ample possession and opportunities. It was a matter of small margins, and ultimately, Birmingham were clinical with the chances they had. On another day, the result could have been the other way round.
But such is football, and credit must be given to Birmingham for their performance and fine form recently as they make it six wins from six games in the league.
Sunderland fielded arguably their strongest starting line-up, following on from their brilliant 3-0 away win against Blackburn Rovers midweek. Moan, McAteer, Dear, Brown, and Goddard came into the side, with Goddard, in particular, making a welcome return following an injury.
The game got underway with Birmingham being the quickest out of the blocks and looking the most dangerous, as Sunderland sought to gain control in blustering conditions. Only a few minutes into the game, and we were able to see why Birmingham have been in excellent form recently, winning five from their last five games. They caught the lasses either dropping deep or overcommitting on challenges.
Our keeper, Claudia Moan, had warned her teammates about such threats early on. However, the danger suddenly became apparent and, in the 11th minute, the Blues took the lead through a brilliant goal by Lily Agg. Moan did well to dive and get close to the shot, but the power and precision with which it was hit left the stopper with no chance.
Credit must be given to Sunderland. Despite conceding a goal early on, they quickly found their rhythm and did not allow their heads to drop. They saw some success down the right wing through Jess Brown, Mary McAteer, and Katie Kitching. Liz Ejupi was doing her utmost to hold the ball up and use her strength. However, it seemed that the Blues had done their due diligence on the Kosovan striker and were marking her out of the game, with two players constantly surrounding her.
Nearing the 20th minute, Sunderland were attacking wave after wave, sending players and balls into the box in hopes of an equaliser. Whether it was the weather playing a part or simply bad luck, it’s hard to tell, but the ball just would not fall into an advantageous position despite the chances being created. Kitching fired off a shot towards goal, but the strike was bravely blocked by a Blues player.
The lasses continued to pile on the pressure, but Birmingham remained largely untroubled and dealt with the onslaught well, looking to catch Sunderland out on the counter as they pushed forward in numbers. The game started to get a little niggly and develop an edge, with both teams guilty of fouling and getting stuck in.
Sunderland had a couple more chances from free kicks won just outside the Blues’ box, with Natasha Fenton poised to take them. Nonetheless, neither opportunity truly tested Lucy Thomas in the Birmingham goal.
In the 42nd minute, supporters surely thought we had the equaliser just before half-time when Brown and Kitching connected well on the right wing, with Kitching delivering a wonderful near-post cross into the box. Ejupi slid to meet the ball and thump it towards the net, but given the angle and the pace, her shot went just wide.
Birmingham could have made it 2-0 just moments before the referee blew her whistle for half-time, after a cross was lashed across the Sunderland goal, reaching the back post. The Blues regained possession and looked to cut the ball back to an in-running teammate. However, thankfully, captain Brianna Westrup was on hand to bravely block the shot, ensuring the opponents only had a one-goal advantage at the interval.
Sunderland started the second half as they finished the first, putting Birmingham under pressure as they sought to swing the game back in their favour and secure that elusive equaliser.
Mollie Rouse came agonisingly close in the 54th minute, following a wonderful lobbed pass from McAteer out on the left wing. Rouse took a deft touch to control the ball and then immediately struck it on the volley from just outside the box. To our dismay (as I was situated right behind the goal), the shot went just wide in what would have been a sensational goal.
Just minutes later, McAteer was involved in the action once again, having her own chance on the Birmingham goal after she was released down the left and cut inside to fire in a curling effort. However, yet again, these fine margins came to haunt us as her shot went wide.
Sixty minutes in, Mel Reay made her first change of the afternoon, bringing off Ejupi for Emily Scarr. Scarr appeared to slot in on the right wing, with McAteer switching to the left and Katie Kitching playing in the forward role.
Moments later, Birmingham made it 2-0 in what was a brilliant passage of play down Sunderland’s right wing. A dangerous ball was sent into the box and Westrup did her best to clear the danger. Unfortunately, her attempt to clear only resulted in the ball being deflected into the Sunderland goal, leaving Moan stranded as she had dived the other way. It was a cruel goal for the lasses to concede, and one which must have deflated the ever-reliable Westrup.
It was Westrup who had the opportunity to get the lasses back into the game in the 66th minute, after a corner was curled into the Birmingham box. The centre-back rose highest, yet her shot was tame, easy for Thomas to deal with in goal.
In the 70th minute, we supporters were once again left with our hands on our heads and an exasperated expression on our faces, wondering ‘just how’ when McAteer brilliantly ran onto what looked like a dead ball. Beating off former Sunderland player Neve Herron and the Blues’ keeper, she struck the ball towards goal. It felt as though time had stopped, and just as it was trickling slowly towards the back of the net, Gemma Lawley came in with a great goal-line clearance.
As the game entered the final stages, another Sunderland change saw Grace Ede come off for Louise Griffiths.
In the 77th minute, Jade Moore broke Sunderland hearts by scoring the third and final goal of the match. This came following some great build-up play down the left wing, which saw her receive the ball back inside the box and make no mistake in beating the stretching Moan.
Moan was once again called into action just minutes later and pulled off an utterly spectacular save to prevent a fourth goal. She reacted quickly to tip a headed corner over the crossbar. This again reiterated (not that it needs reiterating) just what a top keeper she has been this season.
Katy Watson came on in the final five minutes for Jenna Dear, with Sunderland seemingly going all out in attack as the game slowly slipped away from them. Already down by three goals, the lasses had nothing to lose in pushing forward and creating opportunities. It would have been easy for their heads to drop and to consider damage limitation. However, they deserve plaudits for continuing to fight, press, and believe that they could possibly get something from the game.
In the 90th minute, Moan once again demonstrated her ability and composure to keep the score as it was, making yet another crucial save. However, it wasn’t enough to spur the lasses on to reduce the deficit. After five additional minutes, the referee called time on Sunderland’s final game of 2023.
I’ll be honest, it’s hard to summarise my feelings after that game. Of course, I’m disappointed. Yet, I can’t help but feel immensely proud of this team.
Context is important, and we must look at the bigger picture when it comes to Sunderland Women. The first half of the season has been nothing short of incredible, awe-inspiring, magnificent, and enjoyable. It’s not often I can use those adjectives when describing Sunderland, be it the men’s or women’s teams in the past. Nonetheless, they perfectly fit and encapsulate this squad.
None of us would have expected our season to go the way it has so far, and if you did, then I would strongly encourage you to play the lottery. Beating off the beaten path, Sunderland were underdogs and wrongly written off by many, myself included initially. However, as I’ve said time and time again, this team is special.
The cohesion, spirit, fight, dedication, hard work, and wonderful attacking football are just magnificent to witness each week as a fan. I’ve never been so proud to be a Sunderland fan, and this team has brought a spark back to this fanbase and community, one which has been missing since our frustrating dismissal from the WSL years ago.
We may not have the financial muscle or ‘big name’ players, but these players are big in their own right and are paving their own stories. They contribute immensely both on and off the pitch. The collective spirit and unity of this team are what keep us going, and each and every individual associated with the women’s team should be immensely proud of what they have achieved thus far.
The top of the table is tight, but there is plenty left to fight for as we sit in third place, only one point off the new league leaders Birmingham.
The Christmas break is just what the doctor ordered for these lasses, and I hope each of them has a wonderful holiday period. Forget about this game, enjoy yourselves, spend time with your family, and then in the New Year, reflect, recuperate, re-evaluate and go again!
Ha’way the lasses!