This Sunday’s match against top of the table Bristol City started with Grace McCatty being applauded for her 100th appearance for the Lasses, presented with a framed shirt after leading the team out the tunnel the mood was ambient at Eppleton.
Then the whistle blew and it became quickly apparent this was not going to be a comfortable 90 minutes.
The opening 20’ Bristol looked comfortable, although Sunderland did well to interrupt their build up play and respond with a couple of counters up the pitch. You could argue that we weren’t dictating play, but neither were we out of control. At one point both sides went on a spree of sliding tackles with Bristol City players incensed at the referee for awarding a Sunderland free kick. Liz Ejupi made sure to smile and thank the referee for the decision with the Robins left red in the face.
Over time though Bristol’s repeated attempts on goal gave way to the first goal. After a corner kick that gave rise to repeated Bristol shots, with Claudia Moan forced to divert the ball out of her top corner, the ball landed on the half volley for Shania Hayles to score the opener.
Five minutes later Bristol countered a Sunderland press and took advantage of an out of shape backline to pass down the centre of the pitch to Hayles again before a top of the box shot goes over the keeper and into the back of the goal.
It may well have been a hat-trick to Hayles had an exocet missile of a tackle from Brianna Wesrtup not interrupted her foray into the box. This repossession prompted a Sunderland counter up the left wing and a rare chance at goal but the shot trickled wide.
A final chance for Hayes in the last minute of the first half with a clever turn and quick shot from the penalty spot was saved by a quick witted Moan who had done well to mitigate the score at half-time to just 2 conceded goals.
Two things struck me during the half-time break. Firstly, this was not a case of Sunderland being wasteful in front of goal. Instead, it was more a case of opportunities being so sparse that if we wanted to score we’d have to be so clinical we could replace every vacancy in the NHS.
Secondly, it felt a bit like that scene at the end of Blackadder when the men are standing in the trenches, awaiting the order to advance. There’s no cunning plan to outwit machine gun fire, you can only face it knowing the outcome. I doubt many at Eppleton thought we could salvage a point, but at least we had played well enough to interrupt Bristol’s link up play in midfield, and posed a couple of threats to their defence.
The second half started with some promise. Grace McCatty, managed the most convincing of Sunderland’s chances against Bristol with a header forcing Bristol’s keeper to tip it over the bar before it could cross the goal line.
Unfortunately after that it was a succession of poor judgement from the Lasses. Bristol City’s third goal from Ella Powell came off the back of some poor defending and an inability to properly clear the ball from our half.
Grace Ede, substituted on had a tremendous opportunity in the opposition box from a corner where the Robins’ centre backs were both unable to control the ball off a cross. Unfortunately, Grace wasn’t able to react fast enough and the ball deflected wide instead of nestling into an undefended back post.
As in the first half, Claudia Moan was kept busy, though with Sunderland pursuing an ever higher back line, she was forced to come out of her box on more than one occasion to clear the ball from long balls by Bristol. She was needing to make more saves than an anxious video gamer on the final level, including a block at the top of her box one on one with a Bristol City forward.
The final two goals from Chloe Bull and Abi Harrison came without great surprise. Sunderland looked thoroughly done in at this point with even Neve Herron unable to conjure the fighting spirit much needed for this type of game.
The final whistle blew and fans did not wait long to file out the ground.
A better performance next Sunday? I certainly hope so.
Sunderland: Moan, Beer, McCatty (C), Westrup, Morgan, Kelly, D.Brown, Herron, J.Brown, Watson, Ejupi
Subs: Cowling, Borthwick, Ede (46’), McInnes, Joice (46’), Griffiths, McPartlan, Dodds (77’)
Bristol City: Bentley (C), Layzell, Aspin, Pearse, Powell, Syme, Furness, Hutton, Harrison, Clinton, Hayles
Subs: Clark, Palmer (66’), C.Bull (86’), Mustaki (77’), J.Bull, Wilde, Morgan (66’), Woolley, Teisar (77’)