The music was blaring at Eppleton and the fans flocked through the gate. There was even a bouncy castle.
Sunderland’s previous hosting of Palace at home had ended in a loss with goals conceded to Annabel Blanchard and Lizzie Waldie. Palace had only the other week put 9 past Durham in a highlight package to salivate over. And they came looking for more.
Elise Hughes’ goal in the opening 10 minutes came seemingly out of nowhere. After a fierce start by the Lasses, Blanchard sent a cross into the box which was cleanly headed past Claudia Moan and into the goal. Hughes was a commanding figure for Palace throughout the game and continued to threaten and in general, be a pain.
Palace played a physical game which disrupted Sunderland’s dribbling. A style of ours that has reaped positives in early games this season and was clearly spotted by Palace’s tacticians. The game had a habit of both sides having effective counterattacks with Sunderland favouring either long balls to Mary McAteer or some nice runs down the wings from Grace Ede and an overlapping Louise Griffiths, who had to deal with Palace’s Bailey-Gayle in the first half.
It was a welcome surprise to have her substituted at half-time though her replacement Araya Dennis let her presence be known. After an initial rusty start and a couple of minor passing mistakes she grew into the game before committing some smart fouling play.
Hey, we aren’t playing cricket here and those in the stand at Eppleton made their displeasure known but Palace played a smart physical strategy that paid dividends at disrupting our midfield. It was not unlike Guardiola’s early Man City team that perfected the tactical foul to interrupt threatening runs before they could develop further.
Claudia Moan, who finally conceded her first goal this season in the first half, pulled off several vital saves throughout the match, including some very well placed shots from breakaway Palace attackers and an on-goal Blanchard. Moan, who closed the gap and rushed Blanchard blocked the shot and kept the Lasses in the game.
The back line, which looks much improved since last season with the addition of Amy Goddard, had several moments however where the otherwise impregnable partnership of Goddard and Westrup, looked as stable as a RAAC concrete school. Whether it was switching off or just misplaced passing, there were a couple of silly errors here that will need to be ironed out by Mel Reay to continue such a smooth start to the season.
9 minutes of added time before the final whistle after physios took to the field so often it looked like they were doing shuttle runs, a sterling long ball was played into the box and Brianna Westrup bore down on it with the fury of an old Testament deity before smiting it down into the goal net.
It was well earned. The kind of match that has plenty of positives against well ranked opponents. Sunderland look a strong side this season, and it is encouraging to watch this team develop with recent additions, particularly Jenna Dear with a first touch smooth as butter, Katie Kitching and Mary McAteer. What came across more than anything, was that this was a point earned that may well have been lost last season.
With new signing Mollie Rouse on the bench and the strong recruitment this summer, the Lasses suddenly look much safer than they did prior to the season’s start. There is, admittedly, a long way to go yet, but all of a sudden you start to wonder where this team could go. Because just as Brianna Westrup did at that cross, we’re starting to look up the table.
Oh, and if you haven’t already, watch Brianna’s post-match interview, there’s a little surprise at the end that might make you laugh.