I’ve tossed and I’ve turned on this subject for quite some time. Decades of being a Sunderland fan has always taught me to approach situations with caution, diligence and realistic expectations.
Too many times I’ve been carried by the hope, buzz and palpable excitement when my teams seem on the cusp of achieving something special. And too many times, I’ve had that flame very quickly extinguished.
Thus, my overall mentality is to expect the worst and then you’re not disappointed, and if something good happens, it’s a pleasant and wonderful surprise. It’s perhaps not the best mindset to have, but it has certainly kept me sane over the many years of following Sunderland.
However, I’m prepared to deviate from my usual coping strategies and cast aside any doubt.
Sunderland Women can achieve promotion. There, I said it!
Now I know, some will point to the fact that there is only one promotion spot, that other teams in contention are all full-time, that Sunderland lost their last game 3-0, that we’ve only performed to this level for half a season and that whilst being a free-flowing attacking side, we haven’t scored as many as other teams. All the aforementioned might be true, but to look at this without any other context would be a disservice to the lasses.
I have no doubt in my mind that Mel Reay, the players and the coaching staff will not be getting ahead of themselves. Taking each match as it comes. Such is the focus, intelligence and aptitude. But I hope they forgive me and other fans for allowing ourselves to dream and believe, because I truly do have faith and confidence in this team to do it. I know they can and I hope they know they have the ability also.
This isn’t to put any pressure on the team. I would not like to add that burden or heaviness on their shoulders. Regardless of what happens from now on, the entire club should be immensely proud of their achievements. Yet, I want them to know that people to believe that they can be promoted. It is not bias or arrogance on my part, but rather through seeing the determination, cohesion and fight illustrated by this team week in and week out, I believe those are the markers of what makes a champion.
We only need to cast our minds back to the 2015-2016 season, when all of us witnessed an unprecedented moment in football, when Leicester City won the Premier League. They didn’t have a star-studded team or the finances that other contenders around them had, but what they did have was grit and faith in their abilities and each other. Epitomising exactly what the lasses team are about this season.
Despite us not perhaps being underdogs anymore on a game by game basis, we will be seen as such when it comes to potential title contenders. Particularly when you look at the table to see that Charlton, Southampton, Birmingham and Crystal Palace all surround us. Birmingham who were a WSL side two years ago, Crystal Palace who have scored 35 in 11 games, Southampton who have been promoted almost year on year up the divisions and Charlton who have lost only one game all season.
It’s tough company to keep and with only two points separating first place from fifth, it is all to play for in the second half of the season.
So what distinguishes Sunderland from the rest? How can we articulate that without my bias being evident? Any of these other clubs have the right to say we could or should win the league. They will all argue their own permutations as to why they deserve it more or highlight obstacles they have had to overcome, that Sunderland isn’t a special case.
Yet I have to say, they are a special case and if I was impartial I would be saying the exact same thing.
Nobody could have predicted that the lasses would have performed this well at the start of the season. To say that we would have been top of the table or near enough for twelve consecutive match weeks. Yet here we are. Sunderland are doing it despite not being in a full-time model, despite having an average squad age of 22.6, despite having to contend with the likes of Durham Women and Newcastle United Women offering full-time contracts and big wages to play for them and seemingly little (if any) interest from club owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Kristjaan Speakman in the women’s side of things. Or at least, that’s how it looks from the outside.
The team’s commercial acumen has been nothing short of extraordinary, even in the face of losing important players to teams that are vying for promotion, clubs that have full-time models and professional contracts, and of course, cash incentives. The players we signed weren’t the usual “big name” players that you would anticipate in today’s modern sport. Instead, they were untapped, undeveloped talents waiting to be discovered by someone who could provide them with the platform to grow and the nurturing atmosphere they needed.
I can state with absolute certainty that every single player Sunderland brought in over the summer has had a significant impact on the team—in many different ways and all across the pitch. They have not only helped to develop a play style of offensive football that is quick, exciting, and visually appealing, but they also seem to have brought out the best in players who were here the previous season but were maybe lacking confidence following the way things ended.
Every player has made improvements to themselves. This team has a strong sense of hunger and belief that they can do great things. They have committed to a system and are making every effort to demonstrate it on the pitch.
The competence and strength in depth we have available is wonderful to see. So often, we see football teams with only a strong eleven and as soon as injury hits a key player, the panic buttons are pressed due to squad having no one as competent to fall back on. However, that isn’t the case with the lasses. Whilst previously there may have been a big onus and pressure on certain players to be the focal point, that responsibility has been duly shared this year, which I believe has only added to the team’s ability to play freely. Allowing them to play with confidence and to contribute to the team as a whole. You need only look at the numerous different goal scorers to know that’s true. Be it a 16-year-old or a centre-back.
The role of the sixes, in this instance Jenna Dear and Natasha Fenton, have had an impact on all phases of play and necessitate spatial awareness, athleticism and most crucially, game intelligence. By working in tandem and knowing their parts, it can add to Sunderland’s offense or defence within seconds. As one goes up, the other sits. This allows the full-backs to get involved in the attack down the wings without the fear of being caught out, due to the remaining player almost slotting in a third centre-back.
Whereas we have to look at the fluidity, rotations and formations used by Sunderland. To provide more presence, the usual 4-2-3-1 will change to a 3-5-2, 4-3-3, or another variation. We have enough players to implement ball progression, as one winger will tuck into midfield while the other practically becomes a centre forward in a matter of seconds. Defenders, midfielders and attackers all participate in the ball’s collective movement, which guarantees that there are enough players available to handle any situation.
The ultimate objective remains the same - using overloads and rotations to get players into the box for crosses and cutbacks, and we have alternative means of getting forward should the opponent not afford us the luxury of being able to play a passing game.
This involves using our deeper central midfield players, such as Dear and Fenton, to play long balls over the top and counter attack, and it also demonstrates how resourceful we can be in our attacks and build up play. We’ve been able to maintain a solid shape when the opposition has possession, thanks to the systems the club has put in place. It’s limited the opposition’s passing options and forced them to either go long or direct into midfield.
We have just passed the half way mark of the season and this team has only lost two games in the league and are still unbeaten in Cup competition. The lasses have only conceded nine goals and maintained five clean sheets so far in this campaign, boasting the best defensive metrics in the league. And whilst we’ve only scored thirteen whilst teams around us have the 17, 23 and 35 mark, we are smart enough and sure enough in our own abilities to know when to press, when to attack and when to see the game out.
We sit third in the league, only one point off top spot and with ten games remaining. Anything is possible and with the women’s transfer window now being open once more, it will be interesting to see what players the club looks to bring in and how they can add and contribute to what has already been a brilliant season.
Given the shrewd business done by the coaching staff, scouting team and analysts, I have full confidence that any player who is brought into the squad in January can only enhance us. Yet, it is just as integral (where possible) to keep the core of this squad together. Sometimes the best business that can be done in a transfer window is keeping what works.
At this point, you can create a bingo card on certain phrases or stock words I’ve used to describe and express my joy with Sunderland Women, such is the repetitive nature of it. However, I cannot help but exhibit my infatuation and pride. Credit is absolutely due and everyone involved in the women’s team deserves all the praise and plaudits they can get.
I’ve doubted them once before and I certainly won’t do it again. Sunderland have proven they know what they are doing and have defied expectations. I have full credence that they can do it again and push for promotion.
Haway the Lasses!