You win some, you lose some.
While a tough result to take on the road against an opposition - who up until today had only won two games in the league - the lasses didn’t put in a poor performance.
I’m sure Mel Reay and her staff would have been treating this game like any other. No complacency and treating Reading with respect; I was feeling confident myself as a fan.
Following on from two brilliant back-to-back wins in the league over Sheffield United and Blackburn Rovers, the belief that we could continue this fine form and challenge at the top of the table was palpable.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And that’s exactly the mentality and tactics adopted by Sunderland when they fielded the exact same starting eleven which won those two aforementioned fixtures.
The game started off almost synonymously like it did the last time we played Reading at Eppleton, with the royals quick out from the blocks and looking to attack down the right wing.
Sunderland were happy to soak up the pressure and look to catch Reading out on the counter, hoping that they would tire themselves out like they did in the previous fixture.
A few minutes into the game, the lasses were awarded a free-kick just outside the box on the left wing with Katie Kitching stood over it. I always fancy Kitching to score from free kicks ten out of ten times, but the angle was just too tight to warrant her going for goal. She opted to send it in deep, and it was Amy Goddard who rose highest to make contact, but her shot went wide.
It was Reading who had the next opportunity 15 minutes into the game when Estcourt fired off a shot from distance which went over the crossbar.
The match continued to ebb and flow, with both teams having their lion’s share of possession but were unable to create any threatening chances or test the either goalkeepers.
Natasha Fenton - who had an exceptional game - was the next one to have an opportunity on goal when she received the ball from Katie Kitching just outside the box, but she slipped as she struck the ball and could only watch as it went over the bar.
Minutes later, the lasses had another chance and were upping the pressure. This time a Sunderland cross deflected off a Reading player and seemed to be trickling goalward until it was saved on the line by the keeper.
However, just as the lasses were in ascendancy, Louise Griffiths was shown a straight red card after she pulled a Reading player back by her hair. A yellow card seemed fair to me, but the referee deemed it violent conduct, and Griffiths was given an early bath with only 35 minutes on the clock.
It’s safe to say that a few of us fans in the stadium were feeling apprehensive about our chances. But strangely enough, we seemed invigorated or perhaps frustrated is the better word - as we started holding Reading to the sword.
A goal before half-time would have done wonders for Sunderland and likely ruffled the feathers of the hosts, who despite having the (wo)man advantage weren’t performing as though they were a player up.
In the 41st minute, Mary McAteer had a good chance to give Sunderland the opener, but her shot was relatively tame and easy for the keeper to deal with.
But with Sunderland getting forward in numbers, it opened up the space at the back, and Reading were quick to pounce. They very nearly had a goal just before half-time. But as we come to expect with Claudia Moan, despite having little to do, she was on hand to make a treble save to ensure that it was 0-0 as the teams went in at half-time.
The coaching team opted to make three changes at half-time, bringing off Ellen Jones, Katie Kitching, and Mary McAteer for Grace McCatty, Liz Ejupi, and Jenna Dear.
The trio made an instant impact, with Liz Ejupi doing wonderfully to hold the ball up and lay it off for Jenna Dear, who struck her shot with venom and forced the keeper into a brilliant diving save to force it out for a corner. Brianna Westrup rose highest from the ensuing corner, but it sailed over the crossbar.
It was here that the game began to stagnate slightly with fouls, tackles, and frustrating calls being given to both teams. Despite being a player down, Sunderland were still arguably playing the better of the two and were not content to just sit back and defend.
The lasses were left feeling frustrated and aggrieved by two penalty calls being turned down by the referee as the game hit the hour mark. The first a call for handball and the second a call for a foul on Amy Goddard who appeared to rugby tackled to the ground in the box.
Sunderland continued to press and attack, with Liz Ejupi, Emily Scarr, and Jenna Dear linking up incredibly well. Yet, we were unable to do quite enough to test the Reading keeper, with Ejupi having a good chance on the half-volley. But her shot went wide.
Hearts were broken in the 77th minute when Reading scored against the run of play. Moan dived low to her right to try and prevent the goal, but unfortunately, there was nothing she could do.
For the remainder of the game, Sunderland threw caution to the wind and went all out on attack. Katy Watson being brought on for Jessica Brown.
But despite their best attempts and Reading’s frustrating but understandable dark art tactics, the lasses were unable to get that much-deserved equaliser.
It’s hard to know what to say after a result like that. But I must stress that the result doesn’t reflect what we saw out on the pitch.
The lasses gave it their everything despite being a player down for 55 minutes. It would’ve been easy for them to sit back, defend and try to leave the Madjeski with a hard-fought point. But Sunderland isn’t the same team that they were before.
We’re not the plucky underdogs, and we’re not about to deviate away from our philosophy of playing attractive and attacking expansive football. The coaching staff’s substitutions and tactics at half-time showcase exactly that.
While yes, we brought a defender on in Grace McCatty to replace the dismissed Griffiths, we opted to field a 3-5-1 formation with Westrup, Goddard, and McCatty as our three center-backs. While Scarr and Brown acted as our wing-backs and Dear, Rouse, and Fenton at the center of midfield and Ejupi up top.
We were prepared to take the game to Reading and hopefully emulate the performance we put in against them at Eppleton. Absorbing pressure, biding our time and then striking when they became fatigued.
The plan was going well, but ultimately it is even harder to implement and enact when you’re a player down. There was always a risk in us playing this way and it was a calculated one. It was the correct thing to do.
Despite failing to test Moan in the second half, the one chance they had on goal and they took it. Such are the fine margins of football.
It hurts, and I know it’ll hurt all the staff and players even more so. Things are incredibly tight at the top of the table, and every result matters. But, football is a strange sport, and as we all know, it can turn up some weird and wonderful situations.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I will always be proud of this Sunderland side for what they’ve accomplished this season. I still believe they can go all the way. Never say never, and I have no doubt this team will keep fighting until we know for certain it’s over the line.
The lasses now have a two-week break from league fixtures, which provides the perfect opportunity to rest, recuperate, reflect, and refocus ahead of our final few games of the 23/24 season.
Of course, we have the casual quarterfinal billing against Chelsea Women in the Conti Cup on Wednesday night at Kingsmeadow. While it would be fantastic and unprecedented to beat a side of that caliber in the cup, the pressure is off for the lasses. It allows a platform for the staff to experiment.
We go again. Haway the Lasses!