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Sunderland spearheading women's football in the North-East
AT the start of 2011, Sunderland Women's Football Club were staring into the abyss.
On the pitch, the North-East's most successful women's football team had been controversially overlooked when the Football Association selected the eight clubs that would compete in the inaugural Super League.
Off it, they were struggling to stay afloat in the face of limited public interest and a strained relationship with Sunderland AFC, who had been forced to sever their ties when they were relegated from the Premier League in 2003.
At that stage, it would have been easy to write off the women's game in this region as a dead loss. Two years on, however, and the picture looks rather different.
Financially stable thanks to a renewed relationship with Sunderland's men's team, who provide the womens' pitches at Hetton-le-Hole, home and away kit and travel to away matches, Sunderland Women are booming.
Their crowds have grown significantly over the last few years, to the point where more than 1,000 people watched a recent FA Cup home game with Arsenal.
They sit on top of the table as they attempt to defend their Women's Premier League trophy, face Cardiff City in a League Cup quarter-final tomorrow and booked their place in the FA Cup fourth round with a resounding 6-1 win over Middlesbrough last weekend.
And thanks to a tie-up with the FA's regional Centre of Excellence for Sunderland & Gateshead, they are helping develop the next generation of girls who will hope to emulate Steph Houghton and Jill Scott, North-Easterners who played a pivotal role in Team GB's successful run to the quarter-finals of last summer's Olympics.
"It feels like there's a real buzz around the place," said Maurice Alderson, chairman of Sunderland Women. "The Olympics helped put women's football on the map and the level of interest since last summer has been brilliant.
"But women's football has been growing for a while now. It's the fastest-growing participation sport in the UK, and in this part of the world, I'd like to think our success at Sunderland Ladies has helped raise the profile of the game.
"Our crowds have been growing steadily for a couple of years, our players have won trophies and won a whole range of international honours and our close links with the Centre of Excellence enable our coaches to get out into the community and help introduce young girls to football.
"We were very disappointed when we missed out on the Super League, and I still maintain there was a geographical basis to the FA's decision, it had nothing to do with how we were doing as a club.
"But instead of sloping off and feeling sorry for ourselves, we've focused on moving forward and proving people wrong, and now we're in an even stronger position."
That strength was underlined in 2012 when Sunderland went through the entire calendar year suffering just one defeat, an FA Cup quarter-final reverse to Super League club Birmingham City.
Their crowds are bigger than those of many Super League teams, and in players such as striker Beth Mead, who is an England under-19 international, and winger Keira Ramshaw, another England under-19 international who scored a hat-trick in last weekend's win over Middlesbrough, they boast some of the most exciting young talent in the country.
Unfortunately, the current structure does not allow for promotion into the Super League, which is effectively a closed shop.
However, the FA have announced the creation of a Super League 2, which will begin in March 2014, and with the current Super League members having to reapply, there is a chance Sunderland could be catapulted into the top division later this year.
"We've built the club back from almost going out of business to where we are now, which is a stable, highly-successful team. The logical next step in that evolution is to be in the Super League," said Alderson.
"We will definitely be applying in the new round of registrations and I'm sure we'll have a very strong case.
"We were very disappointed not to be selected first time around, and it would obviously be great to find ourselves in Super League 1 when the FA reassess things.
"Failing that though, we'd definitely hope to be in Super League 2, and with the introduction of promotion and relegation, we'll have a route to the top."
Both Super Leagues will operate from March to October, a switch Alderson feels will benefit players and spectators alike as Sunderland continue to grow.
"It'll help the girls, especially at a youth level, because some of the pitches we have to play on at the minute are far from great," he said. "We were disappointed with the pitch at Thornaby last weekend. We're a team that like to play football, and that was just about impossible on a pitch that had staged a Northern League game the day before.
"But I think summer football will also be good for the North-East football fans. As a spectator sport, we still haven't developed our product as much as we'd like to. But with no men's football to watch in the summer months, I'd like to think more and more people could be persuaded to give us a try."