After three consecutive Premier League titles, Sunderland Ladies make their long-awaited Women’s Super League debut against North-East rivals Durham next week. Sport Writer Steph Clark spoke to captain Steph Bannon and head coach Clare Robinson ahead of the new season.
THE journey to the top has been long and arduous for Sunderland Ladies, but after four years of hard work and patience the end of one era merely represents the beginning of a bright future for the women’s game in the North-East.
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Sunderland will kick off their first season as part of the Women’s Super League (WSL) franchise next Thursday when they make the short journey to New Ferens Park to face rivals Durham Women, but it has been a long road to get the Wearsiders to this stage.
The Lady Black Cats were overlooked for a place in the inaugural WSL season last year, but they finally got their place in the newly-formed second tier at the second time of asking. Their initial rejection meant several key players were forced to move on in order to progress their own careers, but it didn’t stop the Wearsiders from dominating the women’s game outside of the top tier.
Three consecutive Women’s Premier League titles only reaffirmed their WSL credentials and they will undoubtedly start the season as one of the favourites to win promotion at the first hurdle.
The fact Sunderland have retained their entire squad going into the WSL represents a solidity and continuity that is bound to give them a head start over other teams. Add in the support of Sunderland AFC, who have taken the ladies under their wings, and everything is in place to progress on to the next level.
While there was no North-East representation in the first WSL season, the region has produced several top level players and their contribution to the women’s game was highlighted again last week when Manchester City’s Steph Houghton was named the permanent England captain.
Houghton, who hails from South Hetton, is just one on a long list of players to have graduated from Sunderland’s Centre of Excellence, but while producing young talent has become an issue for some of our men’s clubs, it is a different story in the women’s game.
The Lady Black Cats boast several youth internationals in Beth Mead, Abbey Joice, Keira Ramshaw and Brogan McHugh, while they also have the experience of Kelly McDougall, Rachel Furness and Sarah McFadden.
They are not paid the thousands their male counterparts are in the Premier League nor do they enjoy the luxuries that come with playing at the highest level, and even though the majority of Sunderland’s squad juggle full-time jobs alongside their football commitments, the team’s determination to take the WSL 2 by storm is remarkable.
Training five times a week on top of working full-time hasn’t affected their enthusiasm going into this new chapter and captain Steph Bannon, who led the team during their FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal in 2009 at the tender age of 20, believes the squad has adjusted well to their new schedule.
“I don’t really think I’ve got much of a life if I’m totally honest,” revealed Bannon, who teachers PE in Middlesbrough. “We’ve tried to adapt the best possible way we can. A lot of us work full time and train four or five times a week.
“It’s a very intense schedule for a lot of us, but it’s something we wanted to be part of. We’re a semi-professional club now and that’s how we have to class ourselves and it is like having two jobs. It’s a massive change, but the girls are desperate to get going.
“It’s all becoming very real now. It’s something that we’ve dreamt of being a part of. Reality is hitting us that the season is just around the corner but we’ve still got a lot of hard work around the corner. We can’t wait.
“We started a long time ago in terms of our preparations for the season. Everything has gone to plan so we can’t really complain so far. We just want to keep that going and take that form into the league.
“We’ve had a fantastic few seasons and we want to keep that going. Off the pitch, it’s a massive boost that Sunderland are on board and their support is enabling us to go in exactly the direction we want to go in.
“We joke on that we are part of the Sunderland family, but it’s a massive change for us and something that we need to get used to fast. At our home games last season it was very much all about volunteers and parents, who would help out in any way possible, but now that it’s classed as a full time job for some of them it’s a great achievement for everybody that has helped us get to this stage.”
A new-look coaching team will lead Sunderland this season with Blyth-born Clare Robinson taking on the role as head coach alongside manager Mick Mulhern and assistant Mel Reay.
Robinson, who holds her UEFA A Licence, played for the club in one of its earliest forms, Blyth Spartans Kestrels, and has returned after a spell as head coach at Leeds United, which she combined with a role at Sunderland’s Centre of Excellence.
Now the Wearsiders can offer Super League football, Robinson believes the days of losing their best young players to bigger clubs are now over and she hasn’t ruled out seeing the likes of Houghton, Jill Scott, Lucy Bronze and Jordan Nobbs returning to the region one day.
She said: “Now we get girls coming to us at six or seven-years-old and they have an opportunity to play football, be educated and have a realistic chance that they can get paid to play. Obviously not as much as in the men’s game, but it all makes a big difference.
“It was a massive disappointment for the club not to be involved in the inaugural season. WSL 1 has always been the aim, but it was a challenge for us even to get WSL 2 status.
“I think this area needs WSL 1. If you look at the players that have come through and where they are at now. It needs WSL to keep the game moving on. Those players had to leave in terms of England and their central contracts, but if we were back in WSL 1, then who knows.”
Sunderland will be expected to mount a promotion challenge in their first season in WSL 2 and although pre-season results have been encouraging – they’ve already beaten Watford and Oxford convincingly - Robinson insists no-one at the club is taking anything for granted.
“Promotion has to be the aim,” she admitted. “We have to go into the season with an open mind. There are a lot of strong teams like Reading and Doncaster Rovers Belles. It will be really interesting at the beginning of the season to see where everyone is at. We have played Watford and Oxford, but they were still building their squads.
“I think people will look to pit themselves against us, because we’re an established club. There will be pressure on us going into the first season because of the success we’ve had, but we’ve just got to take it one game at a time.
“People do put us on a pedestal and I think that’s good, but you’ve still got to try and take the pressure away because there are a lot of good clubs in this league that have a little bit more money behind them.”
Tickets for Durham v Sunderland can be purchased on the day of the game at the turnstiles at New Ferens Park or in advance from http://durham.fawsl.com/tickets.html
*Entry to Sunderland's home games is priced at £4 for adults and £1 for concessions (over 65s and under 16s).
Season cards for the Lady Black Cats’ campaign are available to purchase from be http://sunderland.fawsl.com/tickets.html, priced at just £38 for adults, £18 for SAFC season card holders and £12 for concessions and include all home league games for the WSL season (11 games).
For all the latest news and information on the SAFC Ladies team and the WSL, visit www.safcladies.com.
*See next Tuesday’s Northern Echo for a feature with the North-East’s other Women’s Super League outfit, Durham Women.