SCOTT WILSON COLUMN: Sunderland hit the ground running on landmark night for North-East women's football

The Northern Echo: SCOTT WILSON COLUMN: Sunderland hit the ground running on landmark night for North-East women's football SCOTT WILSON COLUMN: Sunderland hit the ground running on landmark night for North-East women's football

WHAT do Steph Houghton, Jill Scott and Jordan Nobbs have in common?

All current England internationals? Correct. All North-Easterners who kicked off their career in the region? Right again. But crucially, also all players who had to leave the North-East in order to realise their footballing ambitions.

Long renowned as a breeding ground for promising female players, the region has hitherto been unable to hold on to its best talent. Not any more.

Last night's inaugural Women's Super League 2 fixture, which ended in a 4-2 win for Sunderland Ladies over Durham Women, wasn't just a landmark moment in terms of the development of women's football in the North-East, the hope is that it was also the point at which the drain of the best players to London, Liverpool or Manchester came to an end.

It will take time for Durham and Sunderland to establish themselves in the evolving women's football pyramid, and there is still lingering resentment at the Football Association's failure to award the latter a place in the inaugural Super League that was founded four years ago.

The two clubs are part of the new-look format now though, and on the evidence of last night, both can look forward to a bright and, crucially, sustainable future.

For Sunderland, that future should feature promotion, with the Lady Black Cats being hotly tipped to finish the current campaign on top of the pile after winning three successive Premier League titles.

Durham's initial ambitions are less lofty, but the newly-formed club, which has its roots in an amalgam of South Durham and Cestria Girls Club and the Durham University side, can still draw considerable solace from last night's debut.

With an impressive crowd of 716 in attendance at New Ferens Park, and their players more than holding their own against opponents boasting far more experience at a similar level, Durham's new-look backroom team led by manager Lee Sanders can be proud of their club's efforts.

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It was particularly positive to see so many families and young girls in attendance, and with the provision of girls' football coaching within schools and local clubs continuing to grow, it is easy to imagine youngsters being captivated by the sight of women not much older than themselves performing in an environment not too far removed from the glitz and glamour of the men's game that is instantly recognisable from TV.

With Durham's artificial pitch providing a perfect surface, the perimeter hoardings advertising the likes of Nike and Hummel, and the floodlights beaming down to add to the big-occasion atmosphere, this felt like a 'proper' game of football.

If that reads like being patronising, it shouldn't. Those involved in women's football have constantly argued for, if not parity with the men's game, then at least a recognition that their version of the sport is every bit as relevant and worthy of support. On last night's evidence, the debate is being won.

“It was a fantastic night,” said Sanders. “There's been a long build up – 18 months of build up really – and a lot of hard work behind the scenes.

“To be honest, we didn't really know what to expect. We didn't know whether we might get 200 or 300, so to get a crowd of more than 700 was great and it just shows the level of support that exists for women's football in the region.

“That's what we have to try to build from now. We want to attract sports fans from right across County Durham, and we're going to be putting on more entertainment in the future. We'd also like to think that the standard of football we're able to offer is pretty decent as well.”

Durham's first Super League goal will certainly live long in the memory, with Zoe Ness spotting Sunderland's replacement goalkeeper, Helen Alderson, off her line and floating home a remarkable 40-yard strike at the start of the second half. Who needs Wayne Rooney or David Beckham?

Alderson was on the field because Rachael Laws, who started the game, suffered a nasty leg injury in the first half that resulted in her having to leave the field on a stretcher. From a Sunderland perspective, the loss of such an influential player cast the only shadow over what was an otherwise successful night.

Bright, incisive and comfortable in possession from the off, Sunderland's players looked like they had formed a decent understanding over a number of years of playing together.

They came close to taking an early lead when Rachel Furness headed Victoria Greenwell's corner against the post, and threatened again midway through the first half when Furness headed wide after the ball looped up invitingly in the penalty area.

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Their eventual breakthrough in the 27th minute came courtesy of an excellent move, with Abbey Joice exchanging a slick one-two with England youth international Beth Mead before slotting a precise finish into the net.

Sunderland deservedly doubled their lead on the stroke of half-time when Greenwell curled home a superb free-kick from the edge of the area, and while Ness' long-range strike brought Durham back into the game, Mead made it 3-1 when she drilled home from the spot.

Gemma Wilson added a fourth when she hooked home from a corner with 19 minutes left, but Durham had the final say as Caroline Dixon rolled home a late spot-kick to make it 4-2.

“I know people have been talking about us, but I don't think there's a pressure of expectation,” said Sunderland head coach Clare Robinson. “We have been an established team for a while now, but we're not the only ones like that in the league – Doncaster Belles and Reading are too.

“We'll have to give it a couple of weeks to settle down and then we'll see how things are looking. But our main aim is to get into WSL 1 and we have to say that.”

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