PHIL NEVILLE’S starting line-up for England’s third-place play-off defeat to Sweden at the Women’s World Cup contained five players who had started their career with Sunderland. One, Lucy Bronze, is widely regarded as the best defender in the world after a string of impressive performances in France. Another, Steph Houghton, is England’s talismanic skipper. Just for good measure, there was another two Sunderland academy products sitting on the bench.

Seven players from a squad of 23, honed and nurtured in Sunderland’s red-and-white stripes. It is a remarkable success story, so you could be forgiven for thinking the Football Association would be falling over themselves to promote Sunderland’s contribution to the rampant growth of the women’s game.

Instead, while the FA have been trumpeting the forthcoming Super League derby between Manchester City and Manchester United as a landmark moment for women’s football, Sunderland Ladies have been quietly announcing that their preparations for the new Northern League season – the regionalised third tier of the game – will start with a trip to Redcar Town later this month. In what should have been their moment in the spotlight, Sunderland are the team that football forgot.

It is a disgraceful situation, and one that flies completely in the face of the FA’s pledge to use women’s football to engineer a transformation in sporting opportunities for girls right across the country.

There is not a Women’s Super League (WSL) team north of Manchester, meaning the North-East and Yorkshire is devoid of representation in what is already the most high-profile women’s sport league in the country. Durham Women play in the Championship, and performed superbly last season as they almost won promotion to the top-flight, but in an environment dominated by clubs propped up by some of the biggest male sports teams in the world, there is surely a limit to how far a team run in association with a university can rise.

If the FA are serious about wanting to use the women’s game to transform girls’ attitudes to sport, and address the worsening childhood obesity problems that are especially acute in the most deprived areas of the country, they have to look at the direction the women’s game is heading in.

Do they want it to be the catalyst for a grassroots-led revolution in women’s sport? Or do they want it to become an offshoot of the casino capitalism that masquerades as the male Premier League? Given their desperation to roll out the red carpet for Manchester United, despite the club’s long-standing refusal to even countenance a women’s team, it is safe to say they have opted for the latter.

Money already talks in the women’s game – even though the Premier League have concluded there is not enough of it, hence their reluctance to take the WSL under their own umbrella – and was the justification for the FA’s decision to effectively relegate Sunderland two divisions when the licences for the revamped Super League were issued in 2018.

The timing of the FA’s decision could not have been worse for Sunderland Ladies, as it came hot on the heels of the men’s team’s decision to effectively cut them adrift. Sunderland AFC’s withdrawal of the vast majority of their financial support was regrettable, but also understandable given the monetary situation that eventually resulted in Ellis Short racking up debts of more than £100m.

Shortly before the FA ruled on who should be in the Super League, Sunderland Ladies posted accounts showing an annual loss of £424,000. Clearly that was unsustainable, but given the financial troubles engulfing the men’s team, it was a unique situation that was not of the women’s team making. Would it really have been so difficult for the FA to have stepped in with a one-off offer of financial support to guarantee the continued professional survival of a club that had been so integral to the early growth of the women’s game?

The FA had a chance to ensure women’s football continued to flourish in the North-East, but instead opted to promote West Ham United two tiers while dropping Sunderland down two levels. Football for all – as long as you’re based in London and have a successful Premier League men’s team propping you up.

It was a deeply disappointing decision, but perfectly in keeping with the wider attitude of an organisation that seems oblivious to its remit as a custodian of the national game – rather than the part of the game that takes part in the south of the country.

In 2021, England will stage the next Women’s European Championships. With European teams having proved so dominant at the World Cup, it should be a superb tournament. But if you live in the North-East, you’ll have to travel to Sheffield or Rotherham to watch it.

The FA have announced nine host venues for the tournament, and instead of selecting one in the North-East, they have opted to use two grounds within seven miles of each other in South Yorkshire. It is an utterly ludicrous decision that effectively sticks two fingers up at fans of women’s football in this part of the world.

What should be a national celebration of the women’s game will once again be a party hosted by the South. Go and cheer Sunderland’s finest, forming the backbone of the England team. But pay a fortune to get to Brighton or Brentford to do so.


IT is not just England who have prospered batting first at the Cricket World Cup – the entire tournament has favoured teams opting to bat first as opposed to trying to chase down a total, with pitches becoming slower as the day has progressed.

Should the toss play such an influential role in determining the outcome of a tournament? Or is there a better way to ensure teams are not overly helped or hindered?

At the very least, shouldn’t the teams who finished first and second in the group stage have been able to decide whether to bat or bowl first in the semi-finals without the need for a toss as a reward for their performances in their previous nine games?