SINCE taking over at the Stadium of Light at the start of the year, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus has made supporting Sunderland Ladies a key component of his plan to overhaul the Black Cats. There have already been positive results, with Sunderland’s promotion to the FA Women’s Championship a huge step forward for a team that has endured some difficult times in the last few years.

Newcastle United Women currently languish in WPL Division One North, effectively the fourth tier of the women’s game, but if Amanda Staveley gets her way, the Magpies’ women’s team is set to be transformed following last week’s takeover. Denied the opportunity to play football herself when she was growing up in North Yorkshire, Staveley wants to ensure the women’s game flourishes on Tyneside.

In time, both Sunderland and Newcastle could become major forces in women’s football. For now, though, when it comes to leading the North-East charge, it is Durham Women that are firmly established as the region’s top dogs.

Bolstered by a tie-up with Durham University that means they are financially stable despite the lack of a relationship with a senior men’s team, Durham Women harbour realistic ambitions of becoming the first North-East team to compete in the Women’s Super League.

Yesterday’s River Wear derby win over Sunderland made it four 2-0 victories in a row and lifted the Wildcats to the top of the Championship table, two points clear of Liverpool. It cemented Durham’s position as promotion candidates, and just as importantly, given the positive noises emanating from their local rivals, confirmed Durham’s position as the North-East’s leading lights.

“It means a bit more to beat Sunderland,” said Beth Hepple, whose free-kick at the start of the second half broke the deadlock at Sunderland’s Eppleton ground before Molly Lambert’s 76th-minute strike confirmed Durham’s victory. “I was on the losing side many a time against Sunderland, back in the day.

“For me personally, and for quite a few of the girls that have played for Sunderland, it does mean a little bit more. I’m sure the Sunderland girls would say the same.

“It’s brilliant in general for the North-East though, to have two teams competing with each other at the top end of the Championship. There’s a lot of talent up here in the North-East, but we need the kids to be able to feed into teams. It’s been a really good day.”

There was precious little to choose between the local rivals during a tight first half in which chances were at a premium. Durham’s Megan Borthwick made a smart save from Neve Herron, who fired in a shot after the visiting defence failed to deal with a corner, while at the other end, Sunderland’s Claudia Moan got down smartly to keep out a long-range strike from Lambert.

Hepple opened the scoring shortly before the hour mark, curling home an excellent free-kick from the corner of the 18-yard box that seemed to catch Moan off guard.

Durham were the dominant force throughout the second half, and Lambert deservedly doubled her side’s lead as she raced on to Emily Roberts’ through ball before slotting home a low finish.

Lambert almost added a third goal with four minutes remaining, only for Moan to turn her driven shot around the post.

“It was a difficult game because we had a bit of pressure on us,” said Hepple. “To be honest, I don’t actually think we played that well, but maybe that’s a good thing because it shows we can win in different ways.

“The league is so close that each game and each point is already really vital. It has been for the past few years, but I think this is probably the closest it’s been.”

There was disappointment for Sunderland at the final result, although the fact the club are in seventh position, comfortably clear of the relegation zone, is a major positive given this is their first season back in the Championship following this summer’s reorganisation of the league structure.

The Lady Black Cats do not look out of place in the second tier, and can look forward to continued growth with the ongoing support of Louis-Dreyfus and sporting director Kristjaan Speakman. England’s visit to the Stadium of Light for a World Cup qualifier at the end of next month should be another shot in the arm.

“We’ve got our aims for the season and we know what we want from the games,” said Sunderland skipper Keira Ramshaw. “We’ve probably had a better start than we thought we would, and it’s actually a nice feeling going into games in this league as the underdogs.

“Nobody knows what they’re going to get when they come up against us, but we’ve got a good mix of experienced players and younger ones coming through. In the Women’s Championship, teams can take points off anyone. It’s exciting, and we just want to keep pushing on.

“The game’s become massive in the last few years, and it’s great to be a part of that. It’s great to have local derbies like this, and it’s great to see all the kids here watching, knowing they can come into something like this.”