TEN years ago, women's football was regarded as the fastest growing sport in England.

Since then, giant strides have been made to improve clubs across the country in a bid to provide for the growing demand of females taking up the sport, and to try to compete with nations such as the USA and Germany, where the women's game is just as big as the men's.

The scale of development the game has undergone reached a new level when the much anticipated FA Women's Super League (WSL) got under way in April, while the national side are about to embark on their third World Cup campaign in Germany.

The arrival of the WSL teamed with England's impressive performances at recent major tournaments indicate that the game is in the best shape of its life, however, it seems the North-East has been left behind despite being one of the game's leading breeding grounds for emerging talent.

The North-East was dealt a huge blow when both Sunderland and Newcastle were excluded from the WSL.

The decision was a big shock, especially for the Lady Black Cats, who were the highest-ranked club to be excluded from the summer league after finishing fifth in the Women's Premier League the previous season.

Mick Mulhern's side have since won the Premier League and, to add salt to the wound, the FA recently announced that Sunderland's Centre of Excellence would not have its licence renewed for 2011, leaving over 60 girls to find new clubs.

Despite their disappointment at not being chosen, the club is determined to continue developing and will look to reapply for Super League status in the future.

Former Sunderland player Jen O'Neill admits the expulsion of North-East teams from the Super League was a massive blow and worries it could have a big effect on the future of the sport in the region.

"We were doing really well up here and I think if we'd had a team in the Super League we would have gone from strength to strength," said O'Neil, who edits the SheKicks.net website.

"We've missed out with the WSL and that's impacted on the centres of excellence.

"Now they've been pulled so you can't help but have a victim mentality about it.

"The North-East has contributed a lot of players to the England set-up in the youth teams and in the seniors.

"There's five Sunderland girls in the England Under-19 squad at the moment, more than Arsenal, so as a breeding ground it's equal to what we've contributed in the men's game.

"But the fact we don't have the Super League team has had a major impact on the development of the game up here.

"Everyone has to keep getting behind it, because there is a fear it could drop off.

"Talented female athletes, if they're good at football they're probably good at other things and the fear is if the opportunities aren't there in football, they'll pursue other sports.

"There are still chances for girls here, but they could be better and I think it's easy for us to be ignored."

One of the major repercussions of Sunderland's exclusion from the WSL has seen a number of players leave the North-East to join clubs who are in the summer league.

Sunderland-born duo Jill Scott and Steph Houghton, who are preparing for England's World Cup opener against Mexico on Monday, came up through the ranks on Wearside, but have since moved to Super League sides Everton and Arsenal respectively.

Helen Alderson, Jordan Nobbs and Lucy Staniforth were also part of a mass exodus from the North-East once the Lady Black Cats failed to win a place in the inaugural Super League.

"The North-East has lost so many players to the Super League," O'Neill said.

"They might have come back if Sunderland had got into the Super League. There's about eight or nine North-East girls playing across the country for various teams, and its a shame that they've had to leave the region, but hopefully people in the North-East will tune in and be proud of Steph and Jill."

Speaking on England's chances in Germany, O'Neill believes the national side are still some way behind the likes of Germany and Brazil, but insists they should aim for the semi-finals at least.

"Getting to the final in 2009 was a massive achievement and the way England played in the final was pretty thrilling," she said.

"The assistant coach of Germany even said that England are a team to fear now and that shows how far we've come.

"There's clear favourites for the tournament, but to get to the quarters would be great and I'm sure the girls would expect to do better than that.

"I think Germany are just so far out there. There will be massive expectation on them but they've handled that in the past. The USA are funny at the moment, they're up and down in their results so we're not quite sure where they're going to be at. Brazil are going to win a major tournament soon and this could be their year.

"The exciting thing about this women's World Cup is that all the teams who are considered serious contenders are well known for their attacking play and that's what fans want to see."