On a sweltering July night in the middle of a French heatwave six graduates of Sunderland Ladies started England’s narrow Women’s World Cup semi-final defeat by the United States. The sight of Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze, Jill Scott et al assuming centre-stage represented a bitter-sweet sight for many on Wearside where the club that has played such an integral part in the recently burgeoning growth of the women’s game seemed to have all but fallen off the edge of the footballing world.
It is not long ago that the talent factory which provided the nucleus of the Lionesses teams that reached the semi-finals of the last three major international tournaments was in effect divorced by its parent men’s club. No longer able to finance a fully professional squad, Sunderland were demoted two divisions from the Women’s Super League by the Football Association and shunted to the game’s margins.
Yet less than two months on from the pride and pain of Lyon, the mood on Wearside proved unexpectedly buoyant on Sunday. It was not really about the mini heatwave embracing north-east England – although that helped – but two extremely welcome surprises.
The first involved Melanie Reay’s Sunderland facing Becky Langley’s Newcastle United in a League Cup tie in front of a crowd of 1,168 at the 49,000-capacity Stadium of Light. Small wonder England’s Beth Mead – another Sunderland old girl cum France 2019 star – had tweeted a good luck message to Reay’s players before the first female Wear-Tyne derby in seven years. “Love the support from Sunderland AFC, about time!” reflected Mead. “Let’s get this club back where it belongs.”
If that was not sufficient cause for optimism, the news that Sunderland AFC is set to be taken over by a group of wealthy American investors supported by Michael Dell – of Dell computers fame and, depending on whom you believe, either the 20th or 25th richest man in the world – most certainly was. It is early days and the EFL has still to ratify the deal but there is already talk of the newcomers planning to nurture Reay’s squad.
Admittedly the determining round of the FA Women’s National League Cup is hardly the most powerful crowd magnet but, when a fire at Eppleton Colliery Welfare, the Ladies’ usual match-day venue, threatened a postponement, Stewart Donald, Sunderland’s current owner, did not hesitate to switch the tie to the Stadium of Light.
Granted three sides of the ground were empty but, the 1,168 in the main stand was better than many WSL attendances. They enjoyed an engrossing derby featuring Beth Gardener’s eye-catching 20-yard lob opening the scoring for Newcastle before Jess Brown contributed an equally spectacular equaliser, her rising 25 yard shot soaring into the top corner.
Shortly before half-time Brown connected with the fall-out from a free-kick to make it 2-1 and beneath an unbroken blue sky with not a hint of a cloud in sight, supporters’ chat turned to the takeover.
While Donald is expected to continue running things on a daily basis, he is set to sell most of his majority stake to MSD Partners Limited, an investment group supported by Dell. With MSD’s John Phelan, Glenn Fuhrman and Rob Platek likely to be the club’s public face – they were in the directors’ box on Saturday as Jack Ross’s men beat Wimbledon 3-1 in League One – Dell looks poised for a minor, hands-off role.
If the priority is to propel Ross’s players back into the Premier League, Donald has already ended the Ladies’ exile from the club’s high-calibre training base, the Academy of Light, bringing them firmly back into the SAFC fold.
For a time after the previous hierarchy pulled the financial plug, Reay and her players were forced to train at shared facilities on Tyneside where they had reason to feel envious of the support, albeit strictly limited, that Mike Ashley offers Newcastle Women.
Fourth-tier residents, Langley’s side are affiliated to Ashley’s Newcastle in a slightly detached way which sees them heavily supported by Northumbria University, where Langley doubles as head of women’s football.
Here her team rarely made life straightforward for hosts persistently thwarted by Grace Donnelly’s brilliant goalkeeping. Imogen Longcake’s 20-yard equalising chip made for a tense denouement but Bridget Galloway enjoyed the final word, her decisive goal sweeping Sunderland into the next round. As Michael Dell will doubtless be saying to himself: “Haway the Lasses.”