What a pleasure, after a season of such disappointment for Sunderland AFC, to be able to congratulate a team in our red and white stripes. Sunderland Women’s Football Club again won the Premier title and this time the FA could find no spurious reason to justify shutting the door of the Super League to them. We asked Paul Dobson – Sobs of A Love Supreme fame and also one of this site’s great friends – to write about the exploits of a side he occasionally watches in action. It appears at Salut! Sunderland as Monsieur Salut’s younger daughter, Nathalie, prepares to line up with her London-based team Old Actonians for a friendly against Toulon in the south of France (minus “Sir” Jonny, as my neighbour calls him, absent – as is neighbour – at the French rugby cup final at the Stade de France) …
Believe it or not, there’s a team called Sunderland, sporting the slogan Invest in Africa on their shirts, who have done rather well this season just gone
Unlike their male counterparts, Sunderland Women’s Football Club has been the team of the season in their division, winning the League title and thus becoming the Premier League National Division Champions for the third consecutive year.
Last season they doubled up by taking the Premier League Cup, and in 2009 narrowly lost the RFA Cup Final to Arsenal.
Add to that winning the Premier League Northern Division title three times and coming second three times, plus winning the Keele International Tournament, and they’ve squeezed in a lot of success in their fourteen year existence. For thirteen of those years, manager Mick Mulhearn (who apparently learned his trade as part of the A Love Supreme 5-a-side team) has been at the helm, and he is the proud possessor of two “manager of the year” awards.
With all of that success, you could be forgiven for wondering why the team is not part of the top division, the Super League. Well, they applied back in 2010, as they had the backing and the facilities, but in what seemed like a particularly obvious political decision, they were knocked back in favour of what looked like several decidedly inferior southern clubs. Finally, this summer, the powers that be have seen the embarrassing error of their ways and the girls have been let in, so the world is very much their oyster – at long last.
On a personal level, I’ve been an occasional watcher for the last five years or so, partly because the team are called Sunderland and play in red and white, but mainly, I have to admit, because my mate’s daughter plays for them. I thoroughly enjoyed the games I’ve seen, and been to an FA Cup Final.
OK, it was “only” at Pride Park, and the teenagers of Sunderland were pitted against the seasoned professionals of Arsenal, with their model looks, their big contracts, and their hundreds of international caps, but it was a proper game of football.
Forget that a pint of Marston’s Fizz cost more than my match ticket, it was a great occasion made all the greater when the cameras zoomed in on player Natalie Gutteridge and her dad Dave– a Villa fan wearing a Sunderland shirt for the day.
It’s a shame they missed him losing his temper when an Arsenal defender clattered Nat, as that would have made great post-watershed TV. He even counts Newcastle supporters amongst those he’s converted to shouting for Sunderland Women – even against Newcastle.
There are those who will decry women’s football as less skilful, slower, and less passionate. To those people I say “give it a try.” There are obviously things a young lady can’t do that a seasoned male professional can, but if you’ve ever been to a SWAFC v NUWAFC (that’s the ladies’ derby) you’ll know that passion and commitment is there in abundance.
The tackles fly in, the players give each other the eye, call each other names, and bodies have been known to fly as the girls, particularly those in the proper stripes, show that they really care. There’s no small amount of skill either, with ball control of the highest order, and some great surges from deep midfield to keep you entertained. If you think girls can’t head the ball, consider that Natalie scored more than 10 goals with her head a couple of seasons back.
Of course, with success comes ambition, and without elevation to that Super League, some players could not fulfil it with SWAFC. Remember Steph Houghton’s goals in the Olympics for England? Ex Sunderland, now with six goals in 34 games for England – not bad for a defender. Jordan Nobbs, daughter of former Hartlepool player Keith, who recently scored for Arsenal in the FA Cup Final (alongside Houghton)? Ex Sunderland, now with four England caps and a goal.
You’ll find the crowd at Hetton to have a higher percentage of female fans, as you’d expect, but a surprising number of “traditional” football fans (flat cap, traditionally tied Sunderland scarf, lots of opinions), and the compulsory proud parents.
The players still shout things like “man on” and everything else that the boys shout, with a bit of choice language thrown in for good measure, but you’ll enjoy the game. In recent seasons, part of that enjoyment has been due to Sunderland’s winning most games, but also because there’s been some decent football played. Next season, part of that enjoyment will be because at last the girls will be deservedly pitting themselves against the rest of the best teams in the land.
So, with the Super League to look forward to, the likes of Beth Mead, Steph Bannon, Rachel Furness, Sophie Williams, Keira Ramshaw (and they’re just the one I remember) and of course Nat, once recovered from injury (Dave will not be pleased if I leave her out) will be spending the summer planning ways to up their game and prove that they are worth their place there. With a successful reserve team, a number of young players gaining international recognition – Emma Kelly, Grace Donnelly and Brogan McHugh have been selected to attend an England U17s training camp – and senior players also gaining recognition, with Abbey Joice and forwards Keira Ramshaw and Beth Mead having recently been selected to attend an England U19 training camp, things are looking good.
The girls play in red and white, they’re proud to do so, and they deserve as much support as they can get, so why not try spending a Sunday afternoon at Hetton? You’ll enjoy it.
* Sobs, on loan from A Love Supreme. A bit like Shaun Elliott spending his summer holidays with Seattle Sounders, if you like
See all Salut! Sunderland’s articles recalling May 5 1973 and the run that took SAFC to FA Cup glory: https://safc.blog/category/fa-cup/may-5-1973/