Home Womens boots Sunderland hope post-Euro enthusiasm can boost crowds and ease return to WSL

Sunderland hope post-Euro enthusiasm can boost crowds and ease return to WSL


They still talk about Beth Mead in those parts. Steph Houghton too, and Lucy Bronze, with tones ranging from reverence to familiarity and, in the case of father and daughter supporting Durham in the supporters’ lounge at half-time, the giddy joy born of a summer impossible and which sends chants of “Meado, Meado” scrolling over the whitewashed walls.

Sunderland’s second Championship season opened with a River Wear derby – in other words, a 13-mile journey inland to Durham – and after all that happened on the international stage in recent weeks, the crowd will be almost double that which attended the corresponding match ten months ago. Durham twice sold out home games against Sunderland last season, but this time they had their fastest sale ever.

They owe, in part, the Lionesses to thank: the club experienced “a huge surge in game sales and subscriptions in the 48 hours following the final”, according to a club representative. The crowds behind the palisades run three, four bodies deep in places; those who couldn’t get one of the 1,500 tickets watch the hills rise and fall behind closed fences. There is a traffic jam that stretches for half a mile in the city center of cars waiting to enter Durham ground.

Those in the North East have more reason than most to shout a little louder about England’s recent exploits. Sunderland provided four players to the Euro 2022 winning squad last month – the number rises to six for Euro 2017 and seven for the 2019 World Cup – and among those are the Ballon d’Or nominees. Gold, England captains and this summer’s Golden Boot winner and player of The Tournament. Mead also won the 2015 WSL Golden Boot and Player of the Season award, a year after helping Sunderland to the top tier.

It’s a collective record of achievement and a treadmill: nearly two waves of golden generations when you consider Mead played alongside former Northern Ireland midfielder Rachel Furness for four and five years respectively after Houghton and Jill Scott bowed out at Wearside. What would the national team have looked like if the country had ended in Scarborough? Bronze-less, and poorer for it. Of course, the locals feel like proud parents.

“I couldn’t be more proud of Beth after this summer,” says Katie Hume, who has supported Sunderland Women since 2014. Back when the game’s managers and players were even more accessible, Hume, who attends all England games, would collar former head coach Mark Sampson and tell him to start Mead for England; he conceded to Hume after the finale that she had always been right.

“(The Euros) didn’t surprise us because I was expecting it – it was the Beth I saw in Sunderland,” adds Hume. “We’re just giving her a stage to show it off. She’s my favorite player of all time. I missed seeing Steph and Lucy and Jordan (Nobbs) but hopefully by some miracle we get Jill Scott back home one last time.

Fans without tickets for Sunday’s sold-out watch from a nearby hill (Picture: Getty Images)

Sunderland, says Hume, are “partly back in our place”. It’s a great way to put where the club find themselves after the events of recent years, and their fall from the top table in football to the FA Women’s National League Northern Premier Division, the third tier of women’s football in England. , and a jump to the championship (level two).

Amid the FA’s ambition to transform the WSL into a fully professional league by 2018, stricter licensing criteria have been added. Sunderland, having been increasingly ostracized under the club’s former chief executive Martin Bain, saw their applications for tiers one and two rejected at this stage.

Some of the internal changes made during this time said a lot about where one of the brightest corners in the club’s history ranked in their priority list. In one of those curious twists of dark humour, Sunderland Women ended up training in a suburb of Newcastle when they were pulled from the Academy of Light. A full-time model became a part-time model — a structure still in place today. With the biggest club laden with debt totaling £110m ($130.1m), Sunderland Women, like many before them, paid the biggest price for men’s relegation from the Premier League.

The wider issue was that Manchester City are still the most northerly club in the Women’s Super League. The North East covers over 3,000 square miles, but it was only with Sunderland’s re-admission to the Championship last season that a club from Tyneside or Wearside will find themselves in the top two divisions again.

Over the years, followers of women’s football have tended to view the demise of clubs such as Sunderland, Doncaster Belles and Notts County as inevitable growing pains. Women’s football cannot carry passengers amid its relentless upward push, and its existence will always be precarious when the current WSL model relies on the men’s game to fund teams at a time when they are not. not always considered central to the business.

Must it be so? Sunderland’s new owners brought the women’s team back to the Academy of Light. Head coach Melanie Copeland and general manager Alex Clark each have full-time contracts and the team will play at the Stadium of Light next week in a doubles match with the men’s team.

“I’m happy with the way the new owners are running the club at the moment as far as the women’s team is concerned,” Hume said. “We are thinking ahead, rather than rushing to (a) full-time (model). There’s a lot of money needed for that, and that’s (roughly) if we’re stable enough to do it. The last owners have completely forgotten about us. It’s like a Sunderland family again now. Good to see the growth of women’s football in the North East.

Durham switched to an all-professional model for the first time this season, handing out 20 full-time playing contracts. It’s a notable achievement for one of the few Championship clubs not associated with a men’s Premier League or Championship side – they have college ties instead – and they probably wouldn’t have been able to give it a go. Jess Clarke and her 52 The caps of England, to join them, this new configuration was not in place.

During the match itself came the news that Newcastle United Women are now under the ownership of Newcastle United Football Club for the first time in their history, a move that turned manager Becky Langley into full-time, but still tinged with unease given where the money came from. The fact that 22,134 Newcastle fans watched the team win 4-0 against Alnwick Town at St James’ Park in May gives an indication of the appetite for women’s football in the region.

Largely, Sunderland were the better side on Sunday – edgier and smoother in the final third – and their point was well deserved against the backdrop of how difficult they will have to work with this season.

Increasingly, Championship clubs are taking steps to become fully professional, but not always successfully or sustainably. Among Sunderland’s playing team are a firefighter, doctor, teachers and university students. “Players come three times a week and some come for ad hoc sessions to complete, but we have a very professional schedule and we train a lot during those three nights,” Copeland explains. “You saw that today was one-on-one with a full-time squad – there’s not much difference.”

“I still think we belong in the WSL,” Hume says. “Hopefully we will go back there in the near future.”

(Top photo: Mark Runnacles – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)