By Neil Evans.
Sunderland Ladies fired their way into the record books when they became the first team to be promoted into the top flight last season. Now they are looking to new boss Carlton Fairweather and making the Hetton Centre a fortress to ensure they stay there.
It’s been some adventure for Sunderland Ladies. Before a ball has been kicked the Lady Black Cats have made history, by being the first team directly promoted into WSL1. Worthy champions of the second tier last season, losing just once in an 18-game season. They were expected to challenge but most observers thought Donny Belles would emerge on top. It’s a real testament to the hard work, aptitude (and no little skill, too) of players and staff alike. Former head coach Claire Robinson led Sunderland to the top flight, but she has since been replaced by ex-Wimbledon star Carlton Fairweather, who has been charged with taking them to the next level.
It will be quite a challenge to keep them amongst the elite. There will be no more of the, relatively, easy games enjoyed in WSL2. But the new manager has an enthusiastic group of, mainly, young players hungry to prove everyone wrong. No team will relish a trip just to the south of Sunderland to the Hetton Centre; where Lady Black Cats will need to make the most of home advantage to survive the transition to the ‘big league’.
There’s no shortage of talent. The goalscoring exploits of Beth Mead have already been recognised at England U23 level, where she was part of the team out in La Manga. Fifteen goals in 20 games would catch anyone’s attention and she will be the one to watch this year.
Midfielder Keira Ramshaw weighed in with a healthy 10 goals in all competitions and is supported by the effervescent Rebekah Bass and former Everton midfielder Kelly McDougall. Rachel Furness provides big-match experience, with almost 50 caps for Northern Ireland, to a side lacking exactly that. Compatriot Sarah McFadden adds stability to the middle and her understanding with Furness could be pivotal.
Goalkeeper Rachael Laws spent some time at Liverpool on loan during the 2013 season and will need to draw on all of that knowledge to keep the Duggans, Alukos and Clarkes at bay. In front of her, Abby Holmes describes herself as a ‘no-nonsense defender’ but she chips in with a fair few goals. Gemma Wilson is the fulcrum of Sunderland’s defence and is the longest-serving player, who has travelled the road from (relative) obscurity to the WSL. Her organisational skills will be vital with such a young group around her. Stephanie Bannon is a talented, versatile full-back and is another integral component for the Lady Black Cats. Victoria Greenwell is a veritable elder stateswoman at 28 years old and can play across the back-line. She has played in America, which is experience that should stand her in good stead. Victoria Williams has been signed from Doncaster to strengthen a defence sure to be severely tested.
Overall, there are a few stars in this team and they do have the element of surprise on their side. My feeling is that they will need their home form to hold up to stand a fighting chance of staying up. Passion and commitment can get you so far, and there is no doubt that will be fully evident, but it may not be enough. These Lady Black Cats will need all of their nine lives, and then some, to ensure this season is not a one-off. With Liverpool and Manchester City in their first two games, Sunderland will surely be targeting the home game against Bristol Academy to kick-start their season. If they can win that, it may well be ‘game on’. If not, quite possibly game over.
2014: Champions WSL 2
2015: Prediction: 8th
Key Player: Beth Mead
Sunderland Ladies AFC begin their league campaign away to Liverpool, live on BT Sport, on March 25th at 19.45pm at the Select Security Stadium.
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