Before the start of the new WSL, Neil Evans predicts another solid season for Sunderland AFC Ladies… but calls for Beth Mead’s teammates to take at least some of the goal-scoring pressure off her shoulders.
Team: Sunderland AFC Ladies
Manager: Carlton Fairweather
Home: The Hetton Centre, Hetton-le-Hole
2015: 4th WSL1
Promoted as champions of WSL2 in 2014, many saw the Lady Black Cats as an unknown quantity heading into last season. But by the time of the Women’s World Cup break, they were the talk of the game having taken the league by storm.
A well-managed, tight knit group had effortlessly made the step up in class look routine and, by that halfway point, were already secure amongst the elite long before their final match. Just as well because, after briefly topping the table, their form (perhaps unsurprisingly) dipped – with just a solitary point taken from their final four fixtures.
But, that is essentially a moot point. The objective was to consolidate their hard won WSL1 status and it was mission accomplished for Fairweather’s fledglings.
The tone was set right from the opening televised game away at Liverpool, where a single Beth Mead header defeated the reigning champions and sent a powerful shockwave through the league.
I was one among many who had seriously underestimated the spirit, togetherness and ability in the squad. Throw into the mix a passionate home support and the emergence of Mead as the top striker in the WSL, and many were left with a lot of egg on their faces.
After that opening win, their only other victory before the World Cup was at home to Bristol and they had much to ponder following two heavy losses before the welcome chance to regroup.
But the three games after Canada 2015 saw Sunderland secure maximum points – the high point, a four goal demolition of Chelsea that propelled them (briefly) into the title race.
Fairweather found out a lot about his players in that run and that character will serve them well again this term.
They will need another standout season from Mead – scorer of 14 goals in 19 games in all competitions – to accumulate the necessary points.
What they won’t have is the element of surprise.
Opposition defences will target Mead and other players will need to spread the goals more evenly.
It wasn’t just the Sunderland number nine that made a big impact last season though. Rachel Laws was outstanding between the sticks and was deservedly called up to the full England squad for a tournament in China. Rachel Furness was a rock in central midfield, winning more aerial duels than any WSL player last season. And the good news is that skipper Steph Bannon, Hayley Sharp, Tori Williams and longest-serving player Abby Holmes are still in place – a reliable, stable and well-drilled unit.
Former England youth international, Rachel Pitman has joined after completing her studies in the US and the major coup is the acquisition of Kylia Sjoman from Celtic Ladies – a vastly experienced defender who knows the English game (having played in the first WSL with Doncaster) and having also played in America and Germany.
Plenty of options in defence then, and Fairweather has been active strengthening the Wearsiders’ midfield also.
Krystle Johnston is an exciting, attacking midfielder and arrives from Manchester City and joining her is the talented Lucy Staniforth – someone who deserves some luck in a career that has been stunted by injuring both ACLs. It will be great to see Lucy enjoying her football and getting more game time than she managed at previous club Liverpool.
Keira Ramshaw and Brooke Chaplen provide the power and physicality in the middle and are an integral part of the Lady Black Cats’ high-tempo game. Kelly McDougall is another experienced leader on the pitch, while Emma Kelly is a promising youngster.
Of course, Beth Mead needs no further introduction and was joined during last season by Ballon D’Or nominee Stephanie Roche (who has somewhat suffered with the expectation that she can score goals like that all the time). Roche will surely play with a lot more freedom now that all the hype surrounding her wonder-strike has abated.
And keep an eye on Abbey Joice, who is known as ‘Sunderland’s Messi’ and has a potential breakthrough year ahead of her. She is very highly rated within the club.
It would be asking too much for Sunderland to repeat last season’s fourth place finish, but there is a lot to like about this squad.
There is no way that this team should be relegated, they are simply too good for that, and I think they will be battling with the likes of Notts County and Doncaster for a mid-table berth.
If there is cause for concern, it has to be others needing to step up to score if Mead is stifled, but overall another solid season beckons.
First game: v Reading Women (H) March 26th
Player to watch: Beth Mead