Sunderland midfielder Rachel Furness did not expect to find herself contemplating the league title going into the climax of the season. So she had to pinch herself as she said: “For us to win the Women’s Super League – being underdogs – would be the highlight of any Sunderland player’s career.” But with three matches remaining, and without having the benefit of any England Lionesses in their squad, ‘The Lasses’ find themselves second in the table and just three points off top spot.
Many tipped Sunderland for relegation, having only been accepted into the WSL structure last year. But they won the second division title at the first time of asking – their third consecutive league triumph – and were promoted to the top tier to play against teams bristling with international stars. Despite their recent successes, though, the team were expected to struggle against much tougher opposition. Manager Carlton Fairweather admitted: “It was always going to be a difficult challenge just staying up.”
However, this feeling was not shared by his team, in particular new signing Brooke Chaplen. “Everyone expected us to go back down, but I didn’t. I definitely didn’t think we’d be in the position we are today, but it goes to show if you work hard for one another you can always achieve more.”
The collective team effort has certainly paid off on the pitch, with the team blowing away supposedly higher-quality opposition on many occasions, most notably an outstanding 4-0 victory over current league leaders Chelsea in July.
However, one individual performer has stolen the headlines this season. Beth Mead, who netted a hat-trick in the Chelsea rout, has scored eleven goals so far, nearly double that of her nearest rival. Indeed, it is the same total as the combined efforts of Toni Duggan and Eni Aluko, two of England’s star performers at the recent World Cup. Mead’s scintillating form has led to calls for her inclusion in the national squad for the game against Estonia later this month. Fairweather believes “without a shadow of a doubt” that his star striker should be representing her country in the near future.
While Mead and her colleagues may have done the business on the pitch, it is no coincidence that their huge strides have come since their formal integration within the Sunderland AFC structure a few years ago. Margaret Byrne, Sunderland’s chief executive, played a key role in bringing about this change, recognising the need to create the “correct environment” that would help the team improve. “The majority of our squad are now full-time professional footballers. They train in the Academy where our first team, under-21 and under-18 teams train. They have a dedicated team of coaches, and they have access to the same facilities, sports science and medical care.”
One of the greatest beneficiaries of the changes is Furness, who was forced to retire from the game for two years with a serious knee injury and relies on the medical team to help manage the “chronic” joint. “I didn’t think for one second that I’d be playing at this level again. The treatment from the physios certainly helps me in the long run – when I first started at Sunderland we didn’t have one.”
In addition to this increase in financial and structural support, the players believe their fans are a crucial factor behind their success this season. “At times it feels as though there are 12 on the pitch with the encouragement that they get,” Fairweather reflected.
Chaplen recalls the 2-1 win against Notts County earlier in the season when Mead snatched a late winner. “For me that was just the crowd,” she said. “You could feel them building behind us and when that goal went in everything erupted.”
Tori Williams, defender and team joker, is also aware that the support has increased even further since England’s incredible performance at the World Cup, noticing “a new cluster of predominantly more male fans” watching the games since the tournament. “It’s something the women’s game has not really experienced in the past, but it’s definitely made a difference and I just hope that it lasts.”
Manchester City Women v Sunderland Ladies is on Sunday, September 6 2015
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Will Moulton is going into his third and final year studying Sport, Exercise and Physical Activity at Durham University. He follows and participates in a large number of sports, including cheerleading, but specialises in cricket, football and F1 and has written for his university newspaper. Will is reporting on the Sunderland Ladies football team this season. Will’s latest articles
If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the mixed zone and get free updates by email.
Please feel free to republish this article with credit to www.themixedzone.co.uk by Women’s Sport Trust. Images on our site may have licensing restrictions. If you would like to use the image featured in this article please contact ECB.