IT HAS been a draining and frustrating three years for Sunderland to make their bow in the Women’s Super League.
After being controversially snubbed from the initial draft of the competition, the now defunct Premier League rarely provided a genuine test of the Black Cats’ mettle.
Even now, after finally being included in the WSL, Sunderland are being forced to earn promotion from the second tier, rather than fighting for the national title – a chance they surely deserve given the conveyor belt of players they have produced for the England team.
But the wait for Mick Mulhern’s side to make their WSL bow was worth it last night, as they swept aside local rivals Durham with a comprehensive 4-2 win at New Ferens Park.
Other than a five-minute spell early in the second half, Sunderland dominated, with their superior bite and ball retention proving too much for the hosts.
Sunderland went desperately close to making a dream start by getting their noses in front early on, but were denied by the woodwork.
Victoria Greenwell’s corner from the right picked out the unmarked Rachel Furness at the far post, but the midfielder sent her header against the outside of the post from six yards.
Sunderland controlled the exchanges which followed, with Durham struggling to emerge from their own half or offer any attacking threat.
That clear-cut opportunity to get their noses in front continued to elude the Black Cats though, with dangerous front pair Beth Mead and Abbey Joice frustrated in their attempts to carve open the Durham defence.
But the strike partnership finally combined to devastating effort in the 27th minute, as Sunderland produced a beautifully worked goal.
Joice showed excellent quick feet to find a yard of space midway inside the Durham half before playing a one-two on the edge of the area with Mead, whose return ball left her strike partner with just goalkeeper Danielle Hill to beat.
She finished emphatically, placing the ball clinically in the far bottom corner from the left of goal.
Sunderland almost doubled their advantage when Greenwell’s corner was flicked on cleverely at the near post by Mead.
The ball bobbled into the path of Gemma Wilson, six yards out, but her effort was cleared off the line before Durham eventually scrambled it away following an almighty goalmouth scramble.
But six minutes before the interval, the game endured a lengthy stoppage after Sunderland keeper Rachael Laws suffered what looked to be a bad injury, following an accidental collision with Durham’s Beth Jennings as she tried to clear the ball.
Laws immediately signalled to the bench in agony before eventually being stretchered off, with back-up stopper Helen Alderson taking her place. Thankfully, subsequent treatment showed Laws had only suffered bad bruising.
The delay resulted in a hefty period of first-half stoppage time and, in the seventh minute of it, Sunderland doubled their advantage after Durham conceded a needless free-kick on the edge of the area.
Greenwell stepped up left-footed and curled it in off the underside of the bar, with goalkeeper Hill left motionless.
But just five minutes into the second half, Durham halved the deficit after an opening day contender for goal of the season.
Midfielder Zoe Ness, 45 yards out, spotted Alderson off her line and unleashed an audacious lob which the Sunderland keeper couldn’t get enough on to prevent it finishing in the roof of the net.
It sparked some life into Durham, with the hosts playing with more intensity and matching the visitors’ physicality in the moments which followed.
But it wasn’t to last.
In the 55th minute, Sunderland restored their two-goal advantage after Mead was tripped by Lauren Jordinson as she drove down the left-hand side of the area, following an excellent forward burst from the impressive Furness.
Mead stepped up to the spot herself and smashed it high into the roof of the net.
Sunderland made it four in the 71st minute when home keeper Hill failed to hold Greenwell’s corner from the right.
Wilson went airborne and connected with a scissor kick which rocketed into the top of the net.
Durham were handed a lifeline with five minutes to go when Sunderland defender Wilson was caught in possession on the edge of her own area by Rosie Young.
Young’s shot was saved well by Alderson before Wilson brought the Durham substitute down 15 yards out as she attempted to reach the rebound.
Durham skipper Caroline Dixon sent Alderson the wrong way from the penalty spot.
It couldn’t dent a historic evening for Sunderland though, as they began their promotion challenge in emphatic fashion.
DURHAM: Hill, Christon, King, Jordinson, Hanratty, B Jennings (Lawson 86), Hepple (Young 61), Crooks (Hardy 71), Ness, Dixon, Round. Subs not used: Luther, J Jennings.
SUNDERLAND: Laws (Alderson 45), Beer, Bannon, Wilson, Greenwell, McDougal, Furness (Kelly 79), Joice, Ramshaw, Mead, Bass. Subs not used: Holmes, Dodds, Olley.