Sunderland Ladies 1 Doncaster Belles 2
AN inescapable air of anti-climax hung heavily over the Hetton Centre when the final whistle went on this critical top-of-the-table clash.
Home fans had known Sunderland needed only to win this game against their second-placed rivals to guarantee promotion to the highest level of women’s football.
But party-poopers Doncaster had the final word on Saturday night, coming from behind to snatch victory in the final few minutes.
It is a victory likely to ensure the title battle goes down to the wire and it was not what most of a record crowd of 1,177 had turned up to see.
A couple of SAFC board directors had made the journey across from the Stadium of Light for a match which had enjoyed no shortage of pre-match publicity.
Presentations had been prepared in the event of a home win, and at kick-off the mood was one of excited expectation.
But the longed for victory proved elusive for the Black Cats despite the most promising of starts for manager Mick Mulhern’s players.
Doncaster made it clear, going on the attack in the very first minute, that they were not afraid of taking the game to the Black Cats.
But it needed a good tackle to stop Beth Mead in the Belles’ 18-yard box in the third minute.
And in the fifth and 10th minutes goal-bound efforts from Rachel Furness and Sophie Williams were cleared off the line.
A home goal was beginning to look inevitable and it duly arrived on the quarter-hour when a looping Beth Mead header from Steph Bannon’s free-kick steered the ball over Donny keeper Nicola Hobbs’ despairing stretch and into the far corner.
Belles’ reply came through midfielder Rhiannon Roberts in the 20th minute but it was feeble, her long-range shot well off target.
Sunderland dominated the opening half-hour, though they came close to conceding an unlikely goal on the half-hour when Victoria Greenwell smashed a teasing cross against her own goalpost and clear.
The home team’s problem was that they couldn’t grab a second goal against a massed Doncaster defence.
And the Belles came into it much more as the game approached half-time, earning a succession of corners and looking to get a psychologically-important equaliser.
The closest they came was a skewed effort from Bethany England which flashed well wide but they had a set a platform from which they built in the second half after a stern team talk from manager Gordon Staniforth.
Up until the hour mark it was nip and tuck.
In the 53rd Black Cats’ keeper Rachael Laws was tested by a long-range effort from Courtney Sweetman-Kirk.
Two minutes later, Sunderland hit back with a rising shot from Kiera Ramshaw which soared just over the target.
The Belles immediately swept back upfield and from a 25-yard free-kick Bethany England struck Laws’ crossbar.
It was anybody’s game at this stage but Belles made it their own in the 61st minute when Jess Siggsworth got on the end of a cross from the left and directed the ball past Laws from close range with a powerful header.
The home side were stung and five minutes later Sunderland striker Mead was released for a run on goal, unleashing a powerful low shot from the edge of the area but straight at keeper Hobbs.
Belles needed the win and went out to get it.
Sue Smith curled in a delightfully weighted effort in the 68th minute which was heading into the top corner before the intervention of Laws.
Next, Siggsworth advanced down the left and fired into the side netting when well placed.
Doncaster were now pushing for all their worth and Sunderland dangerously conceded space as they sought to contain the Belles’ ambition.
The Black Cats showed character and in the 78th minute Mead sprinted 30 yards before testing Hobbs.
Seconds later Mead and Abbey Joice exchanged passes on the edge of the area before Joice fired an excellent opening inches wide.
That could have been the clincher had it gone in. But another critical moment arrived minutes later when Mead sprinted to the edge of the Doncaster area before being chopped down by an awful challenge from the already-booked Leandra Little.
It looked like a sending-off and free-kick all day long but no action was taken and Doncaster made the most of the reprieve, taking the lead for the first time in the match in the 83rd minute with a fine effort from Victoria Williams.
Sunderland pushed hard in the time remaining to get something out of the game but were unable to prevent their season-long unbeaten run from perishing.
The final whistle meant Sunderland were denied the fairytale finish: winning the title in front of their home fans by beating their second-placed rivals.
They remain favourites but will probably need to win their final two games, both away from home.
Sunderland: Laws, Holmes, Bannon, Sharp, Greenwell, McDougall, Furness, Williams, Joice, Mead, Ramshaw (sub Bass 79). Subs not used: Alderson, Wilson, Beer, Gutteridge, Briggs, Kelly.
Doncaster Belles: Hobbs, Cunningham, Roberts, Little, Williams, England (sub Thomas 76), Bright, Lipka, Sigsworth (sub Mills 78), Smith, Sweetman- Kirk. Subs not used: Stamp, Cresswell.
Ref: Rebecca Welsh. Att: 1,177.