CARLTON Fairweather faces his first serious test as head coach – to lift his Sunderland Ladies and fast.
The Lady Black Cats suffered their second defeat in Women’s Super League 1, and their first – and hopefully only – caning, when they were taken apart by Arsenal.
We played against a very good side I expect to be one of the three fighting for the title.
It has to be noted there were mitigating factors.
Sunderland lost midfielder Keira Ramshaw to illness early on at Borehamwood, with Rachel Furness coming off at the break with a groin problem.
And worse was to follow as Abby Holmes was sent off 18 minutes from time after chopping down Arsenal legend Kelly Smith.
It was 1-1 at that stage and after Natalia send Rachael Laws the wrong way from the spot to put the Gunners ahead, it was a case of how many?
The answer was four, with sub Carla Humphrey and the dangerous Dan Carter adding late goals.
Given Arsenal’s second-half dominance, it would be hard to argue with the final margin.
Now would probably a good time for a break but the Cats are back in WSL1 action on Wednesday night at Notts County.
Holmes is out suspended and it must be hoped that Furness responds to treatment to play at Meadow Lane.
While Furness was not at her best in the opening 45 minutes, she will be needed out on the park.
She was not alone in being short of her best. Too many had off-days.
Sunderland barely saw the ball in the second half and the dismissal of Holmes at a time when some players seemed to just melt away meant the defence came under the heaviest of pressures.
“It was a massive learning curve for the girls,” Fairweather admitted.
“We played against a very good side I expect to be one of the three fighting for the title.
“They are one of the best sides we’ve played so far and full of internationals.
“Arsenal have quality players who caused us all sorts of problems.
“We kept ourselves in the game in the first half, when we worked really hard, but the penalty decision and sending off has affected the game.
“That put us down to 10 when it was already hard enough with 11.
“I’ll have to watch it (the sending off) again, but I don’t think I can have any complaints.
“Having spoken with the girls, we are all very disappointed with how we played.
“They know they can do better and hopefully they’ll put that right on Wednesday.”
Sunderland got off to a bad start at this second v third battle at Meadow Park, with Arsenal going in front in the fifth minute through their gifted Spanish forward.
Her full name is Natalia De Pablos Sanchon but she prefers to be known as Natalia and who are we to argue?
She got the better of Steph Bannon before delivering from the left side.
It looked more cross than shot but whatever it was, it curled beyond Laws and into the net.
While the Gunners have Natalia, the Cats have Meado.
After Sunderland woke up, Beth Mead flashed a shot millimetres wide after a rapid run down the right.
But it was the left channel which brought her second WSL1 goal in the 25th minute.
Furness flicked on Laws’ kick and Mead ran into the box and beat Emma Byrne with the most delicious of finishes.
The rest of the first half was probably, in boxing parlance, level on points.
But sometimes matches can swing on key decisions and there were two potential away penalties.
Mead and defender Casey Stoney went down in a heap in the 29th minute.
Referee Stuart Franklin may have seen it as six of one and half a dozen of the other, but had it not happened in the area, it would have been intriguing to see what he’d have awarded.
There looked no debate three minutes later when Alex Scott wrestled Brooke Chaplen to the floor in virtually the same spot. But again referee Franklin said no.
Sunderland had a glorious opening early in the second half when Mead burst forward and squared for Kelly McDougall.
The sub had a clear sight at goal but her shot was a tame one and straight at Byrne, who dealt with it easily.
Arsenal boss Pedro Martinez Losa had the luxury of bringing Kelly Smith off the bench.
She opened up the defence with a one-two with Natalia and had the goal at her mercy.
Would Laws have saved? We’ll never know as Holmes brought down the Gunners legend, surely through her defender’s instinct.
It was the last we saw of both players. Holmes was sent off and Smith stretchered off, though she was back on her feet later thankfully.
Natalia beat Laws from 12 yards and and it was three when Humphrey side-footed in from close range after Carter had crossed from the badly-guarded left.
Carter put the icing on the cake five minutes from time when she was allowed to turn and shoot from the edge of the area and her finish was decisive past the diving Laws into her bottom-right corner.
Arsenal: Byrne, Williamson, Stoney, Rose, Scott, Losada, Bailey, Sanderson (Smith 65, Mitchell 76), Obogagu (Humphrey 66), Sanchon, Carter. Subs (not used): Augustus, Yankey, Weir, C Kelly. Goals: Natalia 5, 74 (pen), Humphrey 78, Carter 85. Booked: None
Sunderland Ladies: Laws, Holmes, Sharp, Bannon, T Williams, Joice, McFadden (Greenwell 62), Furness (McDougall 46), Chaplen, Ramshaw (Kelly 16), Mead. Subs (not used): Harkness, Wilson, Bass, Gutteridge. Goal: Mead 25. Booked: None. Sent off: Holmes 72
Referee: Stuart Franklin. Att: 815