SUNDERLAND Ladies are hoping to grab their share of cup fever on Wearside!
While the men’s side have the Capital One Cup final to look forward to in March, the Ladies kick off their season tomorrow with an FA Cup third round match at home to Oxford United at Eppleton CW (1pm).
Sunderland reached the final back in 2009, losing to Arsenal, and made the quarter-finals in the last two campaigns.
This season’s cup campaign starts early – the Lady Black Cats’ league season in the second division of the Super League does not begin until April.
And the conflict between the Super League’s summer season, and the rest of the women’s pyramid playing a conventional winter season, means Sunderland – and fellow FA WSL2 side Oxford – are still early in their pre-season preparations.
Sunderland have only had one warm-up game so far, with the weather accounting for another planned game, but boss Mick Mulhern is nevertheless ready to get his side back in action,
“It’s been a long break!” he said; his side having completed a hat-trick of Premier League titles back in May last year.
“It’s been a long time coming, but there’s been things happening behind the scenes, with the club having been taken on by SAFC again.
“The players have been working for months on strength and conditioning and that has been something we have wanted to be doing for a long time. It’s vital for the players not to be left behind in their physical condition.
“They are certainly stronger and leaner, what they lack at the moment is match fitness, which is what we are looking at now.
“Apart from the FA Cup, there are plenty of games pencilled in before the league season starts.”
Mulhern expects a tough test from Oxford, who also won a place in FA WSL2 this season.
“They are a really good club and have some excellent players,” he said. “A lot of teams in this division have strengthened significantly, with some of the London teams now having players from last year’s Super League who were not getting regular games.
“It’s going to be very tight, and I’d have Doncaster Belles (who were relegated last season) as favourites because they have had the years of experience and training in the Super League.”
Mulhern has strengthened his squad with winger Bekki Bass from Leeds United, England College midfielder Lauren Briggs from Durham, and Brogan McHugh has stepped up from Sunderland’s Centre of Excellence.
There has been a setback, though, with Briggs having suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury – the same injury that also has Natalie Gutteridge and Becky Salicki sidelined.
Gutteridge is pencilled in for a return in April or May, with Briggs looking at July, but Salicki will miss the entire season.
“It’s been tough for the injured players,” said Mulhern, who is also without Keira Ramshaw, Sarah McFadden and Abby Holmes with injuries tomorrow.
“We obviously hope they make full recoveries as quickly as possible. I still have one or two places available in my squad for new signings, but we will wait and see on whether anything can happen on that.
“At the moment, I’m just looking at tomorrow’s game and hoping we can put together a run in the cup.”
SAFC season card holders can gain entry to the game at Hetton for £2. Standard admission is £4 for adults and £1 for concessions.
H Newly-formed Durham WFC, who will also play in FA WSL2 this season, make their competitive debut at New Ferens Park tomorrow (noon) with a third round clash against Chichester City, who play in the South West Combinations League.