SUNDERLAND’S rehearsals for the Women’s Super League must be completed on a strictly friendly basis.
The Lady Black Cats had hoped to hone their preparations for a WSL trip to champions Liverpool on March 25 with a run in the FA Cup.
But their adventure in the famous competition is over before it even started after an agonising injury-time exit at Aston Villa.
Sadly, the only magic of the cup was provided by Villa’s Emily Owen who clinched the third-round tie with a peach of a volley at Sutton Coldfield.
The match, which Sunderland had shaded, was set for extra-time when Sarah Mayling swung over a corner from the right.
To say the defender connected sweetly with her right boot would be an understatement – it was a finish Michael Owen would have been poud of as her shot flashed past Rachael Laws.
It left the Sunderland players and new head coach Carlton Fairweather “disappointed”, especially after the red and whites had led at Coles Lane through Keira Ramshaw.
Fairweather and the Lady Black Cats will now tune up for WSL with three friendlies against Scottish opposition, starting with Rangers at Consett on Sunday.
“We’re all disappointed, but there were positives, especially in the second half,” said the head coach, who admitted his players are still shaking off some ring-rust after the close-season.
“Overall, it was not the result we would have liked but there were good things to come out of the game.
“We improved in the second half. There were not many clear-cut chances, but we asked questions of their defence and keeper.
“We have pre-season friendlies coming up against Rangers, Hibs and Celtic, which will help get us ready for the real challenge which is Super League.”
The Lady Black Cats had a lot of possession in the first half but too often gave it away.
However, three of their most advanced players, Beth Mead, Abbey Joice and Ramshaw, all looked dangerous while Abby Holmes gave her side great impetus with some surges from right-back.
Fairweather’s side had a chance on 17 minutes when Ramshaw brought Holmes into play and her powerful burst put the Villa defence under pressure only for Rebekah Bass to scoop her shot over.
It looked a matter of time before Sunderland scored and the goal arrived on the 20-minute mark. Mead produced some excellent work inside the box to set up Ramshaw who showed a cool head and right foot to match to plant her shot low into Caitlin Leach’s right-hand corner.
It could have been two moments later when Leach needed two attempts to hold a Mead shot from a narrow angle, but no Cat was following in.
Laws had not been particularly stretched in the first half though she needed to palm away Villa’s opening corner in the 32nd minute.
But the keeper had no chance with the home side’s equaliser two minutes later.
Sunderland conceded something of a soft free-kick just inside the Villa half, with full-back Hayley Crackle driving a wind-assisted thump into the away box.
Holmes, to her credit, called early for it only to slice her attempted clearance past Laws.
Most of Sunderland’s troubles seemed self-inflicted and when they gifted Aston Villa the ball two minutes after the interval, Olivia Ferguson’s attempt from outside the box was thankfully a tame one.
The Lady Black Cats then took hold of the tie, but could not translate possession and threat into goals.
Leach saved from Ramshaw’s header, Sarah McFadden had a shot blocked for a corner while the lively Mead slipped while shooting and her close-range effort went wide.
The pitch opened up for Mead and Bass on 70 minutes and the pair had an appealing two-against-one with the last Villa defender on half-way but each seemed to leave the ball for the other and the opportunity was lost.
Mead was not put off and a minute later drew a save from Leach with a shot from outside the box which the keeper juggled before gathering.
Fairweather, who went into the tie without key players Rachel Furness and Sophie Wlliams, sent on subs Natalie Gutteridge and Emma Kelly with 12 minutes left and both made an impact.
Sunderland looked strong favourites and Kelly McDougall went over after good work by Mead in the last minute.
Extra-time beckoned only for Owen to intervene.
“I think the players were maybe expecting extra-time and switched off,” said Fairweather. “Obviously you have to make sure you stay focused the whole game.”
Aston Villa: Leach, Crackle, N’Dow (Owen 73), McCue, Baker, Richards, Ferguson, Cusack, Wilkinson, Mayling, Robinson (Moran 49). Sub (not used): Myers, Welsh, Baptiste. Goals: Holmes OG 34, Owen 90+1. Booked: Baker 77, Richards 84
Sunderland: Laws, Holmes, Bannon, Sharp, Greenwell, McFadden, McDougall, Joice (Kelly 78), Ramshaw, Bass (Gutteridge 78), Mead. Sub (not used): Black. Goal: Ramshaw 20. Booked: McDougall 55
Referee: Sarah Garrett