SUNDERLAND powered to promotion with a sprint over the finishing line yesterday.
The Lady Black Cats cruised to the victory needed to lift the Women’s Super League 1 title – to guarantee a place at the top table of the women’s game next season.
Having led the league by some distance a few weeks ago, the Wearsiders had gone into the Lions’ Den on the final day of the season knowing that only a win would guarantee them the title.
But in a true test of character they emerged with an emphatic victory at the ground where other promotion rivals had dropped points.
And given how much of a real team effort this season has been for Sunderland, it was only fitting that four different players should get on the scoresheet.
Millwall may have been at the opposite end of the table to Sunderland but in the opening quarter of an hour it was clear they were happy to play party-poopers as the action swung from one end of the pitch to the other.
But in the 17th minute Sunderland’s most experienced player Kelly McDougall showed tremendous composure and settled any nerves her side might have had with the sweetest of finishes from 20 yards – curling a left-foot shot into the top corner.
That signalled a good spell of dominance from the visitors but they were unable to capitalise in front of goal and had to be content with a 1-0 lead at the break.
Sunderland were completely on top when play resumed but when the hour-mark came up with Rachel Furness rattling the crossbar, that was as close as they had gone to extending their lead.
That failure to make the breakthrough could have led to frustration but the game changed completely in the 10 minutes that followed, as Sunderland notched a hat-trick of goals which put the final result beyond doubt.
Rachel Furness got Sunderland’s second goal when she rose highest at the far post to nod home a header in the 63rd minute.
And two minutes later, striker Beth Mead’s header into the danger area was volleyed home by fellow attacker Keira Ramshaw.
The fourth goal arrived in the 68th minute when Mead played in Abbey Joice who made no mistake, blasting the ball high into the net.
The 4-0 scoreline was just reward for the way the Wearsiders had completely controlled the game after the break and they could easily have scored even more in the 20 minutes remaining as Millwall struggled to put any pressure at all on Sunderland keeper Rachael Laws.
The Black Cats though were happy to avoid any slip-ups – keeping the ball well as the minutes ticked down.
Within minutes of the final whistle they were back on the pitch to receive the WSL2 trophy, as Millwall Ladies sportingly formed a guard of honour.
Just over three weeks ago, Sunderland had gone into a top-of-the-table clash with second-placed Doncaster Belles five points ahead of their sole challengers and needing just a win to guarantee them the title.
Everything was teed up for an early promotion party on Wearside.
But the Yorkshire outfit sprung a surprise, inflicting a first defeat of the season on Sunderland with a 2-1 victory at the Hetton Centre which reduced the deficit to two points.
The Belles subsequently reeled off 2-0 victories over both Durham and Yeovil before crushing London Bees 9-0 at the weekend to ensure Sunderland would have no easy route into the top flight.
But the hardest won victories are the best and Sunderland proved themselves worthy champions yesterday with a win which meant they have lost just once in 18 matches.
That’s the sort of record which will have them looking forward with confidence to rubbing shoulders with the best teams in the country next season when they are part of the Women’s Super League 1 fixture list.
For now though, they can savour a fourth consecutive title which they have thoroughly deserved.
Millwall: Quantrill, Davies, Strugnell, Colle, Mackie, Cowan, Maple, Ali, Sherwood, Bilson, Agg.
Sunderland: Laws, Holmes, Greenwell, Sharp, Bannon, Furness (Gutteridge 74), McDougall, Ramshaw (Kelly 90), Mead, Joice, Williams (Bass 88). Subs: Alderson, Wilson, Beer.