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Durham Women can now play in Tier 2 of the new women’s football pyramid, but Sunderland Ladies’ future in the balance

Sunderland Ladies' Victoria Williams in action against Chelsea at Mariners Park this season.
Sunderland Ladies' Victoria Williams in action against Chelsea at Mariners Park this season.

Durham Women have been awarded a licence to play in Tier 2 of the new women’s football pyramid - but Sunderland Ladies’ future remains uncertain.

The Football Association yesterday announced which clubs were successful in applications for places.

The list reads:- Tier 1 clubs: Arsenal Women, Birmingham City Ladies, Brighton & Hove Albion Women, Bristol City Women, Chelsea Ladies, Everton Ladies, Liverpool Ladies, Manchester City Women, Reading Women, Yeovil Town Ladies.

Tier 2 clubs: Aston Villa Ladies, Doncaster Rovers Belles, Durham Women, London Bees, Millwall Lionesses, Sheffield FC Ladies, Tottenham Hotspur Ladies.

Sunderland opted not to apply for a licence in the first wave of applications (the only current WSL1 club not to do so), saying they will focus on a ‘joint bid’ for a Tier 1 licence in March.

The Lady Black Cats’ bid is to be of a ‘collaborative nature’ as they are believed to be in talks with Northumbria University over the creation of a ‘new’ club.

A club spokesperson previously said: “Sunderland AFC are committed to supporting women’s football and a joint approach, with combined resources, makes for a better and more sustainable model.

“We have been working with our partners to ensure that we continue to provide the opportunity for elite female footballers in the North East to compete at the top level.”

After yesterday’s announcement, a minimum of two licences for the top tier are available through the open process. It remains to be seen if Sunderland in whatever guise that materialises - are successful and can remain in the top flight.

The club has been playing at South Shields’ Mariners Park this season, after switching from Eppleton CW in Hetton, but have had disappointing attendances.

Durham, though, are delighted to have been selected in this round of applications and will remain in the second tier.

General Manager Lee Sanders said: “Everyone at the club is really happy that we have retained our place in the structure of elite women’s football in England after what has been a long, thorough and robust process.

“We met many aspects that were required for a Tier 1 application, however we felt we met all the Tier 2 criteria. We are realistic on what we are building at the moment and we are more than happy to retain a place at the level we currently play at, which is the right thing for the football club.

“Our aspiration is to achieve promotion to the top flight and this is something that we’re getting closer to as each season passes.

“We’re stepping in to a new era of women’s football and one which we’re excited to be a part of moving forward.

“For us a club it means that we’ll be increasing contact time with our players and offering more opportunities for staff at all levels in the football club. We are fully behind continuing to invest in our FA Girls’ Regional Talent Club and our reserve and development squads moving forward. It’s an exciting time for any player to want to be a part of this football club.

“Our training facilities at Maiden Castle are undergoing a multi-million pound transformation with the addition of a third artificial pitch, increased gym and high-performance facilities and medical services which means the training environment, although excellent currently, will push us on to the next level. This goes hand-in-hand with our aspirations to be a Tier 1 club.

“We have a fantastic squad of players at the moment, some which live and breathe the club and have been very loyal during our time in the FA Women’s Super League. This is for them also.”

Brighton, currently in WSL2, have been awarded a place in the top tier following their application.

Former England boss Hope Powell - now in charge at Brighton - said she was “overjoyed” at the decision.

Brighton Ladies will play at Crawley Town’s home stadium from next term.

Powell said: “I am overjoyed with the announcement, as this will allow the club to realise its aim of playing at the very highest level.

“I have previously said that achieving tier one status is the next logical step for us in our long-term plan, and I would like to thank everyone inside and outside of the club for their support.”

Under the FA’s overhaul plan, clubs in the top flight must guarantee a minimum of 16 hours of training per week for players, plus matches, increasing to 20 hours by the 2021/22 season. They must also have academy set-ups.

West Ham have been strongly linked with a move to fast-track their women’s team into the top division.

Yeovil have kept their place alongside the likes of powerhouses Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea, despite the Somerset club recently admitting the demands on them to fulfil full-time and professional criteria would be a major challenge.

Yeovil issued a statement that said the club had to rush through plans in the space of two months “that were expected to take two to three years”.

They added: “The club are delighted to have achieved this status but the hard work continues now as the club put this plan into action.”