Sunderland Ladies already looking ahead to new-look Spring Series

Emma Kelly (left) looks on as Sunderland Ladies striker Beth Mead attacks in last week's final match of the season against Birmingham. Picture by Joe Spence
Emma Kelly (left) looks on as Sunderland Ladies striker Beth Mead attacks in last week's final match of the season against Birmingham. Picture by Joe Spence
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Sunderland Ladies have the briefest of breathers ahead of a year of change for the women’s game.

The Lady Black Cats, who finished seventh in Women’s Super League 1, make a rapid return to the training field at the Academy of Light In January.

After being played in a calendar year, starting in March and ending in November, the WSL is now to be staged parallel to the men’s leagues.

Rather than there being a 10-month gap in women’s football, the FA have sanctioned major surgery.

A one-off transitional competition, known as the FA WSL Spring Series, will run from February to June in 2017, alongside the Women’s FA Cup.

The FA has also revealed the WSL will take a one-month winter break from mid-December 2017 to mid-January 2018.

With Carlton Fairweather’s side resuming early next year, the club must work quickly to get their squad in place.

The Echo understands that a number of players are out of contract, both full-time professionals and part-time members of the squad.

Sunderland will need to begin negotiations on that front while seeking out some new talent.

While the club were unlucky with injuries this year, new signings Rachel Pitman and Kylla Sjoman barely played, and the side missed Rachel Furness and Brooke Chaplen for vital periods, they were left behind by some clubs.

In 2015, Fairweather’s side contested for the title for the majority of the season before finishing fourth, 12 points off the champions.

But this year proved a torrid one, the Red and Whites ending seventh, 32 points behind title winners Manchester City.

While every team has struggled to maintain touch with the richest club in the world – and are likely to continue to do so – Sunderland would like to be in the chasing pack.

“A lot of the clubs have moved on in terms of recruitment of players and the standard has been much higher than last season,” explained Fairweather.

“For us, it’s been a case of consolidation this year.

“We’ve done that and hopefully we can build from here.

“It’s not helped that we got the injuries we got, especially when they happened, when I think we were five games unbeaten at the time.

“Losing players obviously affects you, but I’m pleased with the way the girls have battled.

“We’ve included players like Dan Brown, from our Development squad, who has played a large part of the season and done well.

“At the end of the season Olivia Watt and Bridget Galloway both played.

“The club is moving in the right direction in terms of developing players and I think we can build on what we achieved last year and this season.”

But the task facing Sunderland and Fairweather is a tricky one of getting the balance right between senior pros, part-timers and young talent.

The head coach will have talks with Sonia Kulkarni, SAFC women’s general manager, and Sunderland chief executive Martin Bain on trying to move the Ladies forward following the advancements made by rival teams.

“That’s something I’m going to have to sit down with Sonia and the board about,” he said. “The teams we play against are full of international players and we’re not at that stage yet, and a lot of clubs are [completely] full-time.

“That makes a massive difference to your approach on a daily and weekly basis.”

Fairweather said he was looking forward to Sunderland starting their third year as a top-flight club, though they haven’t got long to wait.

“It’s a quickish turnaround,” said the former Wimbledon star.

“The girls are back as a squad in the first week in January and I think the mini-tournament kicks off in March, so we’ll look forward to that.

“That will be getting us ready for the WSL1 season which will be starting in August/September.

“The tournament and Continental and FA Cups will keep things ticking over and it gives the girls competitive games leading into the new season.”