Sunderland Ladies open the new season and a new chapter when they face Aston Villa in the Women’s FA Cup tomorrow.
The Lady Black Cats host the Villans at Hetton in a tricky fifth round assignment (2pm kick-off).
It is the first game since the club announced they were reverting to part-time status and the first since parting company with head coach Carlton Fairweather.
That means tomorrow marks the debut match in charge of his successor, Melanie Reay, who has stepped up from assistant to manager.
Skipper Steph Bannon, who led Sunderland to WSL1 and captained them to consolidate in the top flight for the last two seasons, said she was thrilled to see Reay get the job.
“She’s been a great assistant to a very good manager in Carlton and I’m sure she’ll now be looking to stamp her own mark on the job,” said the central defender.
“What better place for her to start than a very good FA Cup tie in front of our own fans.”
It will be a tough test for Reay’s side.
While they have had only two behind-closed-doors friendlies against Scotttish sides, Celtic and Spartans, visitors Aston Villa have played a number of competitive fixtures.
They are unbeaten in WSL2’s Spring Series after three games – a win and two draws – while their FA Cup form has been eye-catching with a 7-1 rout of Cambridge United in round three followed by a 1-0 derby success at Coventry.
The odds, on paper, it would seem favour the Midlands outfit given Sunderland look a little ‘under-cooked’ and the hosts are starting life without the spine of their WSL 1 side, with Rachael Laws, Rachel Furness, Brooke Chaplen and Beth Mead having all moved on to pastures new.
However, the Lady Black Cats have made some astute signings, in keeper Anke Preuss, midfielder Dominique Bruinenberg and forward Beverly Leon.
“Villa are lucky that they are already in season,” said Bannon. “They will be sharper, I guess.
“We’ve not had as many games as we would have liked in pre-season, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been working hard.
“The girls have been getting themselves fit and the attitude has been tremendous.
“We’ll match them for effort and, while Villa appear to be flying and will be confident and sharper, I hope we can override those things.
“It has not been an easy time, with the club going to a part-time model and our manager leaving.
“But the girls have really grouped together. There is a determination in the group that we are Sunderland and we are not going to roll over – we are going out there to make our mark.
“The atmosphere and team spirit is really strong and we are looking forward to getting out there.
“The new girls have joined at a tough time for the club, but they have settled in very well.”