'Can't ask anymore': Reflecting on Sunderland Ladies' season so far and the encouraging progress of Mel Reay's side

Before facing Liverpool Women, then top of the league and having not conceded a league goal since September, Mel Reay had acknowledged the challenge ahead but said this is a league where any team is beatable on any given day.

Monday, 22nd November 2021, 4:45 pm

For a while it looked like Sunderland might do just that, taking an early advantage through an Emily Scarr goal and defending resolutely thereafter.

Two strikes before half time turned the tide for the visitors, the first owing much to what Sunderland felt was a very dubious corner award.

But the unpredictability of the league was highlighted a day later, when a Coventry United side bottom of the league and without a win all season stunned high-flying Durham Women.

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Sunderland celebrate at the Stadium of Light earlier this season

As been proven so often not just in Sunderland’s games but right across the division, this is a competition where the margins tend to be extremely fine.

For the most part, Sunderland have competed superbly in their first season back at Championship level.

Coventry’s means that after ten games their cushion to the bottom is seven points, a little less than it has been for much of the campaign but still one that offers optimism for the months ahead.

Reay and her side are ambitious for the long term, but know first and foremost the most important thing for the club is to stabilise at this level.

Anything above the red line this season is ultimately a bonus.

It’s a natural point to pause and take stock, as the campaign is now moving into a different phase.

Sunderland will play just once in the league before the Christmas break (against Sheffield United on December 19th) as their cup campaigns step up.

They will conclude a Conti Cup group phase that has gone excellently so far, but where arguably the two toughest games still lie ahead.

They will also begin their FA Cup campaign, and the likelihood is that Reay will rotate and give opportunities to those who perhaps not been as prominent in the league campaign so far.

Twelve points from ten is a solid start, in which Reay’s side have shown they can compete at the level.

That does leave some slight frustration as the group clearly feels they have at times left points out on the pitch, but the key thing is that they have a platform as they move into the next phases of the campaign.

"We look at the games that we’ve played and I think that it’s won three, drawn three, lost three” Reay said before the Liverpool game.

“When we look back on those games we kick ourselves really, because it’s really been preventable mistakes that have led to us losing points.

“But we’re in a good place, with points on the board.

“We’re coming up to the halfway stage of the season and I think if you’d offered me this number of points from this number of games, I think I probably would have taken it.

“We’re hungry and the thing is, we know we can hold our own.

“We’re desperate to get on the pitch and show that.”

Liverpool’s strong display highlighted the short and long-term challenges of Sunderland’s journey.

After recent campaigns of underachievement they have invested strongly this season, bringing back their hugely successful manager Matt Beard.

They are one of many sides in the league who have moved to a professional model, and one of many who were not affected by a curtailed campaign last time around.

Sunderland hope to move towards this level in time but are committed to doing so in a gradual, sustainable way.

Their squad for the current campaign is much the same as from last season, albeit with the important additions of Charlotte Potts and Emma Kelly.

Their experience has been vital, their superb set-piece delivery also crucial.

“There was always going to be questions asked about whether the players could cope at this level and let’s not forget, they haven’t played football for a long time due to COVID-19” Reay said.

“They hadn’t had a proper season for a couple of years because of the curtailment, so this is their first proper bit of momentum in terms of a league season.

“You can’t replicate the game after game rhythm.

“They’re a determined bunch, really hard working, juggling full-time careers and I can’t ask anymore of them.

“They want to learn, get better.

“They know they can compete now, and it’s about those fine margins, the little errors we need to eliminate which can lead to those positive results on a match day.

“We’re learning about the players every game, and also about the opposition.

“The second stage of the season we’ll be much better informed and hopefully that will put us in a strong position to kick on again.”

The North East, and particularly Sunderland within that, will show their capacity to produce international talent when a number of former players take to the Stadium of Light field as part of Sarina Wiegman’s side to face Austria on Saturday afternoon.

A number of Reay’s own group have had international calls of their own, underlining the strong work that continues to happen through the RTC.

“There’s been a few called up again,” Reay said.

“Libbi has been called up and goes to the Algarve to play.

“Jess and Neve have been called up and have a four-day training camp at St George’s Park, and “Maria has been called up by Malta again as well.

“Grace Ede is still involved in the younger age groups, as is Daisy Burt who has been training with us for the last few weeks as well.”

The long-term goal is to create the environment for these players to fulfil their potential on Wearside.

The first step up to that is becoming established as a Championship side.

Ten games in, the signs are promising.

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