Explaining what comes next for Sunderland Ladies and their promotion hopes after FA's divisive decision
Sunderland Ladies saw their outstanding campaign brought to a swift conclusion on Thursday.
The decision was one of the first made by governing bodies as they respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.
So what’s happened and what comes next?
We look at the key questions….
What exactly has happened so far?
The FA announced a string of controversial decisions on Thursday afternoon that will have major consequences throughout football, in both the men’s and women’s game.
The National League steps three to six have seen their season declared null and void, with all grassroots football in the current campaign brought to an end.
Crucially, it has also decided that in the women’s game, tiers three to seven will also see their season declared null and void, with all results expunged.
It means that Sunderland Ladies will be denied the chance to seal what would have been a hugely cathartic and richly deserved title win, given the effort and dedication that has gone into rebuilding a side that was so significantly affected by the decision to demote into the National League North in the first place.
At the time of the decision, Sunderland were sat 11 points clear at the top of the table, and still had a game in hand on second-placed Derby County.
They had also advanced into the National League Cup final, which will now not take place.
The decision to expunge all results also means that a number of players will now likely have a number of significant landmarks essentially removed from the history books.
First goals, landmark appearances, debuts, all now gone.
The wider landscape of the women’s game remains not quite so clear.
The top two tiers are separate from yesterday’s announcement and talks are continuing as to whether they will be able to resume and complete their seasons.
Given that they announced their initial postponement of fixtures in line with the men’s Premier League and EFL, it would seem fair to surmise that they will try and maintain a consistent approach.
Whatever happens next, though, it is absolutely clear that Sunderland’s season is over.
Why have they made this call over the other options?
In their statement, The FA said they had reached a consensus amongst the leagues.
They said that ‘primary concern will always be for the safety and welfare of clubs, players, staff, officials, volunteers and supporters during this unprecedented time.’
They also said that they took into account ‘the financial impact during this uncertain period’.
A number of clubs were eager to gain some certainty in terms of planning for the future, and ending the season now brought that.
So the next step, as the FA outlined, was to settle issues such as promotion and relegation ‘fairly’ while ‘maintaining the integrity’ of the competitions.
According to The Times, the key reason the FA did not want to go down the route of basing the end result on current standings, or perhaps going down the route of deciding promotion and relegation in terms of points-per-game, was the disparity in terms of games played up to this point.
The schedule was significantly affected by a number of weather-related postponements earlier this season.
So, for example, in Sunderland’s division, Sheffield FC are adrift at the bottom, but have played four in some cases five less games than a lot of teams in the league.
It’s unquestionably a difficult and controversial call.
It risks teams clearly struggling in their current divisions to go through another challenging season, and has major ramifications for clubs clearly capable of stepping up and would have been preparing for the possibility of doing so.
That leaves staff and players at clubs with very difficult decisions to make about their future in the game.
What have Sunderland said?
Sunderland issued a statement on Thursday night in which they said they ‘accepted’ the decision.
The statement reads: “While today’s decision will lead to disappointment for players, staff and supporters alike, the club accepts it and recognises that in these unprecedented times, difficult measures must be taken to protect the safety and welfare of all within the game.
“Finally, everyone at SAFC would like to congratulate Mel and her players and staff on a fantastic season. We look forward to seeing you back in action, and we know you will come back stronger than ever.”
Would Sunderland have been guaranteed promotion?
Yes and no.
At the end of the campaign, the northern and southern winners take part in a play-off game to determine the overall champion of the National League.In some seasons, only the winner of this has been able to apply for promotion to the Championship.
This was not the case last year, when both winners were ultimately promoted, and that was expected to be the case again this season with only 11 teams currently in the Championship.
However, teams can only be promoted to the second tier if they meet the FA’s strict criteria and are therefore granted a licence.
This decision is based on a number of factors, such as ground provisions and financial commitment.
Sunderland had begun this process with the FA as they pushed for promotion, but the outcome was not yet decided.
So can Sunderland still be promoted?
This remains not entirely clear.
The FA’s statement said on Thursday that there would be ‘no promotion or relegation of clubs from tier three to seven’, which does not bode well for Sunderland.
However, while entirely hypothetical, two things are worth considering.
One is that the Championship has not yet decided how their season will finish, and the other is that as mentioned, all licences in the second tier as subject to ongoing review and the continuous discretion of the league.
As is the case in all divisions, in both the men’s and women’s game, no one knows what positions clubs will be in a few months down the line.
Especially with only 11 teams in the league at present, it is not know nwhat shape the Championship will take next season and whether there will still be an application process.
However, there is no guarantee this spot would go to Sunderland should such a process take place.
As proven in the past, when Sunderland unsuccessfully bid for a place in the second tier despite holding their own in the top flight, these processes do not take into account the success on the field. Instead they look at financial sustainability, commercial plans and many more off-field matters.
The likes of Nottingham Forest, Stoke City and Southampton have all thrown considerable budgets behind their women's sides in recent years and could potentially provide stern competition in that scenario.
To stress, though, this at the moment entirely hypothetical, with no decisions yet made on the Championship and whether any new applications will be accepted.
How have other clubs reacted to the call?
Broadly speaking, the decision has been accepted by those in relatively similar positions to Sunderland.
Watford, pushing for promotion in the southern division, said they ‘fully supported’ the call and the ‘certainty it brings’.
Ipswich Town, dominant in the tier below, also accepted the call, with boss Joe Sheehan saying there are ‘far more important things going on’.
The outlier has been Barnsley, who currently sit in a dominant position at the top of Division One North.
They said the decision should be ‘immediately reversed’ in an explosive statement.
The reaction perhaps explains more generally where football finds itself.
A recognition that safety is paramount, far more important than football and the ultimate priority, but with a recognition that there are decisions being made and to be made which will have long-term repercussions.
What next for the players and staff at Sunderland?
As alluded to earlier, it’s too early to tell what comes next for Sunderland.
It’s potentially a major blow for a number of players who have proved themselves more than capable of stepping up a division.
The successful integration of a number of talented young players this season shows there remains a potentially vibrant future for the game in the area.
What comes next remains to be seen.