Inside the Sunderland Ladies camp with Mel Reay, Neve Herron and Charlotte Potts as team battles in Championship
The view from inside the Sunderland Ladies camp is that they are most definitely a team on the up.
The club now plays its football in the Championship following a rough couple of years.
There was, of course, that famously unfair decision to relegate Sunderland from the top-flight to the third tier on grounds that had nothing to do with on-field performances.
The rebuilding process, though, was set in motion by head coach Mel Reay and after some time, Sunderland Ladies had a young, hungry and immensely talented squad.
Indeed, the lasses were top of their division by some distance and due to play in a cup final but fate and Covid-19 struck the world.
That meant the season was declared null and void with Sunderland’s memorable campaign expunged along with their chances of winning a well-deserved double.
Some players were poached by rivals further up the pyramid and Reay once again had a mini-rebuilding job on her hands.
Finally, however, Sunderland’s luck changed and they were granted a license to join the Championship following new owner Kyril Louis Dreyfus’ financial commitment to the team.
And Sunderland have coped well with the step up and currently sit eight with 12 points from 10 games. They are competing dispute being the new kids on the block in a new league.
“I think it has been a positive start to the season as we approach the halfway point in terms of where we are in the league and where we are compared to the teams in the bottom half,” head coach Reay tells The Echo.
“We have picked up some valuable points along the way but we have also lost points through performances where we could have been doing a little bit better where we have been disappointed.
“So we’re happy with where we are at and we’re confident going into the second half of the season knowing that we are a little bit more informed of the opposition as we go into the second half.”
But what is the mood amongst the players and how are they coping with the step-up in class?
Charlotte Potts, a central defender, has enjoyed several spells with the club and re-joined Reay’s side for the start of the new season following a stint at Hibernian Woman.
And Neve Herron is one of Sunderland’s most exciting players. Able to play across defence and in midfield, the youngster has received England youth recognition recently as has been tipped for big things in the game.
Both players were able to provide the inside scoop on the mentality of the Sunderland squad this season and the added demands on their lives.
Potts, a leader in Reay’s team, explained: “It is good to be back. It is great to see that the players have developed since the spell that I had in Scotland. They have shown great character to step up and I’m proud of them.
“The demands on our lives for extra training as well as our careers and our studies, it is a lot and there’s had to be a lot of commitment, professionalism and the understanding to recover quick.
“We’ve had to be able to reflect quick and learn to go straight into the next game. I think the young players are learning what it is actually like to be professional.
“We just to continue as we have been doing and keep learning. We know what other teams are about now so we want to step it up a bit more.”
Herron adds: “I think the season has gone quite well so far. There is some stuff that could have been better but we are reflecting and taking the positives and negatives out of each game.
“It was always going to be a challenge for anyone in the team. I think we have all dealt with it quite well. I actually don’t think we could have asked for much more.
“Players have stepped up. Old and young. Everyone is just helping each other out in this league. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”
Given their rich history of producing international, there are always eyeballs on Sunderland Ladies.
And coverage and scrutiny from the media and fans has both increased and intensified since the club’s return to the second tier.
How, then, does such a young squad go about handling that added pressure?
“There was a bit of pressure on players coming into the Championship, Reay admits. “We didn’t have a huge budget to go and replace every player but I didn’t want that anyway.
“I wanted to give players the opportunity to step up and I think they have done.
“They have made huge sacrifices along the way, the extra training night, people have to adapt and work around in terms of their careers, we have put a lot on them.
“I am delighted with them and proud that they have been able to step up and compete. That then gives them confidence that we can maybe push them even more.
“When you write down everything that we have had to accomplish and overcome, they have done brilliantly.
“And long may that continue. They are warriors, they have played through little niggles and pulls.”
But for Herron, there is no doubt that the environment Reay has created around the team is having a big impact on Sunderland’s season alongside the senior professionals entrusted with on-pitch leadership
“You learn a lot from Grace McCatty and Charlotte Potts because they are constantly giving you advice and it makes you a better player.
“We were all gutted when we found out we weren’t getting promoted in my first season but I think it is only right that we are in the league we are at the moment and I think the team has got a lot more to offer.
“We’re only in gear one at the moment and we’re just working our way up.”