‘I’ve stayed loyal!’ - Sunderland star reflects on relegation heartbreak, sacrificing money and promotion hopes ahead of landmark 200th appearance

“It’s been some journey, but it has worked out really well,” says Keira Ramshaw in a bullish Mackem accent.

There’s no disputing her heritage, the 26-year-old Sunderland Ladies star is Sunderland born and bred.

You can hear the terraced housing of Millfield in her tone and, on the pitch, see the Wearside blood coursing through her veins.

A grafter with bags of determination, intelligence, skill, flair and leadership - Ramshaw the footballer reflects the ideals which embody the city of her birth.

Keira Ramshaw poses for a picture with friends and Newcastle United players Rhiannon Gray (far left) and Courtney Lock (second left) after the FA Cup tie with Birmingham City - photo courtesy of Colin Lock.

“Sunderland as a whole has a fight about it,” the teaching assistant lovingly explains. “It has a togetherness that everybody thrives on.”

And on Thursday, having first played for her hometown club as a 16-year-old in 2010, Ramshaw will make her 200th appearance in the red and white of her youth.

In a local derby against Middlesbrough, too!

“It means everything to me,” the former Diamond Hall and Thornhill school pupil explained to the Echo. “It’s a bit of history.

Former Sunderland star Beth Mead has gone on to big things with England and Arsenal. Here, she is pictured playing for the Black Cats with Keira Ramshaw.

“For me and my family, it is a dream come true, I’ve grown up living in the middle of Sunderland and supporting Sunderland all of my life.

“It’s a surreal feeling given I was a kid who lived in a Sunderland shirt.

“I would never have imagined that the little kid in red and white would make 200 appearances.”

Then comes a pause, a moment of reflection as the events of the past three-years flicker into focus.

Wome's football superstar Eni Aluko battles Keira Ramshaw battle for the ball during the Women's Super League match at Wheatsheaf Park during the 2015/16 season.

“And to become captain was something else,” she adds with pride.

But what prompted Ramshaw’s appointment at the beginning of the 2018–19 season was, at best, a bitter-sweet moment.

Sunderland had finished seventh in WSL1, the top-tier of women’s football, well clear of the relegation zone.

However, an FA revamp coupled with back-to-back relegations for the men’s team meant Sunderland Ladies were relegated two divisions to the WNL.

Keira Ramshaw takes on former teammate Lucy Staniforth against Birmingham City in the FA Cup fifth round.

“It was heartbreaking, I was on holiday at the time, but I kind of knew it was coming. The main worry for me was if we had a team!”

Despite everything, Ramshaw stayed with Sunderland, one of only four to do so, sacrificing money to remain with influential head coach Mel Reay.

“I gave up a contract to stay at the club. To know you haven’t got a big part of your income was hard.”

Indeed, offers flooded in as top division sides eyed a potential coup for next to nothing in the transfer market.

They could all offer cash and exposure in a new, growing infrastructure gaining greater coverage from television.

At this point, we’re all probably thinking the same thing: why stay at Sunderland with so much on offer elsewhere?

After all, ex-Cats stars Beth Mead, Rachel Laws and Lucy Staniforth bagged deals at big clubs with no ill-feeling from supporters.

“For me, money wasn’t the issue,” Ramshaw explains. “It never once crossed my mind to move, despite the offers.

“There were two offers from WSL1 and a couple from WSL2 as well.”

“But, in my head, I was always going to stay loyal, despite any knockbacks the club has had.

“I love this club and city I can’t imagine leaving and I can’t see myself in any other strip, to be honest. I just want to get Sunderland back to where I feel it belongs.”

And this season, Ramshaw and her teammates stand a good chance of doing just that, with promotion to the second-tier a real possibility.

The Black Cats are six points clear at the top of the WNL and haven’t been beaten in the league since April last year, with a League Cup semi-final against Southampton to look forward to.

Sunderland were narrowly beaten for the first time in any competition this season by top-tier Birmingham City in the FA Cup fifth round at Hetton last weekend.

Watched by more than 400 fans, it took until the 84th minute for Ramshaw’s team to concede the killer blow – a commendable defensive display from a side two leagues below.

“Sunday’s game was pleasing, knowing that we can compete with the top teams out there, and the crowd helped us massively!

But despite the form, despite the plaudits from fans and the media, Ramshaw has one goal firmly at the forefront of her mind.

“Getting promoted would be massive for us as players, coaches and as a club.

“I think it sends a message that ladies football in this part of the country is not finished and we can have a say.

“After the club's demotion, it would be an amazing achievement to gain promotion and it would be even better add a cup.

“That would probably be one of my best memories to date with this club and a season that I will never ever forget.

“But it’s been a great season so far, we hope it continues and we can keep our winning mentality going.

“We need to keep our strong set-up working, especially defensively, which we showed on Sunday.

“The team that we’ve got at the moment, I simply can’t fault. They put in 100 per cent effort and they’ve been absolutely fantastic so far.

“Long may it continue,” Ramshaw concludes.

An iconic local lass who gave up money and fame to stay and help make her club great again.

Ramshaw will undoubtedly go down in Wearside folklore as one of Sunderland’s greatest ever footballers - but, for now, fans are praying their captain’s tenure never comes to an end.