Nicki Gears opens up on Sunderland switch, the season ahead and Durham return
When Mel Reay and her staff assessed what they needed to add to their squad for the upcoming Championship campaign, there were a couple of key areas.
One was experience. A rapid turnaround from having the promotion application accepted last summer meant heading into the campaign with a youthful squad mostly stepping up to the level for the first time.
To stay up with relative comfort was impressive, and those young players remain at the core of the club’s long-term strategy for development.
Sunderland were nevertheless keen to establish a balance across the squad, and particularly in the forward areas.
The timing for Nicki Gears was ideal, the striker ready for a new challenge after seven years at Durham and serious injury.
Gears is one of three new attacking additions, joining Danielle Brown and Tyler Dodds in adding significant second-tier experience to support Emily Scarr, Katy Watson and co, who have again been prominent in pre-season after stepping up well last year.
“With Durham going full time, it didn't really work for me and coming back from injury, [it felt like time] for a fresh challenge,” Gears tells The Echo.
“I've always looked at Sunderland and having come into our league, they wanted a bit of experience. I've played in this league for quite a few years now so I thought I could maybe bring something to the team, help get some wins this season and hopefully help finish higher up in the league.
“I've really enjoyed pre-season, the girls have been really welcoming.
“It seems to have flown by, to be honest, we've enjoyed the games and I've managed to get a bit of time. We're just ready for the weekend now.”
Head coach Reay spoke in the early stages of pre-season of how Watson’s pace would add a different dimension for her side, and also noted how both Gears and Dodds would also bring that to the table.
Gears has had a positive pre-season returning from that knee injury, with Reay confirming this week that all of the new signings are available for Sunday’s sell-out at Maiden Castle.
“It's good to get some confidence back, knowing that my injury feels fine again and I'm getting back into the swing of things again,” Gears says.
“It's been a really welcoming environment as well which just means anytime the knee has felt a little sore or even just psychologically, everyone has been really supportive.
“It's felt good to be back training again.
“I've always been told that I'm quick and hopefully that's something we can use to our advantage.
“Obviously playing against someone like Durham for example they're going to know that, so it's about using it in different ways and making sure it's not predictable. Used at the right time and the right way, it can be a massive threat for teams.”
Gears and her fellow summer signings will have an important role helping a young squad continue their adjustment to the increasingly competitive second-tier, and the 29-year-old has no doubt that the future is bright.
“It's a strong squad and you can see the talent that the young players have got, they're unbelievable,” she says.
“Give them a few years and they can dominate at this level, so bringing people in with a little bit of experience will only help them, and they'll have a massive part to play.
“I think they can have a really good season, they can be a bit unknown to the opposition and you can see the potential.”
There’s a bit of a pause and some laughter when asked how it will feel to head straight back to Maiden Castle on the opening day of the season.
Sunderland could hand debuts to three former Durham players, including Gears, while former Black Cats striker Maria Farrugia will feature for the hosts.
Gears stresses the importance of staying calm and focused, something that applies not just to Sunday but the campaign as a whole.
Sunderland are ambitious and eager to kick on again, but this is a tough division and that Durham have turned fully professional over the summer is an indication of that.
“I think it obviously will be a bit strange after being there for seven years, and then obviously you're moving to a rival team,” Gears says.
“It's going to be a big game and everyone wants to prove a point, everyone wants to win. I think we've got to go in and play our game, not think too much about who the opposition is.
“It's a big event and we want to get off to a winning start regardless of who the opposition is.
“You've almost got to block that out and use it to your advantage when you can.
“It's a long season and it's about taking each game as it comes.
“If we can get a few wins, it builds that confidence and if you can find a rhythm you become hard to beat. That's a big thing for the opposition when they know you have that about you.
“It's important for us just to plug away.”
And with a Stadium of Light double-header next up after Durham, it’s an exciting time.
“There’s a lot to look forward to,” Gears says.