Sunderland's summer strategy yields encouraging early results with opening-day point at Durham

In setting out expectations and ambitions for the season ahead, Sunderland have been deliberately measured and there have certainly been no grand statements.
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Improvement is obviously the ultimate goal, but the Women's Championship is a ferociously competitive division and one where more teams have turned fully professional over the summer.

Mel Reay and her staff take pride in the programme they offer their players to mitigate against that gap, yet the reality is that there will always be some disadvantages along the way, whether it be in recovery or availability.

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Durham, now pro and expected to challenge at the top end of the table again this season, represented a challenging opening-day assignment.

Sunderland celebrate their equaliser at Maiden CastleSunderland celebrate their equaliser at Maiden Castle
Sunderland celebrate their equaliser at Maiden Castle

Sunderland had a strong campaign last time out given both the youth of their squad and the rapid turnaround that followed their promotion application being accepted. There were though some inevitable difficult spells along the way and the last trip to Maiden Castle was a bruising one.

So for Sunderland to be leaving the pitch after 45 minutes frustrated not to be in the lead was encouraging; Reay's side had been pretty much dominant.

After the last campaign the Sunderland head coach and her staff had made a targeted push for more experience to support the talented youngsters, and equally crucial was adding more pace to the final third.

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Here it was evident from the opening exchanges. The Black Cats fell behind when Claudio Moan was beaten to a cross firmly against the run of play (Moan would go on to make a terrific save from Mollie Lambert in the second half) but otherwise made most of the running. They pressed with intent and broke quickly through Tyler Dodds, Nicki Gears and Emily Scarr. Their much deserved equaliser came from a corner, Brianna Westrup heading home having struck the bar from another set piece not long before. Westrup is one of two defensive additions alongside the returning Abby Holmes, and the physicality and experience they possess was on show from the off.

Brianna Westrup celebrates her debut goalBrianna Westrup celebrates her debut goal
Brianna Westrup celebrates her debut goal

The second was unsurprisingly a much more even affair. Durham caused problems, as you would expect from a side of their quality. With Beth Hepple and Lambert able to get on the ball more, Sunderland found it harder to find their fowards in the advanced areas where they'd caused issues earlier. There were spells when the poise on the ball looked to have been lost a little, too often going long rather than playing through the press and finding those forwards in space.

By full time the 1-1 scoreline felt like a fairer representation of the game and had a late header dropped in the far corner, the hosts might have had cause to feel a touch aggrieved.

It was an at times tense and always absorbing derby, and ultimately a very solid point.

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The blend in the side was a good one, with big opportunities to impress for youngsters Grace Ede and striker Katy Watson. Encouraging, given that Reay can't currently call on the influential Keira Ramshaw and Neve Herron due to injury.

Many at Maiden Castle noted that Sunderland looked to be a different prospect this time around.

This season is about steady development and given the pressure and scrutiny that came with this occasion, it was a hugely promising start.