Two players with Wearside connections – Sunderland-born Beth Hepple and former Black Cats midfielder Molly Lambert – scored in the second half as Mel Reay’s side suffered their first home defeat of the season.
Emily Scarr came in for Maria Farrugia as the hosts hoped to bounce back from last week’s disappointing result against Bristol City.
Backed by more than 800 fans on their return to Eppleton Colliery, Sunderland started the brighter of the two sides and registered the first shot on goal as Charlotte Potts’ powerful freekick from 20-yards was deflected wide.
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The defender was in the thick of the action at the other end moments later, booked for a late tackle on Lambert but Hepple blasted straight at the wall.
Sunderland’s pace on the counter was starting to cause problems for the Durham defence with Jessica Brown abruptly stopped from getting on the end of a superb searching pass from Neve Herron. Potts’ cross was headed out to Herron who forced an outstanding save from Megan Borthwick low down to her right.
Then, a ball over the top from the brilliant Herron set Scarr away down the left who stepped inside and unleashed a curling strike which inches away from finding the top corner.
Durham enjoyed a flurry of chances towards the end of the half, Grace McCatty blocking from Bridget Galloway after a mix up from the Sunderland defence, before Claudia Moan comfortably gathered Lambert’s low drive and Lauren Briggs failed to find the target from distance.
Heading into stoppage time Brown almost gave Sunderland a vital lead, only finding the side netting after being found in space at the far post.
Forced into a change, Reay called on Iris Achterhof – recently signed from their Championship rivals – who replaced the injured Charlotte Potts with Herron dropping into the back line alongside McCatty.
Durham stepped up a gear in the second period, Hepple and Lambert combining but the latter fired past the post, and Sarah Wilson trying her luck from a long way out. The Wildcats made their pressure count on the hour when Lambert was fouled by Faye Mullen and Hepple stepped up to curl her freekick into the bottom corner.
Sensing more goals, the Wildcats continued to push forward, McCatty heading away a dangerous cross close to goal, and Moan called on to deny Hepple her second and claw out Abby Holmes’ cross which was heading in.
But 15 minutes from time, Durham sealed the win. Emily Roberts pass played in Lambert who calmly lobbed Moan into the far corner.
Sunderland tried to mount a spirited comeback, but their opponents’ experience saw them hold out to take the bragging rights on Wearside and return to the top of the table.
The Black Cats return to action on Thursday when they travel to Sheffield United in the Continental League Cup, with manager Reay expected to make changes.
Sunderland: Moan; Herron, Mullen, McCatty, Griffiths, Ramshaw ©, Scarr, Brown (Farrugia 59’), Kelly, Joice (Manders 80’), Potts (Actherhof 45’)
Subs not used: Cowling, Blakey, McInnes, Beer