Sunderland AFC Ladies was formed in 1999 when East Durham Houghall Kestrels and Sunderland Ladies combined to come under the umbrella of ‘Sunderland Women’. Although from 2005/6 the football club provided the team with playing kit, at that time the team was run on an entirely voluntary basis having to meet all their other costs, pitch hire, travel and hotel expenses etc. Despite this, the club consistently performed to a very high standard; playing four seasons in the Northern Division and six seasons in the Women’s Premier League. Sadly the club’s relegation from the Premier League in 2006-7 led to two players (Steph Houghton and Jill Scott) leaving to further their careers, in due course becoming well known as England internationals.
The team returned to the top level of the Premier League in 2009 and in the same season reached the final of the Women’s FA Cup, losing to Arsenal. This increasingly high profile achieved by the team progressively encouraged the football club to add further support, initially with training kit and tracksuits then, from 2012, some assistance with travel and accommodation costs. It also provided limited backing for an application for membership of the FA Women’s Super League when it was first formed in 2010. Sadly, this attempt proved unsuccessful and led to three more future international players (Lucy Bronze, Jordan Nobbs and Demi Stokes) leaving the club.
The team continued to be successful with three consecutive Premier League titles, a factor which undoubtedly served them well when the Women’s Super League was extended to a second division and the club attained membership, at the same time being formally integrated into the SAFC structure as Sunderland AFC Ladies Ltd. and being provided with the use of the training facilities at the Academy of Light and the Hetton Centre for home games. There had already been occasional attendance by London Branch members at games played by the Sunderland ladies’ team in the South, but in the Ladies championship winning final season in the Premier League the Branch had also taken a more positive and formal approach by commencing sponsorship of the team.
During the first season in the senior competition the Branch provided mascots at the Ladies’ games at Barnet, Millwall, Oxford, Reading and Yeovil as well as providing vocal support to the team at those games. The team’s promotion in that first WSL season provided further publicity opportunities and the Branch had a permanent advertising board at the team’s home ground. It also had occasional adverts in the SAFShe programme and the bibs worn by matchday volunteers recognise the Branch’s ongoing sponsorship.
Sadly, as part of the parent club’s cost-cutting measures (following relegation of the men’s team from the Premier League), the team suffered significant cut backs and although they performed creditably in both the Spring Series and winter league fixtures in their third season in the top tier, they were unsuccessful in their bid to the Football Association for a place in the new full-time and part-time structure and are now playing their games in the third tier National League, Northern Division. Most of the 2017-18 players have left for other clubs and the 2018-19 squad consists mostly of last season’s Development (Reserve) team. The new club owners have however committed to ongoing support for the team as part of the “Sunderland family…. to continue the …. long-standing tradition of developing top-class Women’s footballers, as well as giving young girls the opportunity to aspire to play for Sunderland when they grow up.”
Despite this blow to morale, the young team, including 3 players from the Foundation of Light’s scholarship programme, finished runners-up to champions Blackburn Rovers, whose only dropped points all season were from a defeat by Sunderland. Led by captain and leading goalscorer, Keira Ramshaw, whose performances were recognised by being awarded National League Player of the Year at the FA Women’s Football Awards, and by coach, Melanie Copeland, the team was well on course to win the Northern Division in 2019-20 and earn promotion to the FA Women’s Championship in 2020.
Sadly the season was curtailed and eventually cancelled with all results expunged due to the lockdown imposed as a result of the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic. Once more some players left for clubs which were still allowed to play. The 2020-21 season started but with all home and most games played behind closed doors and further lockdown restrictions the season was again curtailed.
There was however good news that in expanding the FA Women’s Championship, an application from Sunderland based upon their average performances over the last two seasons was accepted and they are now back playing at tier 2 in the women’s pyramid. The new club ownership have committed to longer term development of the team and there is already evidence of this in increased marketing of their games.