Following on from a storming debut season in WSL 1, Sunderland failed to hit the highs of 2015 and began to sink as so many had predicted they would in their maiden season.
Things started slowly for the Lady Black Cats, an FA Cup win over Yeovil Town saw them through to the next round without much bother. The season officially starting with a home draw against Reading before a commanding 3-0 win over the same opposition in the next round of the cup, their next action a damning 7-0 loss to Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-finals.
Another draw followed, a gritty 2-2 in Widnes, the visitors a little unlucky to have only taken a point, a fighting spirit suggesting better performances around the corner. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be and Sunderland only managed to take one point from their next seven games, a bitty affair against the Royals at Adams Park saw both sides benefit from penalty decisions.
A rotten run of form
But the losses refused to stop, 0-2 at home to Manchester City, 0-4 against Liverpool, 1-2 to Chelsea, 0-2 to Arsenal and then another embarrassing defeat to the Blues, 0-5 at the Hetton Centre even losing 1-2 to the Belles in an early Conti Cup game.
Fortunes changing – if only for one game – when Sunderland came up against the Belles six days later, a 4-0 thumping in Hetton enough to get people feeling positive about the Lady Black Cats once more. But the next defeats were only just around the corner and the team from furthest North in WSL was hit for eight unanswered goals over their next three games, Birmingham City, Arsenal and City the beneficiaries.
Another meeting with Doncaster proved to be as successful as the last and Sunderland could breathe a sigh of relief, up to nine points with just three games of the season left, a side completely removed from the one of twelve months ago. Back-to-back games against the Lady Pies provided mixed results, careless mistakes and lack of punch the running theme of their season, against fellow strugglers Notts, Sunderland at least got their tally to double-digits for the year.
The failings of the season on show for all to see in their last game of the year at home to draw specialists, Birmingham, the Blues ripped the hosts to shreds claiming a massive (especially for them) 7-1 win.
After taking WSL 1 by storm in 2015 it was jarring to see just how far Sunderland fell over the course of the winter, talismanic striker Beth Mead was left even more isolated than ever, chasing shadows and dropping well inside of her own half just to get a sniff.
Plenty to improve on despite bright sparks
Whilst there were individual performances that earned merit, the likes of Rachel Furness and Brooke Chaplen are two who spring to mind, there were far too many errors, players making the same mistakes over and over and team that looked like it was shrinking deeper and deeper into itself, fast running out of ideas and belief.
The odd performance bred hope but at no point could the Lady Black Cats sustain anything close to form, the ability within the players and team to put together far better performances and earn more points but it repeatedly failed to materialise on the pitch.
With the second leakiest defence in the league (41; only shopping seven less than the Belles), Sunderland’s goal return was an equality meager 17 – although concurrent with the teams either side of them in the table. Suggesting this is just “second season syndrome” would be criminally underplaying the problems, yes it’s true that the top teams are beginning to pull away but Sunderland proved last year that they’re capable of mixing it with the best of them.
What changed and can it change back? If the club are happy with the structures in place and only want to finely tweak the personnel then the Spring Series is the perfect test for the Lasses; maybe 2016 was just a blip and if it wasn’t they then have time to work with to make bigger and deeper changes ahead of the 2017-18 season.