It was a bittersweet return for former Sunderland captain Lucy Staniforth. Late in the game, she got the winning goal, firing in a free kick that the home goalie fumbled into her net. Then she got a red card before the game could begin, and a farcical delay followed as a vuvuzuela-toting fan was escorted from the ground.
Like the rest of her Birmingham team, Staniforth was suffering a frustrating afternoon. The Blues dominated possession, but struggled to break down a well-drilled Sunderland defence. Skying the best chance of the first half didn’t help the midfielder’s mood, and nor did persistent toots from that vuvuzuela in the crowd. As the second half wore on, the linesman was urging the ref to have a word, fearing that Staniforth was ‘losing her head’. Shortly afterwards, she got the winning goal and raced towards the touch line, suggesting in less than ladylike language what somebody might do with her horn. Foul and abusive language, a red card and, according to fans in the stand, a disgruntled player stomping back to the dressing rooms muttering about a lack of respect.
Then came the farce. The ref asked for the offending musician to be removed from the ground, and refused to restart play until she was safely outside. Unfortunately, that meant marching our would-be trumpeter around most of the pitch, a time-consuming process that left players, coaches and fans alike standing around in confusion. Eight minutes of stoppage time were announced, Sunderland almost snatched an equalizer when a Charlotte Potts free kick from the halfway line caught the swirling wind and almost deceived goalie Alex Brooks. But the home team, now playing its football two leagues below top flight Birmingham, saw its 20-match unbeaten run come to an end despite a brave effort against superior opposition.
Many in the crowd, though, remembered how it used to be. Prior to the most recent reorganisation of women’s football, Sunderland was in the top flight. While the Black Cats lacked the resources to compete with the big guns for leading international talent, they could and did nurture a steady string of players who made an impact for England – Staniforth being one of many. However, whenever restructuring reared its ugly head, the Lasses tended to get the short end of the stick. Once, that meant being denied promotion to the top tier at a time when league performance seemed to demand a place among the elite. This time, it was a demotion down to National Premier North, the third tier. Doncaster Belles, another club with a proud heritage in the women’s game, suffered a similar fate; newly-created teams like Manchester United and West Ham were the beneficiaries. Some felt, particularly on Wearside, that branding was rewarded ahead of history.
That decision forced Staniforth to move on, joining Super League Birmingham in search of an international career. For her, the decision has paid off; for Sunderland, there’s a mix of pride and frustration at seeing local talent like Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze and more recently Beth Mead play for the Three Lionesses while the club languishes among the part timers. Long before her role in the controversial end to the game, the referee was reminding one of her assistants how Sunderland had always enjoyed good support and put out a good women’s team.
Under manager Melanie Reay, the team is on the up: top of its league, successful in the cups (this was an FA Cup 5th Round tie, the League Cup campaign is also going well). But it will be some time before Sunderland is in a position to persuade prospective England players to commit their future to the club.
Eppleton Colliery Welfare Football Ground, Hetton-le-Hole, England
FA Women’s Cup, 5th round. Feb. 16, 2020
Sunderland 0 Birmingham 1 (Staniforth)
Att: 450 (head count)