In a match soured by an argument between Birmingham City’s goalscorer Lucy Staniforth and a spectator while she celebrated her long-range strike, Sunderland delivered a performance of character, spirit and skill that underlined it is a club on the rise again.
Quite what led to Staniforth celebrating in front of a home fan is unclear, running the length of the pitch to do so, but whatever satisfaction the former Sunderland player took from it was short lived as she was shown a red card by the referee.
It is believed the spectator had been goading the player earlier in the match and he was also removed from the ground on the instruction of the match official.
It was an ugly end to a scrappy game as a howling wind made playing conditions tricky, even though the North East avoided the worst of Storm Dennis over the weekend. The pitch did not even look overly wet, let alone waterlogged, although Birmingham quickly become bogged down as they struggled to play their way through the Sunderland side.
Two divisions below the visitors, Sunderland were the collateral damage in the redesign of the women’s game, dropping two divisions as the club’s financial problems mounted and they were unable to fulfil the requirements set by the Football Association to continue as a professional club.
It was a sad demise for a club that produced seven of the England players who took part in last summer’s World Cup in France, six of them starting in the semi-final defeat to the USA.
But they have regrouped and come again, 20 games unbeaten heading into this FA Cup fifth round tie, the Black Cats are heading for promotion to the Championship under their talented manager Melanie Copeland.
A cousin of former England captain Alan Shearer, Copeland has created a positive environment for a new generation of North East talent to blossom and despite only training part time, they pushed Birmingham hard and appeared to be heading for a replay until Staniforth scored from a free-kick late on.
They were indebted to goalkeeper Claudia Moan, who made a number of fine saves, but Sunderland did more than just defend, looking dangerous when they countered and several players shone, centre back Charlotte Potts, captain Kiera Ramshaw, Neve Herron and midfielder Mollie Lambert all catching the eye, suggesting they could well on go on to play full time.
That is something Sunderland are keen to do and Copeland was proud of the performance, despite conceding such a late goal.
“I’m really proud of the performance, we had a game plan and the girls carried it out brilliantly,” said Copeland, who has already been drafted in to help England manager Phil Neville as a coach and caught the eye of key figures at the FA.
“They have held their own against a WSL One team and I couldn’t have asked for anymore. We are on a terrific run of form and the club is heading in the right direction again after a difficult couple of years. We’ve got some good players, it might be League One, but we have talent coming through and we believe in what we are doing.
“The North East has a wonderful track record of producing players who go on to play at the highest level, that is what Sunderland have always been known for and we will continue to do so. We’ve got a new generation coming through and we will continue to give them a platform to show their talent.
“This has been a good experience for them against a Premier League team, but all attention now goes back to the league. We’ve got Middlesbrough here on Thursday night so it’s all eyes on that.”
Having found Sunderland stubborn opponents, it took a moment of quality from Staniforth to win it, smashing home the winner from 20 yards, which squirmed through the gloves of Moan. Sunderland almost grabbed a stoppage time equaliser, but goalkeeper Alex Brooks made a vital save after Ramshaw’s free kick had caused panic in her defence.
Sunderland: Moan, Herron (Barker 72), Potts, Griffiths, Ramshaw, Lambert, Galloway, Gibson, Beer, McCatty, Farrugia.
Unused subs: Mullen, Warren, Woolston, Cowling (g/k).
Booking: Ramshaw 84.
Birmingham: Brooks, Scott, Harrop, Holloway, Mayling (Brougham 90+7), Scofield (Whipp 62), Staniforth, Kelly (Grant 62), Williams, Visalli, Walker.
Unused sub: Hampton (g/k).
Goal: Staniforth 85.
Booking: Scott 55.
Source: Telegraph UK