September 5, 2019
Melanie Reay has been there, done that and got the t-shirt.
Her first-hand account of the rise and fall of North East football at the highest level is a sobering tale and yet, having experienced the depths of despair following an enforced double relegation as head coach of Sunderland Ladies, she maintains a reassuring level of optimism that runs right through women’s football across the region.
Incredibly, hope for the future still offsets the pain of the past.
“We’re really driven to get back to where we believe we belong,” says Melanie, as Sunderland seek to gain promotion to the FA Women’s Championship.
“The club has a great history and we’re well aware of that. Our double relegation wasn’t down to performances or results and that still hurts.”
In spite of her determination to restore Sunderland’s reputation as a powerhouse of the women’s game, Melanie could be forgiven for fearing the worst for the next generation of North East talent given the fact that there is no Women’s Super League (WSL) club north of Manchester, no WSL Academy (the development league focusing on players aged 16-20) in the region and no host venue north of Sheffield and Rotherham ahead of UEFA Women’s Euro 2021.
At the elite level, a recognised hotbed for women’s football appears increasingly marginalised.
England manager Phil Neville included players from Sunderland, Newcastle, Durham, South Shields and Berwick-upon-Tweed in his World Cup semi-final squad, but in the current climate that production line of world-class talent is far from future-proof.
“The North East urgently requires a WSL Academy side in order to develop Under 21 talent and stay in the loop,” concedes Melanie.
“We’ve already lost one of the best players in the region to Liverpool’s WSL Academy and until we have our own academy in the region then the bigger clubs can pretty much cherry pick our best players.
“I’m convinced that those players would stay in the region – and help to improve the overall quality of women’s football here – given the choice.”
And those players are still coming through. In their droves.
Figures from Durham FA confirm the number of women and girls playing football regularly increased threefold from 2011 to 2018.
More than 3620 female players were actively involved in football across the county at the start of the 2018/19 campaign and work is ongoing to improve player pathways from youth to senior level.
“We support more than 30 FA Wildcats centres, which are aimed at girls aged five to 11 to come along and try football in a fun and safe environment,” explains Durham FA’s Michael Bell.
“We also support local clubs to increase female provision and get females playing the game.”
Northumberland FA reports a similar growth in girls’ football. Between June 2018 and June 2019 every age group from under-eight to under-16 saw an increase in the number of female players with the under-11 age group rocketing from 33 to 209 within 12 months.
But those stars of the future could be forgiven for thinking they were being ignored ahead of the biggest football tournament in England since Euro 96.
According to Baroness Sue Campbell, the FA’s director of women’s football, the UEFA Women’s Euro 2021 competition will be a game- changer.
“It has the power to inspire a new generation of young girls, and women of all ages, to get involved in the sport,” she says.
“Euro 2021 has the potential to be a pivotal moment in the development of the women’s game in England.”
And yet North East fans will have to travel to South Yorkshire or Greater Manchester to ‘get inspired’.
Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze and Beth Mead, among others, will be denied the opportunity to wear the three lions on their own turf and there is a real danger that a region renowned for developing world class talent will feel cut adrift at a critical period.
North East Times understands that none of the region’s ‘big three’ professional football clubs – Newcastle United, Sunderland and Middlesbrough – supported a bid to host Euro 2021 fixtures.
And it appears there was little appetite from the region’s local authorities to work with those clubs in tabling a successful bid.
Newcastle City Council and Newcastle United have earned an international reputation for staging world-class sporting events, with 2019’s European Rugby Champions Cup Final the latest elite competition to find its perfect home at St James’ Park.
England will play their final warm-up fixture ahead of this month’s Rugby World Cup at the same venue and Tyneside has a proud history of hosting international football.
So why the indifference around Euro 2021?
A spokesperson for Newcastle City Council explains: “While we were not part of the bid to bring the women’s Euro 2021 Championships to England, it is a fantastic coup for the country to be hosting this event and hopefully it will build on the success of England’s Lionesses.
“We appreciate the value hosting major events such as this does for participation in sports among women and girls and we do a great deal to encourage everybody to get involved in sports and live healthier lifestyles.
“One of the major successes is around the amazing turnouts seen at the This Girl Can events which encourage women across Newcastle into a wide variety of sports.”
The FA adds: “In January 2018, The FA – in conjunction with UK Sport – ran an open host city selection process for those cities and stadia wishing to take part in UEFA Women’s Euro 2021.
“As part of this process, UK Sport wrote to Newcastle City Council along with other cities, councils, county FAs, Premier League, EFL and WSL clubs to invite expressions of interest.
“While there was interest from a wide range of cities and stadia across the country – including Newcastle – no final bids that met UEFA stadium criteria were received from cities north of Sheffield.”
Luke Edwards, of The Telegraph, followed England across France during this summer’s World Cup and the Newcastle-based reporter is appalled at the prospect of a UEFA Women’s Euro 2021 tournament without a North East base.
“As things stand a whole generation of young girls is going to miss out on world-class women’s football on their doorstep.
“It’s an horrendous scenario and I honestly believe the FA needs to look at it again.
“Where is the next Steph Houghton or the next Lucy Bronze going to come from if the girls playing football in the North East right now don’t get to see their heroes up close and personal?”
It’s a valid point but if the dearth of international women’s football in the North East is an understandably contentious talking point then bumps in the road on the player pathway are of equal concern when considering the overall picture for women’s football in the region.
Durham Women FC’s head coach and general manager Lee Sanders shares Melanie Reay’s view that a WSL Academy is an important step forward at a time when pastoral care, as well as coaching and player development, is of paramount importance. And he feels the North East’s professional men’s clubs need to look again at their commitment to the women’s game.
“The positive thing for Durham is that last year we were invited to enter the WSL Academy Cup and we’ll be doing the same again this season,” says Lee, who oversees an ambitious Championship club with aspirations to play in the top flight next season and was appointed to the FA’s Women’s Board in July.
“We’ll be putting that team together during the next few months and working with our partners at Stockton Riverside College, Durham Sixth Form College and Northumberland College.
“Alongside the colleges, we are committed to offering that dual career path for post-16 players.
“But I do feel that there’s a need for a WSL Academy in the North East. That’s not just for Durham’s benefit – there should be one in this part of the world, full stop.
“It’s disappointing when you see big clubs getting rid of reserve teams and development teams when they should be building at that level.
“I understand costs are involved but when you consider the size of the institutions that we’re talking about it’s not too much to expect greater support at that level.”
Eighteen months ago, hopes were high that the North East’s first WSL Academy would be given the green light following an application by Sunderland Football Club, supported by Northumbria University and Gateshead College.
A detailed and comprehensive bid was rejected at the open application stage as the FA lacked confidence in the financial model due to the perilous state of Sunderland AFC.
As anticipated, the relegation of Sunderland’s men’s team from the Championship to League One, in the summer of 2018, dashed those hopes that a WSL Academy would find a home in the North East.
Nevertheless, Sunderland, Gateshead and Northumbria remain committed to giving girls and women in the region every opportunity to participate in the sport they love.
Undeterred by the disappointment of that failed WSL Academy bid, they continue to explore a range of opportunities at grassroots and elite level.
“Northumbria continues to enjoy a strong relationship with the FA at all levels of the women’s and girl’s game,” points out a spokeswoman for Northumbria University.
“We are home to a Women’s High Performance Football Centre, which supports and drives the FA’s ambition to increase the number of qualified coaches and improve the quality of coaching.
“Northumbria is an FA Wildcats Football Centre and the university has again been successful in its bid for the FA Development Programme.
“This initiative supports the head of women’s football role that Amber Whiteley held until earlier this summer.
“Amber’s development through Northumbria University – from student to football development coordinator and head of women’s football – has allowed her to progress into a fantastic new role working for the FA, where she is part of the Elite Coach Menteeship programme.”
Northumbria has also entered into partnership with Newcastle United and the university will work with the Newcastle United Foundation to support and develop women’s football on Tyneside.
South of the river, Sunderland continues to identify emerging talent.
Melanie adds: “Players with the potential to play at the top level are still coming through the junior ranks in the North East.
I’ve just signed full-back Jessica Brown, who has represented England at under-15 and under-16 level and is part of the England under-17 setup.
“She’s been with the Regional Talent Centre at Sunderland for five years and is ready for the step up to the senior squad.
“It’s all about giving players like Jessica the platform and the right environment to grow into a senior footballer.”
Jen O’Neill, editor of the North East-based She Kicks women’s football magazine, is confident the region’s emerging footballers will still find a route into the senior game and yet, like Lee Sanders at Durham, she believes there is an onus on Newcastle United, Sunderland and Middlesbrough to set the standards in terms of a move towards greater professionalism.
“For young players coming through there are still pathways and opportunities,” she insists.
“If you were affiliated to a Regional Training Centre then you’d probably look to go somewhere like Gateshead College, which has an excellent reputation for supporting post-16 players.
And at that stage – if you were good enough – you’d be looking to break into the reserves at Sunderland or Durham. That pathway still exists.
“As far as what happened at Sunderland is concerned, people in this part of the world are still upset that the FA forced change and imposed the double relegation. But I can see the flipside.
“The FA is focused on improving the quality of women’s football across the board and I think they’ve done that.
“When people blame the FA for the demise of top-flight women’s football in the North East, they also have to ask questions about all of the professional clubs up here.
“Where’s the support for reaching those FA standards from Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Newcastle United?”
Where Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool et al have led, the North East’s big three need to follow – and fast.
Luke Edwards agrees.
“The plight of Sunderland inevitably raises questions as to why Newcastle United – the biggest club in the North East in terms
of its fan base and wealth – hasn’t done more to support a fully professional women’s team in black and white,” he adds.
“That lack of support is just one reason why, at a time when women’s football is riding the crest of a wave across England, it’s a bit of a gloomy picture as far as the future of the game in the North East is concerned.”