Sunderland Ladies showed the future is bright after saying goodbye to the WSL1 Spring Series and to one of their favourite figures.
The Lady Black Cats did not quite give retiring skipper Steph Bannon the perfect send-off in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Reading at Hetton.
But the fact they fought back from being a goal down to clinch fifth place in the final table showed what stern stuff the Lady Black Cats are now made of.
They dug in and won a point, thanks to Beverley Leon’s expertly-taken second-half equaliser, when, in previous times, they may have succumbed to an impressive Reading, who led through Melissa Fletcher’s close-range finish.
Melanie Reay’s side finished bang in the centre of the table.
The Wearsiders were never going to compete with series champs Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool, though they took a point against the Gunners and deserved a draw against reigning champions City.
However, they finished as the ‘best of the rest’, not bad for a team written off after reverting to a part-time model and off-loading four of their star turns. “I’m absolutely delighted,” said Reay. “To finish just below the top four is a credit to all the players and staff for their hard work.
“We’re a part-time/ full-time club and we’ve taken points off some big teams.”
Having given their absolute all three days earlier against England’s league and cup champions, Manchester City, who won via a controversial injury-time goal, a clash with Reading was not going to be easy. And so it proved.
They almost had the perfect start when the marauding Abby Holmes went just wide in the fifth minute when the crowd were indulging in a minute’s applause for captain marvel Bannon.
But, thereafter, Bannon was being applauded for her defensive skills as Reading got into their rhythm.
Bannon, Hayley Sharp and Tori Williams all made crucial tackles, headers, blocks and clearances, while keeper Hilde Olsen saved a dangerous Jade Moore header.
But the Royals sneaked in front in the 29th minute.
Referee Paul Brown awarded the visitors a soft free-kick against Lucy Staniforth. But the dead ball delivery into the box was excellent one and Fletcher applied the finish.
It should have been 2-0 five minutes later when Kirsty Linnett had only Olsen to beat, but the Norwegian stood her ground and saved a weak shot.
After their midweek heroics, it was no real shock that Sunderland found it hard going. But they pulled level 10 minutes into the second half.
Midfielder Dominique Bruinenberg threaded a great ball to Leon, who took a nice touch before powering into the area to beat Mary Earps from 12 yards.
Sunderland were fortunate to escape two scares. Bannon, otherwise flawless on her swansong, lost the ball to Lauren Bruton, who was in on goal but shot wide of Olsen’s right stick.
And the Norwegian keeper rescued the Lady Black Cats by scooping the ball off her line after another dangerous Reading set-piece.
Sunderland brought on fresh legs in the shape of young prospects Bridget Galloway and Poppy Pattinson and there was a brief surge in energy, but Reading remained the team in control.
Bruton almost won it with a powerful shot from the edge of the area, only to be denied by Olsen’s flying save.
Sunderland: Olsen, Holmes, Bannon, Sharp, Williams, Ramshaw, Bruinenberg, Lambert, Staniforth (Gallowayb 54), Joice (Patttinson 71), Roche. Unused Subs: Preuss, Brown, Watt.
Goal: Leon 56. Booked: Staniforth 45, Holmes 64
Reading: Earps, Jane (Hines 82), Bartrip, McGee, Van den Berg, Allen, Bruton, Estcourt (Lahmari 55), Moore, Linnett, Fletcher (Scott 65). Unused Subs: O’Rourke, De Bunsen, Moloney, Green
Goal: Fletcher 29. Booked: Allen 45
Referee: Paul Brown. Att: 464