England’s North East has a rich history of producing future Lionesses – but after years away from the spotlight, women’s football looks to be on the up in the area once again.
Sunderland, who had England forward Beth Mead among their ranks until 2016, lost several stars in 2011 after their bid to join the newly formed Women’s Super League was controversially rejected and they moved to a part-time model six years later.
Since then, the club have bounced between the top three tiers as they rebuilt, while neighbours Durham have grown to become a stable feature in the Women’s Championship.
They could soon have a new local rival in Newcastle, who have never had a team in the top echelons of women’s football but are also on the rise under the club’s new ownership, with the third-tier side chasing promotion after turning professional in the summer.
But for now Sunderland, who top the table, and Durham remain the area’s top dogs and this Sunday’s derby between the two sides will be a chance to showcase how far both clubs have come in recent years.
The most recent derby ended in a thrilling 3-2 victory to Sunderland, and this weekend’s match-up promises to be just as spicy.
‘I had never experienced a derby like it’
Durham forward Jess Clarke, who will take a step back from football after this weekend’s game, played with some of the country’s biggest talents while representing England, including ex-Lionesses captain Steph Houghton, born in Durham, and four-time Champions League winner Lucy Bronze, a graduate of Sunderland’s academy.
England’s Euro 2022-winning squad included Bronze, Jill Scott, Demi Stokes and top-scorer Mead, who all began their football careers in the North East – and Clarke says success is once again returning to the area.
“They spoke about the North East a lot. The football environments they were in and the academies they played for – they just expressed a lot of love and gratitude,” Clarke told BBC Sport.
“We never realised back then that the game could expand and progress to what it is now and the professional level it is.
“Jill Scott and Steph Houghton have really driven the game forward in that respect and highlighted it up here which is credit to them.”
Clarke, who played in the Merseyside derby while at Liverpool, said “nothing compared” to her experience of the rivalry between Durham and Sunderland.
“It is going to be electric,” said Clarke. “There’s always that passion and desire to win it. The experience I had when we last played Sunderland here – I had never experienced a derby like it.
“I had no time or space on the ball. Whoever wins on the day, it will come down to heart and desire.”
‘You’re representing everyone in Sunderland’
This weekend’s derby is unique to the women’s game.
Sunderland’s traditional derby in the men’s game is with Newcastle, but with the Magpies’ women’s team in the third tier it is Durham who are their big rivals.
“Because of the proximity and the fact we’ve got players who have played for both clubs means it definitely has a bit more atmosphere around this fixture,” Sunderland defender Brianna Westrup told BBC Sport.
“Everyone has their own local derby and rivalry. I played in the Scottish one between Rangers and Celtic, which is massive. It’s bragging rights as well as points in the league. You do it for the pride for the badge.”
Westrup hopes Sunderland will represent the nature of its people on Sunday – traits which helped develop some of the country’s most successful players.
“We are a hard-working city and the club values are that we are bold, industrious and hard-working. We try to reflect that as best we can on and off the pitch,” said Westrup.
“The fans are massive. When we go to watch the men’s games you can feel the atmosphere and see how much it means to people. Ultimately you’re representing everyone in Sunderland.
“They want a team that wins games, regardless of who it’s against. They want to back a winning team because they take pride in that and the football club.”
Can Durham end Sunderland’s unbeaten run?
There is added incentive for Durham to win this weekend too.
Having been in the Women’s Championship for nine seasons – becoming the North East’s premier club – Sunderland are now threatening to take over, chasing the rich success of their club’s history.
Not only do Sunderland sit top of the table, the visitors are also unbeaten this season, conceding just four goals in the league.
“We have to show Sunderland a lot of respect. They have done fantastically well,” said Durham’s Clarke. “They have momentum on their side.
“We need to try not to get wrapped up in that dogfight mentally. We’re quietly confident going into the game, but at the same time we know it will be very, very tough.”
Westrup added: “Staying unbeaten is what we want, regardless of whether it’s Durham or a different team.
“It might be an extra bit of motivation [for them] to be the first team to beat us this season – but we just need to focus on what we can do to utilise our strengths in the best way.”