Name the coach seconded to assist Phil Neville during his first two World Cup qualifiers as England women’s manager? She is related to a famous former striker; can you identify him? The respective answers – Melanie Reay and her cousin Alan Shearer – may challenge quiz participants outside the north-east, but few who know their women’s football. In the latter circles Reay is instantly recognisable as the gifted and ultra-loyal coach of a Sunderland Ladies side who were summarily demoted two divisions in 2018 when the Football Association turned a revamped Women’s Super League all professional.
Sunderland had just finished a respectable seventh but, with their parent men’s club hitting financial problems prompted by two swift relegations, they failed to meet the funding criteria required for a licence to play in the WSL or even the semi-professional Championship.
Down they dropped into the third tier, National League North, where, despite receiving no expenses, let alone match fees, Reay’s players top the table and are on a 20-game unbeaten run. Birmingham of the WSL would certainly be unwise to underestimate them when they meet in the FA Cup fifth round at Eppleton in County Durham on Sunday.
“Promotion’s our overriding objective,” says Reay. “But it’s a great opportunity to test ourselves.”
Sunderland have submitted an application for a Championship licence to the FA and there is cautious optimism that should they finish in a promotion place, the ruling body may look favourably on it. Significantly Stewart Donald, the club’s owner, has supported the Ladies, allowing them to share top-class facilities at the Academy of Light with Phil Parkinson’s League One men.
“It’s a Premier League-standard training ground and being able to use the indoor barn means I never need cancel sessions,” says Reay, whose squad of teachers, teaching assistants, personal trainers, students and a commuter from Africa train twice weekly. “This club has a great history and we’re really driven to get back where we believe we belong. Our double relegation wasn’t down to results so it hurt but we’ve moved on from the bitter disappointment of what happened. We’ve got over it; we’re on a new journey now.”
For a while the Ladies were cut adrift, excluded from the Academy of Light and exiled to Newcastle, but, amid an inevitable personnel churn, two constants remained: the manager and her captain-cum-key-midfielder, Keira Ramshaw.
“It was tough but we always kept our fighting spirit,” says Reay. “Keira loves Sunderland so much she gave up WSL contracts to stay, so, no, I never felt like quitting. Over the past 20 years this club’s produced so many top players from the north-east; it’s important to keep on doing that.”
Tellingly, seven of the 23-woman England squad at last summer’s World Cup in France were former Sunderland players and six – including Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze and Jill Scott – started the semi-final defeat by the USA. Now, though, there is no WSL team north of Manchester and the most northerly venues when England host Euro 2021 are Sheffield/Rotherham and Manchester.
“It would have been nice to have had games up here,” says Reay. “We’ve got the facilities.” Indeed, neglecting to utilise the Stadium of Light, the Riverside and St James’ Park with easy access to Europe from nearby Newcastle airport seems akin to something Reay has always been happily unfamiliar with: missing a sitter.
Once an utterly ruthless, positively Shearer-esque striker for Sunderland – 58 goals in 82 games – and Newcastle – 65 in 64 matches – she evidently has much in common with her cousin; not that they have too much chance to compare notes. “I only really see Alan at family gatherings,” she says. “Life’s so busy.”
Given that the 39-year-old Reay is married with a small son, combining her day job as head of Gateshead college’s women’s football academy with managing Sunderland does not leave much spare time.
Two years ago, though, Reay could not resist an invitation to take a couple of weeks off and fill the gap between Neville’s original No 2, Casey Stoney, departing for Manchester United and his current assistant, Bev Priestman, arriving from Canada.
“It was an honour,” says a Uefa A licence holder so highly regarded by Neville during a draw with Wales and win against Bosnia that she subsequently coached an England Under-23s side at a Nordic tournament and spent part of last summer’s showpiece in France at the FA’s invitation. “I’m open to any further offers,” she says.
The Lionesses’ world of luxury hotels and privately chartered planes is light years from the conflicting priorities at Sunderland, where Grace McCatty, the team’s defensive lynchpin, has flown in from Nairobi for Sunday’s tie but misses some games because of the daunting logistics of her career as an Africa programme manager for the Prince’s Trust.
Reay remains as unfazed as she once was in the penalty area. “You can only ask so much of players who aren’t paid,” she says. “But the unbeaten run’s a source of pride; we want to extend it against Birmingham.”
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