SUNDERLAND Women midfielder Rachel Furness is hoping for the luck of the Irish as she rebuilds her football career, writes Neil Watson.
The 24-year-old from Washington has had serious injury problems which forced a two-year break from the game – and she jokes she has the “knees of a 40-year-old”.
But the Northern Ireland international is now part of the Lady Black Cats’ powerful Premier League champions team and has over 40 international caps. Even so, she says is grateful for every game she plays – after the dark days when she thought her playing days were over.
“It was during my first spell with Sunderland that I hurt my knee,” she explained.
“I had to have two knee operations and I was out injured for over two years.
“When I finally came back, I joined Newcastle. I wasn’t expecting to ever play in the Premier League or at international level ever again.
“I just wanted to try to rebuild myself mentally and physically and just play for the love of the sport.
“My time at Newcastle was very important because I just about started from scratch again.
“I built myself up and was able to play at a decent level again.
“I left Newcastle on good terms and decided to once again join Sunderland to try to better myself and play at the highest level possible.
“I have had a summer playing in Iceland and now I am back playing for Sunderland in the Premier League and representing Northern Ireland’s senior team. I’m grateful and lucky for every game I get to play.”
Furness has effectively replaced Jordan Nobbs in central midfield for Sunderland after the rising star moved on to Arsenal. But the Lady Black Cats have now won two successive league titles and also claimed the League Cup last season.
She plays alongside the experienced Kelly McDougall and credits the Merseysider for her part in the partnership.
“Kelly is a quality player and someone I am still learning from in every training session and game,” said Furness.
“She has an experienced head which helps in games because it keeps me grounded and focussed on the game. Our roles can differ from week to week, depending on the type of game and the opposition.
“I am more defensive. I like to win the ariel battles whereas Kel will power forward and is known for making her runs.
“Some games I get a ‘nosebleed’ and find myself in the box having shots – but I know if I turn around that Kel has me covered!”
Sunderland are riding high again this season with six wins and a draw from their seven league games.
Sunday’s 4-1 win against Charlton moved the Lady Black Cats four points clear of nearest rivals Leeds United and Aston Villa – with one and two games in hand of them respectively.
Even so, Sunderland have yet to hit top form and Furness is not too happy with her own displays this season.
“On a personal level, I’ve not been not good enough this season,” she said.
“I have to keep working hard and hopefully I will improve and my permormances will help bring success for the team this year.
“I set a high standard for myself so I am continuously wanting to improve and better my performances.
“I would love to score more goals – although I am a midfielder and if I create to me that is as good as scoring.
“I’m known for scoring more with my head then my feet but if I get that far up the pitch I will certainly have a go. The girls think I am crazy, some of the headers I go up for, but its all part of my game.”
With injuries now behind her, Furness is looking to the future – with club and country.
Sunderland, after being snubbed in the initial selection of Super League teams, expect to be involved when that expands to two divisions in 2014.
“I think all the girls would love to play in the Super League,” said Furness. “Every year, we are trying to show that we do deserve to be in the top league. All we can do is keep performing.
“It is definitely a greater challenge and something I hope to be involved in, in the future.”
Another target for Rachel, an assistant supervisor at Pentland Distribution Services, is to continue her international career as she closes in on a major milestone.
She qualifies for the Irish through her grandfather after being refused trials with England.
“When I was younger, the Centre of Excellences, where a lot of the girls come through from, were not as big as they are now,” she explained.
“I played for Chester-le-Street Ladies at the time and because I wasn’t playing in a Centre of Excellence, England would not give me trials.
“My manager at the time, Bill Godward, knew my granddad was Northern Irish, so it went from there.
“I have played since I was 16 and would not change a thing.
“I feel so proud to represent Northern Ireland. I have had some low points – being injured and out of the international scene for over two years – so I cherish every cap I receive and hope there are many more to come.
“I have represented Northern Ireland just over 40 times. I’m hoping I can go on to play over 50 caps – that would be a great honour.
“We are a small country but over the last few years our ambitions have grown. We are hoping that not so far in the future we will be qualifying for major tournaments.
“That is a major ambition. I would love to compete in major finals and be part of Northern Ireland moving forward and growing as a nation.
“We have shown we can compete and get results against the big teams – we just need to be more consistent.
“Our Under-19s have just qualified for a major tournament which shows we have the youth coming through and that positive steps are being made.
“We are improving all the time – I just hope that when we do qualify for a major tournament that I am part of that.”
Competing in qualifying groups for World Cups and European Championships means plenty of travelling.
“The amount of air miles I could clock up would be crazy!” she laughed. “I have lost count of how many countries I have visited.
“In recent times, I’ve been to Iceland, Norway, France, Belgium, Slovakia, Poland, Denmark, Romania, Croatia, Finland and Portugal – and that’s just a few off the top of my head!
“I’m not complaining, though.
“I love travelling, seeing the world and doing something I love.”