WHEN the Player-of-the-Season award comes to being handed out for Sunderland Ladies this season, midfield dynamo Rachel Furness will take some beating.
Striker Beth Mead is leading goalscorer, keeper Rachael Laws has won an England call-up, and every player has played a part in the Black Cats’ surge to the top of Women’s Super League 2 this season.
But Furness has been the fulcrum for so much of the side’s success.
The playmaker tackles hard, passes sublimely and reads the game brilliantly.
She also weighs in with goals from midfield too, five this season with two of them, perhaps crucially, coming against tonight’s opposition, Doncaster Belles.
Second-placed Belles provide the sole obstacle between Sunderland and promotion to the top flight of English women’s football.
Victory at Eppleton CW tonight (7.30pm) will see Sunderland confirmed as champions and promoted, with two games to spare.
And Furness hopes she can have another fine game against the Yorkshire outfit and play her part in a vital victory.
“I’ve enjoyed playing against them this season. They’re a good side and I’m excited for the game,” she told the Echo.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us to win the league. They have to come at us and try to win the game, so we know what we’re in for.
“But ideally I still want us to keep a clean sheet and get the three points we need.”
Doncaster are likely to look at rattling Sunderland, disrupting their rhythm, and, with the stakes so high, it could be a physical encounter.
If that’s how it turns out, Furness will be in the thick of it.
“I don’t mind a physical game,” she shrugged. “I think that plays to my strengths personally.
“We have to be prepared for them doing everything they can to take us out of our comfort zone. But, at the same time, we have to keep our discipline as a team – we certainly don’t want want any of us sent off.”
The 26-year-old has relished her form this season, a campaign made all the more precious by the fact that a serious knee injury looked to have finished her career when she was still a teenager.
That injury ended her first spell at Sunderland in 2006, but the game is in her blood and she has worked her way back to her current level.
“I’ve got to be sensible,” she admitted. “The knee injury was a very bad one. I’ve basically got no cartilage in part of it, so it is bone on bone.
“It’s all a question of managing it and making sure I don’t play too many games in too short a time.
“But I’ve loved being part of things this season, I’ve loved helping the team and I love the fact that we’re now so close to winning the title.
“When I left Sunderland, I didn’t think I’d be able to play at that level again, but I’ve shown that I can.
“Now I’m hoping we can finish the job and next season we can all test ourselves at the highest level, myself included.”