SUNDERLAND Women manager Mick Mulhern is banking on experience to pull his side out of their worst run for years.
And that comes in the form of 29-year-old midfielder Kelly McDougall, who could make a welcome return to the starting line-up when the Lady Black Cats take on Manchester City at Eppleton CW tomorrow (2pm).
The Liverpudlian has not started a game for over two months, and has been slowly building her way back to fitness with the occasional substitute appearance.
The signs are that McDougall is ready to return – and she is needed after a run of three successive defeats that saw Sunderland eliminated from the FA Cup and League Cup, and then knocked from their perch at the top of the Women’s Premier League after last weekend’s 2-1 defeat at Charlton.
The title race is a three-way battle. Watford lead the way with 31 points, while Sunderland are a point behind but with a game in hand.
Leeds United, who won 4-1 at Sunderland in the League Cup semi-final a fortnight ago, are third. They are five points adrift of Sunderland but with a game in hand – and visit Wearside again on the final day of the league season.
A crunch game tomorrow sees Leeds entertain Watford, but Mulhern’s focus is only on pulling Sunderland out of their slump.
“We should have won at Charlton last week,” he said. “We had plenty of chances but just could not take them. Then, we gave away a stupid penalty at the end and came away with nothing, which was massively frustrating.
“We’ve had this terrible run of injuries and got by a week or two, but it finally caught up with us.
“The central midfield three of Kelly, Rachel Furness and Natalie Gutteridge have all be missing for a few weeks. Those three were instrumental in getting us to where we were in the league.
“Rachel is definitely out for the season and it’s not looking good for Natalie, but it’s great to have Kelly back in contention as she’s a very big player for us.”
Another boost tomorrow is the return of Sophie Williams, who was stretchered off in the cup defeat to Leeds after jarring her knee and ankle in a collision with the goalkeeper.
A trip the hospital showed nothing more serious than bad bruising, and she has trained well this week and is available for selection.
“Sophie’s return is a bonus, too. It didn’t look good when she was carried off, but she’s fine and will be involved.
“We need to put this little run behind us. There have been a few negative thoughts here and there but we have worked hard to turn that around.
“There’s also been a lot of work on our attacking play and I expect us to be a bit more clinical in front of goal.”
Sunderland won 3-2 at Manchester City in September, and also beat City 4-0 in the fifth round of the FA Cup.
Tomorrow’s game has been rearranged after the original game in January was abandoned because of a bad injury to the Manchester City keeper.