Women's football: We've earned right to join pro league, says Mulhern

Women's football manager of the year Mick Mulhern can't wait for the game's next big leap forward – but says Sunderland MUST be involved.

The Wearsiders' manager was named the top boss in the women's game during the summer after a superb season.

Sunderland won the Women's Premier League Northern Division title – and promotion into the national league – as well as reaching the FA Cup final where they were edged out 2-1 by all-conquering Arsenal in front of over 23,000 fans at Derby's Pride Park and a TV audience of around 3 million.

That game marked the end of Vic Akers' trophy-laden reign as Arsenal boss – leaving 42-year-old Mulhern as the longest-serving current manager, having now completed ten years with Sunderland.

But the detective constable in the police force has little time to reflect on the past, especially with the prospect of a major change to the women's game in this country on the horizon.

The Football Association is planning to introduce a professional women's league, starting in 2011.

It is hoped to build the profile of the women's game through greater publicity, including TV coverage.

The season will run from March to October, bringing the game more in line with the international football calendar as well as providing a more "family friendly" atmosphere for spectators in the warmer weather.

Girls football is growing rapidly and it is now the most popular team sport for females in the country. The Russell Foster Tyne and Wear Youth League now has 90 all-girl teams playing competitive football, just two years after they were introduced.

And the FA – with Government pressure pushing it on – believes it needs to create role models at the top of the game to further encourage participation.

A professional game would do that, and help stop the exodus of top England players from the domestic game, including the likes of Kelly Smith, Alex Scott, and Eniola Aluko, who are now plying their trade in the paid ranks of teams in the United States.

Already 17 players in the England senior set-up are on central contracts, including former Sunderland players Jill Scott, Steph Houghton and Carly Telford, who all developed under the coaching of Mulhern.

"Women's football has come on massively, even in the ten years I have been at Sunderland," said Mulhern.

"Yes, a long time ago is was seen as a bit of a joke. But not now.

"At the top level all the girls are true athletes. The England programme has helped – the girls involved in that are trained and monitored properly.

"They are extremely fit and talented footballers.

"The England teams are now doing very well. The seniors reached the final of the European Championships and the U19s won theirs. It's the right time to take the next step forward, and a professional league is an exciting prospect."

But there is no guarantee that Sunderland will be involved in an eight-team Super League.

All interested clubs have until December to apply for membership with details of their plans.

The FA will then decide which clubs are selected. Each will then receive 70,000 a year for two seasons (there will be no relegation in that time) with strict guidelines on how the money must be spent, with an eye on clubs becoming self-sufficient. Each club must also show, in their bid, that they are able match the figure given by the FA.

Mulhern believes that Sunderland have earned the right to be selected for the new league, but knows it is not a certainty.

"We are the top club in the North East and have been for years," he said.

"If the FA wants to develop the game around the country, then this region needs to be represented.

"We have an excellent set-up here. Look at the players who have come through the ranks.

"Jill Scott, Steph Houghton and Carly Telford came through with us and now part of the senior England squad.

"We now have two England U23 internationals, five in the England U19 squad, and two players in the England 17 squad.

"Alongside Everton, Leeds and Birmingham, we have supplied more players into the England international set-up than any other clubs in the whole league structure.

"The FA can look at us and see we are a club that is already achieving.

"They should look at us and say 'with a little bit of support, we can push Sunderland to the next level. They have the structure in place; they are an ideal club for the new league'.

"We have made massive strides already and can make that next big step."

The only North East rival bid could come from Newcastle Ladies.

They have been in the shadow of Sunderland for many years but with the right backing they could possibly appear an attractive proposition to the FA.

Sunderland have started the new season in the top flight well. With nine points from six games, the Wearsiders lie fourth top.

Much now rests on the shoulders of club chairman Maurice Alderson, who must put together Sunderland's bid for a place in the new league.

"It's vital we get in," added Mulhern.

"A tremendous amount of hard work has gone into the last ten years.

"No one at the club gets paid a penny. The players – who come from all over the North East – pay for the right to play for Sunderland.

"We can't go on the way we are. It's living from hand to mouth; relying on handouts and sponsorship from local businesses, and doing our own fund-raising.

"We can't miss out now, and I believe this can become a big success.

"We know we have a lot to offer the game and it would be great for the city of Sunderland if we are accepted."