The football coach who set a Sunderland quintet on the road to World Cup glory has told of his pride ahead of the biggest game of their careers tonight.
Former Black Cats players Steph Houghton, Jill Scott, Lucy Bronze, Jordan Nobbs and Carly Telford will all be involved as England women take on defending champions Japan in the World Cup semi-final.
They all began their careers at Sunderland under the guidance of Mick Mulhern, who joined the club in 1999 and coached them through their development years until they left for pastures new.
The careers they have gone on to enjoy, at clubs such as Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool, could reach their high point in tonight’s midnight kick-off should they defeat Japan to reach the World Cup final in Canada.
Should that happen, there will be no one prouder than Mulhern, who remains in regular contact with the five, who he has known since they were children.
He said: “I’m absolutely delighted for them, and it’s no surprise to me they have achieved what they have.
What set these players apart was their attitude and mental strengthMick Mulhern
“Jill, Lucy and Jordan were all about 10 or 11 when I first started coaching them, and Carly and Steph would have been 14.
“They always had outstanding ability, but what set them, as well as a few others, apart was their attitude and mental strength. They worked that little bit harder, and gave themselves the best possible chance of making the most of their ability. To have five players who were brought through at Sunderland involved in a World Cup semi-final is fantastic, and not only that, but they are key players.
“They have developed tremendously, and their success shows we did a good job at Sunderland.
“Fifteen years ago, I couldn’t have envisaged something like this would happen.”
Houghton, from South Hetton, will be dreaming of getting her hands on the trophy, with the 27-year-old the captain of the Lionesses.
Bronze, meanwhile, scored the decisive goal in the semi-final victory over Canada, and Nobbs is the team’s vice-captain.
Telford is the only one of the quintet not to have seen any match action in the tournament, and it is clear the former Sunderland stars will be vital to England’s hopes of reaching the final.
Mulhern added: “They’re all great girls, and level-headed. They’re close to their families, who have played a massive part in getting them to where they are.
“The girls deserve all of the success they are getting, and there could easily have been more Sunderland girls in the squad, as Demi Stokes just missed out and Lucy Staniforth wasn’t available because of injury.”
Tonight’s match is sure to be a tough task for the Lionesses, who will be taking on a Japan side which won the World Cup four years ago.However, Mulhern, from South Shields, is convinced they can pull off the “monumental” achievement of reaching the final.
He said: “Japan are excellent, and move the ball about with a lot of pace, but they are beatable.
“It should be a good game, and if England are on their game, they’re certainly capable of winning.
“The tournament has been outstanding for the women’s game in this country, and it would be monumental if they reached the final. The sport should lift off now, and I just hope they can get to the final and give it an extra push, because it’s what the girls deserve.”
l Jill Scott on the biggest match of her life –Page 60