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SUNDERLAND Women manager Mick Mulhern believes women’s and girls’ football on Wearside is going from strength to strength.

After a season in which his team completed the FA Women’s Premier League title and League Cup double, Mulhern is delighted by news that Sunderland has won back a licence to host a Girls Centre of Excellence.

The centre will be run by a partnership between Sunderland AFC Foundation and Gateshead College, supported by Durham County Football Association.

It will accommodate talented girls from under 9s to under 17s, who will train twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays and play fixtures at the weekend.

And the best players will then feed into Mulhern’s Sunderland Women senior side.

“The Centre of Excellence is absolutely vital to the future,” said Mulhern, who has been heavily involved with it over the years.

“It’s a sort of ‘grow your own’ system of bringing through and developing the best young players, ultimately coming through to senior level.

“From each group of players finishing at the Centre of Excellence, only some will come through to play with us at Sunderland Women. We hope, though, that the others find other clubs and help develop the game throughout the region.

“The youngsters are developed as players but also as people. The Centre allows the players to play regularly at a very high standard and get the best coaching; something they would not be able to get with clubs.”

Sunderland Women’s team over the years has been filled with Centre of Excellence graduates, the most notable being England stars Jill Scott and Steph Houghton – now with Everton and Arsenal respectively in the FA Women’s Super League – who have played in World Cups, and who will both have high hopes of playing for Great Britain in this summer’s Olympics.

“We’ve brought through 17 or 18 internationals in my time with the Centre of Excellence,” added Mulhern. “The bulk of our team now are players who have come through the system – the likes of Rachael Laws, Keira Ramshaw, Sophie Williams, Abby Holmes, Steph Bannon, Becky Salicki, Helen Alderson and Rachel Lee – and many others who have been with the reserve side.

“It’s important to be part of this set-up to have a chance of getting into the Women’s Super League, which is one of our ambitions.”

The development of girls football in the region suffered a blow last year when the FA took away Sunderland’s Centre of Excellence licence because no one had the top A standard Uefa coaching qualification – and that meant girls having to travel to Middlesbrough to be part of their nearest centre.

The new set-up meets all the FA criteria though, and will be led by Technical Director Mitchell Whellans.

It was from the Centre of Excellence on Teesside that Mulhern signed striker Beth Mead last summer, and the teenager repaid his faith in her with 29 goals as Sunderland completed their superb double.

Mead’s great year was completed at the weekend when she won the Player of the Year award at the club’s presentation evening on Saturday.

Players’ Player of the Year was keeper Rachael Laws, while Most Improved Player of the Year went to forward Keira Ramshaw.

Jane Riddell won the reserve team Player of the Year award, with Sarah Unwin getting the Players’ Player award.