Sunderland Ladies boss Carlton Fairweather has hailed the impact of experienced midfielder Kelly McDougall.
The 31-year-old Liverpudlian is the oldest player in a still youthful squad, but is part of a midfield trio that has been key to the Lady Black Cats’ great season so far.
She’s a great organiser and motivator – and she’s holding her own in the midfield three.
Sunderland are joint leaders with Arsenal in the Women’s Super League, with just five games to go.
Saturday’s 4-1 win at Bristol Academy mathematically sealed Sunderland’s top-flight status for another season – and they can now focus on an unexpected title challenge in their first season after promotion.
There is also the Continental Cup to battle for, with Sunderland playing their latest group game tonight against Everton at Eppleton CW (7.30pm).
While Beth Mead’s stunning goalscoring form has been vital to this season’s success, so too has the terrific work rate of the midfield trio – McDougall, Brooke Chaplen and Rachel Furness.
“Kelly is a very intelligent player,” said Fairweather.
“She brings a wealth of experience; she’s a good passer and keeps it simple.
“She’s also a great organiser and motivator – and she’s holding her own in the midfield three.
“They are working tremendously hard. The three are there to rotate; one can sit deep and allow the others to push forward but it’s down to them on the pitch.”
McDougall joined Sunderland in 2008 after ten years at Everton.
The Toffees side on show tonight will be more familiar though to Chaplen, who made the same move at the start of this season and has been a great success.
Fairweather is set to make changes tonight for the visit of the WSL2 side.
Rising star Mead is a doubt after picking up a groin injury on Saturday in a game where she added two more goals to her growing tally.
Defenders Abby Holmes (groin) and Tori Williams (thigh) are also injury doubts, while boss Fairweather could make other changes.
“We’ll see how Beth, Tori and Abby are today before making any decisions,” he said. “Beth’s flying at the moment but we won’t take any risks.
“These cup games are also a chance for some of the players in the squad to come in and show what they can do.
“They are working very hard in training and are full of confidence.
“Our ambition at the start of the season was pretty much to secure WSL1 status – but the cups are important and we want to do well.”
Sunderland started the Conti Cup group section with a 2-1 win away to local rivals Durham last week, a game Mead started on the bench.
If she does not start again, Fairweather could go with Keira Ramshaw or Stephanie Roche as strike options.
After tonight’s game, they also face home games against Manchester City and Doncaster Rovers Belles as well as having a trip to Liverpool – who won 2-0 at Everton in their opening group game last week.
There are three groups, with the top two teams from each group and the two third-placed teams with the best records going through to a quarter-final stage.
Admission is £5 , or £2.50 for concessions.