Meet the Northumbrian detective who has a nose for footballing talent – not just sniffing out crime.
In fact, Mick Mulhern is so good at keeping ‘em peeled that eight members of the England team set to break history at Wembley this weekend were given their big break at the Sunderland academy where he used to juggle the day job with life as a coach, writes Tom Dean.
If the Lionesses do break the attendance record for a women’s match in England on Saturday, it will be Phil Neville’s name that goes down in the history books, but for most of the Lionesses, he is not the first coach they will be willing to thank.
The Lionesses have long talked about becoming history-makers. For Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze, Jill Scott, Jordan Nobbs, Beth Mead, Carly Telford, Lucy Staniforth and Demi Stokes, that dream all started in the North East.
“The whole lot that you see in the England set up now, all came to Sunderland as youngsters after I scouted them,” said the detective.
“The success that England have had over the last five years has been down to those Sunderland girls.
“It was like planting bamboo – you never see it growing under the surface for all those years and then it sprouts and continues to grow and grow.
“It was very clear that having been through the centre of excellence programme those players were better for it – and we just got stronger from then on really.
“I never had a blueprint to go off, but I was trying to run it just like I would have run a boy’s academy – I stayed away from the basics and taught them what I thought they needed.
“Now it is 20 years later and when I look at that current crop of players in the squad, I think I can judge myself on my results.”
Mulhern took over at Blyth Spartan Kestrels in 1999 before they were taken over by Sunderland a year later, where he was placed in charge of the new women’s academy at the Black Cats.
Current England captain Houghton and veterans Scott and Telford were the first to fall off the Mulhern-talent conveyor belt but that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Mulhern spent 15 years using his skills as a police detective to unearth the best footballing talent in the North East and bring them to the Black Cats.
Two-time PFA Player of the Year Bronze, Arsenal duo Nobbs and Mead and Manchester City’s Stokes all spent time under Mulhern’s stewardship before becoming key features of Neville’s trailblazing Lionesses.
Since then it has been Bronze who has been the most successful, lifting the Women’s Super League title three times with Liverpool and Manchester City before winning back-to-back Champions Leagues with Lyon.
Back then, playing in the Women’s Champions League seemed a faraway dream, but now, with more opportunities available than ever, Mulhern looks on with pride at his former pupils who continue to change the face of the women’s game.
“Bronze was a talented player, but I never envisaged that she would go on to reach the heights that she has,” he added.
“You always hope that they will do well in the game but even nine or ten years ago the game wasn’t as big as it is now, so it has grown with the girls and given them new opportunities.
“The next superstar is going to be Jordan Nobbs mark my words.
“She was unfortunate to get injured last year but I think if Lucy is the chosen player this year, then next year it is going to be Jordan Nobbs.
“She is a world-class player for sure and will go on to achieve a lot in the game.”