Beth Hepple: “Durham are more than capable of stepping up to the WSL”

By and

Founded in 2014, Durham Women FC have played 199 games in their short history. Midfielder Beth Hepple has appeared in 194 of those – playing in all of the club’s first 82 games. Since joining the newly established club at just 17, the Sunderland-born 25-year-old has become engrained in the fabric of Durham Women.

Hepple is also the club’s record goalscorer, and has been the Wildcats’ top scorer in six of their eight seasons. Now, Crystal Palace striker Molly Sharpe is the only other Durham player to have scored ten or more goals in a season, managing it in 2019/20. Hepple has done it six times. Whilst it’s hard to find assist statistics for the FA Women’s Championship, her set piece prowess likely puts her at the top of the club’s creativity stats too.

Her Football Hub named Hepple the FA Women’s Championship Player of the Year 2021. They also ranked her fourth in a list of the greatest FA Women’s Championship players of all time, behind only 2021 Ballon D’Or nominee Fran Kirby, Arsenal and England forward Beth Mead and England legend Sue Smith. In terms of longevity, consistency, and impact, no-one would complain if they saw Hepple at the top of that list. She’s twice been awarded the North East Football Writers’ Women’s Player of the Year.

By any metric, Beth Hepple is a modern footballing icon in the North East. Palatinate spent an hour with the Wildcats’ midfield maestro, chatting inspirations, Durham Women’s progression and the future of women’s football.

I was mad about Thierry Henry

Beth Hepple always knew she wanted to be a professional footballer: “I was always very energetic when I was really young. I was quite naughty and one of the things they used to tell my mum and dad was that they needed to burn more energy with us. They used to take me outside just to play football. That’s where it all started. I went to a local coaching group and I was the only girl there, but I loved it.

“I was mad about Thierry Henry. He was in his prime when I was very young, so I always used to buzz off watching how he played. I loved David Beckham as well. That’s why I’m always number seven, because I loved Beckham when I was younger. Who didn’t?”

Of course, Beckham was one of the finest free kick takers of his generation, so it’s clear what inspired Hepple to become a set piece specialist herself. Her freekicks have been tearing up the women’s game. The first-choice corner, freekick and penalty taker for the Wildcats, Maiden Castle waits with bated breath every time Hepple stands over a dead ball. “If you look at set piece specialists, they tend to be quite small – they don’t want to be in the box heading the ball because they’ve got no chance! Growing up, I’ve always had that in my locker and I’ve worked hard at it. Especially in women’s football, there’s such a high percentage of goals scored (via set pieces). I try to practise once or twice a week in training.”

Hepple’s most memorable set piece was perhaps her last-minute equaliser against Manchester United in this season’s Conti Cup. “That whole night sticks in my mind with a packed-out crowd at Maiden Castle, obviously playing against a huge club like Man Utd. Some of their players are world class, so to be able to go toe to toe with them, that really does stick in my mind.”

Alongside Sarah Wilson and Ellie Christon, Hepple has seen Durham Women go from strength to strength since 2014:

“The home crowds we get are some of the best in the league. To say we’re not affiliated to a men’s club is amazing. The whole setup is amazing; from the kids coming through, to the RTC setup. It’s been a dramatic change from 2014. There are numerous players that have been here for years on end, and that core team has stuck together.

I don’t think we’ve ever been outplayed

“Durham doesn’t really have another football team, so that’s always helped. Year-on-year you see more people coming, you build up more core supporters, and people now will not miss a game. It’s been immense to see the club go from stride to stride.

“Hopefully, over time it will just keep building momentum – we need to keep winning to keep bringing people back. It’s all about the warm, friendly, family atmosphere – there’s not many men’s games you go to where it’s that family friendly. It’s really unique that we offer that, and it’s a big part of the club.”

Hepple tells us that the same goes for the atmosphere inside the dressing room, “I’ve made friends for life from football. I think that’s why you play, it’s the whole social side of it. We don’t have any bad eggs. You can have a great player, but if they’re not a good person then I don’t think they’d ever fit in with our team.”

Of course, it hasn’t all gone Durham’s way this season. Hoping for promotion to the WSL, the pendulum hasn’t quite swung the Wildcats’ way, but Hepple is confident that next season will be more fruitful:

“This year it was our intention to be promoted, obviously we’ve fallen short. We haven’t really got much to play for now. I think that can sometimes be a good thing – we don’t really have any pressure on us. We’ve just got to try and finish as high as we possibly can up the table. We know what we can do as a team, and we’ve just got to try and build for next year now. Trying to build some momentum for next year – that’s the goal.

“We’ve played against the likes of Man Utd, Man City, Leicester in the Conti Cup – we were the only Championship side. Hand on my heart, I don’t think we’ve ever been outplayed. That suggests to me that with the players that we’ve got, we are more than capable of stepping up. It’s testament to our league really – it’s more competitive than the top league.

“We train a lot, we have brilliant support from the University – look at the facilities we have and the kids we have coming through. This year’s been a big learning curve for everyone, but that will only help us push on next year.”

This year has been a big learning curve for everyone

Off the pitch, Hepple spends her days working at a pub and hotel owned by her partner’s family. Between her work at the pub, training for Durham most days, and looking after her two dogs, Teddy and Harley, Hepple says that “there’s no time for excitement”. Her dogs are clearly a big part of her life, and you see her eyes light up when asked about them:

“My dogs are my life really. I honestly think dogs are better than humans sometimes, you can relate to dogs more than humans – they make life better.”

Football is clearly Hepple’s life, and she has plenty of ideas about how to take the women’s game from strength to strength:

“They need to keep growing the infrastructure of women’s football. It’s obviously great when you see the women playing at the men’s stadiums as a one-off, but it’s really important that we fill the smaller grounds, trying to get people to come out and watch, trying to get kids to be interested. You see the likes of Spain – they’ve got such a different culture and outlook on women and women’s sport. It’s a lot more open-minded. For it to properly change in this country, there’s got to be a culture shift.”

At just 25, Beth Hepple would be first in the queue for a statue outside Maiden Castle. It’s impossible to imagine the club without her. Hepple embodies the combination of hard work and genuine quality which has got Durham Women to where it is without the support of a men’s team. Goalscorer, creator, set piece specialist, and a Wildcat through and through, no-one would be surprised to see Durham playing at the Beth Hepple Stadium in 50 years’ time.

Image: Durham Women FC

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