On a windy Sunday afternoon, Durham Women secured their place in the fifth round of the FA cup with a convincing 3-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers, leaving fans with renewed dreams of playing at Wembley.
Following the draw on Monday night, Durham will face Super League side, Birmingham City, on February 27th with the hope that the home advantage will give them the edge they need to reach the quarter-finals.
Blackburn, who sit just four places below Durham in the FA Women’s Championship, are now winless in their last five games — the last encounter between the two teams in December saw Durham victorious with the same scoreline.
The Wildcats’ sprightly first-half performance certainly looked to belong on the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium. Blackburn could barely get a touch on the ball – owing to some well-timed challenges from Kathryn Hill and Sarah Robson, dampening any chance of a counterattack.
The home side played with confidence and flair — a reassurance to fans who have witnessed a recent disappointing run of form in the league. Blackburn’s attempts to hit long balls over the top were easily dealt with — a few clearances saw the ball dispatched into the nearby River Wear.
Overarching the whole performance, however, was Durham’s unplayable degree of fluency, allowing for Beth Hepple and Emily Roberts to spring the offside trap and prove a nuisance to the Blackburn defence.
However, Durham’s dominant presence in the middle of the park often came to no avail in the attacking third. Time after time Hepple — the Wildcats’ resident set piece maestro — saw her corners headed agonisingly wide and, if it wasn’t for the woodwork, Durham could have been 3-0 up in the first ten minutes.
Amidst the calls from the bench to get more players into the box and after half an hour of narrow misses, Emily Roberts’ floating cross was met by the head of Hepple. The number seven nodded the ball home beyond Blackburn keeper Alex Brooks, marked her 80th goal for the club.
Having finally broken the deadlock, the floodgates seemed to open. Just six minutes after the first goal, another storming run down the right-wing by Hill led to her cross being converted by Liz Ejupi’s stooping header. Having recently returned from injury and making her first start of the season, the club’s social media shared in the jubilation, simply tweeting: “She’s back.”
A final first-half flourish arrived in added time thanks to Sarah Wilson’s free kick, initially fumbled by the keeper but pounced upon by a waiting Sarah Robson. As the Wildcats piled on top of one another in celebration, the game, and the chance of competing for the coveted cup, seemed well out of Blackburn’s reach.
As the half time whistle blew, temperatures dropped but the mood remained high. The prospect of being in the hat for the fifth round now seeming a certainty, the home fans could relax.
Something about the sight of hundreds of dedicated Durham supporters, swathed in club merchandise and revelling in the fact that the match had been devoted a page on BBC Sport encompassed the magic of the cup.
Sensing something had to change, Blackburn made a triple substitution at half time, and their fresh legs certainly paid off in the 60th minute when Annabel Blanchard’s effort from 25 yards out flew into the roof of Naoisha McAloon’s net.
In stark contrast to the first half, the second 45 minutes had little to report home. The Wildcats appeared to take their foot off the gas, lacking the energy and creativity to add to their tally but, due to some defensive substitutions, managed to protect their lead until the final whistle.
With Durham safely into the fifth round draw, Liz Ejupi spoke to Palatinate about the contrast between the team’s first and second half performances: “We were enjoying that first half, I thought we played some good football, we were creative and we produced a lot of chances. In the second half, it was one of those things where it became a bit scrappy and the flow of the game just wasn’t there anymore.”
Looking forward to the next cup fixture, Ejupi emphasised the importance of the home support: “We love playing here, we’ve got amazing fans and we love to entertain them. If we can have a home cup game again it will be amazing for us.”
With two consecutive league games coming up for Durham, the Wildcats will have to juggle both competitions but Ejupi assessed, “I think we are still focused on the league, of course we are, we always finish up there.
“This league will be a battle until the end. We have had a few tricky results but we are not going to give up.”
This fighting spirit will be carried forward to the match against Birmingham City — members of the top division in women’s football and 2020 FA Cup semi-finalists — where Durham may be the underdogs but the home fans can enjoy more entertaining cup action at Maiden Castle.
With the same competitive attitude and a few more convincing performances, Wembley may be a dream which might just come true.
Durham XI: McAloon, Hill, Briggs, Lambert, Wilson (Christon 80), Robson (Bradley 83), Hepple, Salicki, Roberts (Crosthwaite 83), Holmes (Brown 70), Ejupi (Galloway 70)
Blackburn Rovers XI: Brooks, Dixon, Seed, Francis-Jones (Fenton 45), Hodgson (Coan 45), McDonald, Bourne, Hornby, Thomas (Jordan 74), Chandarana (Crompton 45), Zajmi (Blanchard 54)
Image: Durham Women FC