By Abi Curran
Durham debutante Ali Johnson’s equaliser clinched a 1-1 draw for Durham against Sheffield United on a blustery afternoon at Maiden Castle.
Despite some stand-out performances from the home side, there was not enough to separate them from a pacey Sheffield United who had a high press and real intensity to their game. Durham struggled to find enough end product, and United drew first blood thanks to Courtney Sweetman-Kirk.
United started the game as the more dominant side, playing Durham at their own game of possession-based football. The high press, orchestrated by Sweetman-Kirk, pushed Durham away from their preferred style of playing out from the back.
The Blades forced a couple of shaky clearances from the Durham defence in the opening 20 minutes, although a good opening display of goalkeeping from Megan Borthwick took much the sting out of the early Sheffield United attacks.
Sheffield United’s relentless press culminated in a deserved Sheffield United goal from Courtney Sweetman-Kirk in the 29th minute, who calmly placed a dribbling cross from Bex Rayner into the bottom corner.
But Durham responded three minutes later with a moment of brilliance from Johnson, who scored from just inside the 18-yard box on her Wildcats debut.
Her shot came from a smart run inside on the left wing. The drilled finish into the bottom right corner against her old club made sure the new signing had an immediate impact in her Durham career – a very exciting prospect for next season.
The first half finished with a shot that would have surely been in contention for goal of the season by Molly Sharpe on the turn, forcing an acrobatic save from Fran Kitching. Durham were very much back in the game.
An early injury in the second half to the reassuring presence of Becky Salicki at centre-back could have been a big blow to Durham. However, the defensive performances of Kathryn Hill and Sarah Wilson set up a solid backline for the home side in the second half. Left-back Abby Holmes also proved dangerous, driving forward and making the United defence uncomfortable.
United’s leading goalscorer Katie Wilkinson was isolated by the Durham defence for much of the game, which ended her goalscoring streak in the league, though she forced a huge save from Borthwick midway through the second half.
Three penalty shouts, including a two-footed challenge on Lauren Briggs inside the box, were not given Durham’s way, but drove the Wildcats on with more vigour to try and win the game.
Yells from the Blades’ goalkeeper for her team to ‘get hold of the game’ pretty much summed up the dangerous nature of Durham’s attacks in the closing stages, with Durham forcing a flurry of set pieces in the final third.
The last 10 minutes saw relentless attacks from Durham, who by this point had been injected with the pace of substitute Lily Crosthwaite. A last-minute cross into the box from the forward just needed a tap-in but no Durham toes could get onto it, Holmes at the back post slightly overrunning the ball.
In the end it was all square and it is now pretty certain that Durham will have to try again next season to gain promotion. Durham sit five points behind league leaders Leicester with two games to go, though Leicester have a game in hand.
However, against a tough Sheffield side, they got back into the game in the second half and showed promising signs for next season. A debut goal for Johnson mitigated the sense of disappointment after the game which, overall, was an entertaining end-to-end watch.
Speaking to Palatinate after the game, debut goalscorer Ali Johnson assessed how Durham got themselves back in the game in the second half:
“I thought we were on top for the last five, 10 minutes. We had two chances. I think we probably should’ve had a penalty as well.
‘‘I think obviously we started very slowly and that’s where Sheffield could’ve capitalised a few times. We built on that and then put our foot down and then we grew back into the game.”
Speaking about her future ambitions with Durham, Johnson said: ‘‘[I just want to] push on and see where we can get as a team, [score] individual goals, just to get back playing, enjoying it with a smile on my face again. Consistency would be nice, just to push on for the rest of the season.’’
Overall, there are many positives that Durham can take from this draw. On a day so windy that the Durham media team’s gazebo collapsed, the Wildcats showed plenty of resistance and character, and will surely challenge again for a spot in the Women’s Super League next season.
Durham XI: Borthwick, Hill, Briggs, Wilson (c), Robson, Hepple, Sharpe (Galloway, 66’), Salicki (Christon, 58’), Brown (Crosthwaite, 88’), Johnson, Holmes
Goals: Durham: Johnson (32’) Sheffield United: Sweetman-Kirk (29’)
Subs not used: Mackain, Lambert, Greenwood, Ayre, Lee