By Kieran Moriarty
DUAFC 1s had double cause for celebration today as they guaranteed a top two finish in the Northern Premier League as well as booking themselves a place in the national quarter finals, following a 1-0 win over Stirling.
The inspired performance of Stirling’s goalkeeper ensured that this game was won by a far narrower margin than was reflective of Durham’s dominance. In the end, right back Heald’s header in the second half was enough for the home side to snatch an important victory.
As befitting of their league position this season, Durham began the game on top. Playing with such confidence, it was unsurprising that Durham had the first meaningful opportunity of the match. The ever impressive Mike King received the ball in central midfield and threaded through a delightful through ball to Green. The striker found himself through on goal with only the keeper to beat. However, with what initiated a running theme for the afternoon, Stirling’s keeper produced a fantastic save from the one-on-one situation to keep the scores 0-0.
A few minutes later, Durham went even closer to taking the lead. Once again, King was the architect of the opportunity. From the corner, the CM whipped in a vicious in-swinging corner into the penalty box. The ball passed through the mass of bodies and fell to an unsuspecting Brown. Reacting quickly, the Durham player managed to scramble the ball forward and over the line to seemingly put Durham ahead. However, luck was on Stirling’s side as the referee ruled the goal out on the grounds of a foul having been committed in the ensuing melee.
Fortune once again came to Stirling’s rescue in one of Durham’s next attacks. A rapid break down the left wing saw Brown fire a swerving cross into the opposition’s area which the Stirling defender could only awkwardly deal with. The cross glanced off his head and to the goalkeeper’s immense relief, off the cross bar and out of play. Stirling were running out of their nine lives.
The Palatinates continued to heap the pressure on their Scottish rivals. A few efforts from distance by King and Fairbrother sailed over the bar but clearly signalled Durham’s growing threat. Stirling’s keeper was called into action to produce a decent save to his bottom left to stop a low drive finding the back of the net.
However, as is the danger in any level of football, a team who are completely dominant in a game can always be susceptible to being caught out on the counter. Despite all of their pressure, Durham were lucky not to fall behind.
A hopeful long ball down the right flank found Stirling’s pacey striker, who was able to burst clear from the Durham defence. Dudzinski was uncharacteristically hesitant to come off his line which offered the invitation for the shot. Thankfully at the final moment, the Stirling forward’s composure deserted him and he could only narrowly shoot wide.
Down the other end, Durham finally managed to get some luck of their own. The Stirling defence had been imperious in absorbing the pressure the home side had inflicted upon them but they finally buckled with a clumsy foul which gifted the Palatinates a penalty.
It appeared that Durham would finally make the breakthrough they had been threatening for the majority of the game. Yet it wasn’t to be. Mike King was once again producing a masterful midfield performance and was the fulcrum of Durham’s attacking interchanges. However, from the penalty spot, the CM was denied by an excellent save from the Stirling keeper, keeping the scores at 0-0.
The heroics of their goalkeeper seemed to revitalise the visitors. Stirling now began to threaten. One of their midfielders found the space to fire a long range effort which Dudzinski was relieved to see whistle past the post.
A few minutes later, Durham were completely let off the hook from a defensive error. A missed header from Gilbey allowed the ball to find its way to the feet of a Stirling striker with only Dudzinski to beat. Once again, the striker failed to take the opportunity and was only able to slice his effort wide. With both sides having significant opportunities, it was a shock that the first half ended 0-0.
Durham began the second half in similar fashion to the way they had performed in the first. An early barrage of long range efforts suggested the first signs of anxiety amongst the home team in regards to the need for the win.
Stirling’s keeper then dived to the rescue of the visitors again with another stunning save. A Durham cross was deflected up into the air on the edge of the box. Brown struck the inviting falling ball with a sweet volley that skimmed off the damp surface. However, the keeper was more than a match for the drive and produced a strong left hand to tip the ball away.
Durham continued to knock on the door and the corners continued to pile up. King was causing utter panic in the Stirling box with his exquisite deliveries from set pieces and Stirling were forced to desperately hack the ball away on several occasions. From one of these corners, Heald managed to head a point blank header straight at the keeper. Stirling had survived yet another scare.
However, it was only fitting that one of King’s corners eventually delivered the decisive breakthrough in the game. A flat corner driven into the near post was met by the onrushing head of Heald. His header ricocheted in off the post to finally beat the valiant Stirling keeper and put Durham into a deserved lead. The victory was now in sight.
With this goal, Durham sensibly adopted tactics of game management to secure the win. There was a noticeable decrease in their attacking impetus as they dropped back to neutralise any chance of a Stirling equaliser.
Nevertheless the bus was not parked completely. From a quick counter attack, the home team nearly doubled their advantage. King’s through ball found Fairbrother who hit a smart snapshot towards the bottom corner. The keeper was unsighted but reacted quickly to tip the ball around the post and keep Stirling in the game.
Durham’s change to defensive tactics invited Stirling to desperately go for broke for an equaliser. The final few minutes of the match were tense as Durham weathered a series of dangerous corners from Stirling.
Unlike the heartbreak of the final few minutes of last week’s game, today proved to be Durham’s day. The referee blew the final whistle to the roars of the jubilant players on the pitch. It was the same result as the reverse fixture in October but this time, it meant so much more. Winning today has allowed the Palatinates to put one hand on the league trophy. Here’s hoping that next week against Sheffield Hallam, they can finish the job.
Photograph: Kieran Moriarty