DUAFC: a club on the rise

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DUAFC head coach Mike Slater, first team captain and Wouter Verstraaten are hesitating over their finest moment for the club. There are a few seconds of silence before Sampson chips in and they all laugh in unison: “Obviously, the 10-0 against Derby…”.

He is referring to the 1s’ demolition of the University of Derby in last season’s Premier North playoffs. Needing a win to secure their top-flight survival, Sampson’s team ripped through the opposition. By the time the final whistle blew, the match bore greater resemblance to a training drill than a clash at the top of men’s university football.

“It was almost too bizarre,” Sampson says. “That was the annoying thing, it was too many goals for it to be real,” head coach Slater adds. “We didn’t get a last-minute winner, by the end of the game we were walking around,”the first team captain concludes.

There have been plenty of other highlights over the past four years. Slater talks about a charity match in his second year against Stirling when Collingwood captain Billy Hodgkinson came off the bench to score a late winner, causing a minor pitch invasion as members of his college mobbed him in celebration.

“We don’t get ignored but there’s definitely more hype around rugby and hockey. We train as hard, or as good as, any other club”

Then there are the host of improvements off the field which may not be quite as glamorous but which have been no less important in DUAFC’s development. The fact the club boast three men’s teams competing in in both football and futsal and now have a full-time coach focusing on the men’s and the women’s game are both a source of great pride.

Slater, a UEFA B licensed coach and academy coach at Sunderland, points to the addition of an extra strength and conditioning session every week, an illustration of the kind of marginal gains which have become synonymous with top-level sport. The redevelopment of Maiden Castle has provided a timely boost, too. Sitting in Team Durham’s sparkling new reception, the contrast with the old facilities could not be starker.

“I think it’s made a difference,” says the 1s captain Sampson. “It was a bit run-down. We were going away to Loughborough or something and some of the facilities were insane. But this is a lot more professional. It lifts everyone, people think this is a serious thing and that we’re going to take things seriously.”

There is a tendency to overlook university football at Durham, particularly given the importance placed on rugby and hockey. It may have something to do with the huge success of college football, with seven divisions in the men’s game from the Premiership to Division 6.

“Football’s so big at the University,” Sampson tells me. “I think the college football takes away from us a bit, because everyone’s playing college football, everyone’s interested in that, you can support your college — you end up maybe not getting as involved in university football.

“We don’t get ignored but there’s definitely more hype around rugby and hockey. I think we’re just as good as those teams. As far as I’m concerned, we’re as professional as any other club. We train as hard, or as good as, any other club.”

But it is also because university football clubs face a unique problem which their rugby and hockey counterparts do not have to contend with, as head coach Slater explains.

“I think the challenge for football at Durham, more than other sports, is that if you were a top-level hockey player, if you wanted to play in the Olympics, you could still go to university; if you wanted to play for the England rugby team, you could still go to university; same for cricket. But for football, it’s not a traditional route.

“Coming from the US, it’s a different experience. The players organise so much more here, it’s still organised by the coaches and by all the athletic facilities in America”

“Where we struggle, or universities struggle generally, is because people aren’t going to take that route,” he says. “And then when players do their scholarships, they’re less likely to do A-Levels that you need to get into Durham, so we’re always fighting that battle.

“But on the flip side of that, that’s what makes us unique. You’ve got people who come here to study that are really good footballers as well. Other universities will give out scholarships and you can get in on football, whereas here you have to get in on academic grades and then you play football.”

It is the kind of approach which has allowed the club to attract talent such as Verstraaten, a former PSV Eindhoven youth player who joined Durham as a postgraduate after four years in the US. The defender had the chance to turn professional when playing for Pacific Tigers in California and made the MLS Player Combine, but he says he chose Durham because of the opportunity to become a more well-rounded player while studying for his Master’s.

“Coming from the US, I would say it’s a different experience,” he says. “The players organise so much more here, which is nice, because I experienced that a little bit in America but it’s still organised by the coaches and by all the athletic facilities they have there. Driving the standards we set as a team feels more as if you own the team as well, you’re way more committed.

“I’m in a situation now where I’m getting older, you’re getting your degree, and what are you going to do? Football is nice, you want to do it at the highest level, but it’s really important to get your degree in as well and become a better person. There’s going to be a life after football.”

Preparing players for what comes after university is a key part of Slater’s role as head coach. Alumni such as keeper Ben Dudzinski and Jonny Giles have gone on to sign professional contracts – Dudzinski plays for Sutton United in the National League and Giles is on the books at Chelmsford City – while more recently the likes of Matty Cornish, Milos Christoforou and Dan Field have chosen to pursue playing scholarships in the US.

It is also about broadening players’ horizons. Verstraaten is one of several students who combines university football with non-league thanks to the club’s working relationship with Northern League Division One side Consett. Players and coach agree that the contrasting styles of football complement each other well.

“The level’s really high,” says Verstraaten. “I’m a little bit older here but playing with those guys, they’re older than I am. So I do learn a lot from those guys, from the guys who are 30, 32 years old and who have a lot of experience of playing semi-pro.”

“I’ve played in teams in Northern League who are very Northern League teams who will just kick it, it’s like a battle,” adds Sampson, who turned out for Consett last season. “Whereas here it’s definitely football; we’ll get it down, we’ve got a nice pitch, we’ll play. There it’s like a fight. But that’s so important, you learn so much at that level.”

“I’ve played in very Northern League teams who will just kick it, whereas here it’s definitely football; we’ll get it down, we’ve got a nice pitch, we’ll play”

For Slater, the most important thing is giving his players “the best experience possible” in university football. He takes even more pride, however, in the sense of togetherness fostered across all three teams. He credits club captain Josh Buys, “the lads’ leader”, with creating that club culture.

That team spirit is clear from Verstraaten’s answer when asked about his favourite moment from his short DUAFC career so far.

“One moment I would say was the first league game, the 3-0 win [against Leeds],” he says. “That was just a great feeling and we’ll keep achieving that, it will happen again.

“But if I don’t have to say a specific moment, I’ve come here now for two weeks, English is not my first language, but in two months I made a new group of friends. I wouldn’t call it a family yet but I’m confident it’s going to happen this year. And that’s not always easy, coming from a different place.

“In two months, it’s amazing how these guys pick it up and pick me up most importantly. That’s just a great feeling.”

Image by Bernadette Wang

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