By Will Jennings
Oh, Durham, what could have been. At a sun-baked Maiden Castle on a Wednesday afternoon, roared on by an expectant contingent of supporters and against a side who possessed few assets other than an occasional long ball, DUAFC 1s were at the mercy of that cruel mistress we in England are so acutely familiar with. Indeed, this was never a contest that should have been decided on penalties.
It seems an irony, really. 2018 is a World Cup year, a year saturated with so much early-summer optimism and one that will almost inevitably see all such notions crushed in Russia this June. England knocked out on penalties? Probably. It would hardly be surprising, especially given the University of South Wales’ triumph over their English opponents in the north-east this week. They may not be at the tournament, but the Welsh really do know what they’re doing from 12 yards.
The unsavoury outcome marked the end of an afternoon for Durham characterised by patience, perseverance, but ultimately, frustration. For 120 minutes they knocked on the visitors’ door, passing the ball aesthetically through the likes of the excellent Alex McGrath and the lively Tom Isola. For 120 minutes they adhered to their admirable possession-based principles. For 120 minutes they rallied. The outcome? Agony once again.
Such is the nature of this sport, a game decided not by which team possesses the superior technical attributes but instead one based on the mere number of times one is capable of penetrating their opposition’s defences. In this instance, a stalemate ensued. In the subsequent shoot-out, however, the result was decisive.
Durham will lament their missed opportunities. Despite a cagey opening 20 minutes where nerves from both teams were palpable, strong work from Matty Cornish saw the ball fall to the enterprising Kyle Patton in the corner of the USW penalty area. Durham’s winger felt the contact. He went to ground, triggering widespread appeals from both the vocal Durham bench and the increasingly partisan crowd. The referee obliged.
It was Cornish who stepped up, appearing so calm following his impressive start to the game. His effort from the spot, however, lacked conviction. USW’s talismanic keeper Ashley Morris guessed the right way, parrying the ball to safety and picking up an injury for his troubles in the process. He didn’t care. 0-0 it remained.
Bar a dragged Ben Sampson shot and a squandered Jack Dancey header following a well-worked short corner routine, the half-time whistle concluded what was a relatively uninspiring affair. USW’s approach was the antithesis of Chris Moore’s side, a game plan centred around the peppering of Durham’s centre-backs through a series of long balls and aerial bombardments. As of yet, Dancey and defensive partner Daniel Field had coped well.
The second period largely functioned as a continuation of the first, with Durham looking to break down their opponents through a patient combination of passing moves. The USW defence stood firm, thwarting their attacks defiantly and with a visible desire to protect their clean sheet.
With 20 minutes remaining and after a contest in which clear-cut opportunities had been in short supply, Durham upped the tempo. Substitute Milos Christoforou made an immediate impact, cutting in from the left-hand side and crossing to the advancing Patten. His header across the face of goal was a good one. Morris, however, was not to be overcome.
Durham continued to press. Christoforou had a header saved equally adeptly himself, the USW keeper diving athletically to his right and demonstrating all the credentials that have seen him represent Bala FC in the Welsh Premier Division. With full-time approaching, Cornish cut in from the left onto his favoured right foot and shot just wide. Despite their sustained lack of chances and any real ambition to press for a winner, USW were holding on.
Full-time came and the additional half hour ensued. Durham intensified their attempts to break the deadlock. USW were defending indefatigably, blocking, heading and tackling with the determination of a side that would accept nothing less than a place in the semi-finals. Their efforts were hindered when Christoforou broke through and a cynical challenge saw the visitors reduced to ten men. The barrage continued. The away side continued to battle.
But to penalties, it went. The first two spot-kicks set the tone, with USW scoring and Isola being denied by the brilliant Morris once again. The USW keeper refused to be beaten, saving from Christoforou before stepping up and thrashing one home himself. Then came captain McGrath, whose decisive effort was repelled yet again by Morris. USW progressed. For Durham, it was BUCS heartbreak once again.
Photograph: Bernadette Wang