By Matt Styles
Durham extended their unbeaten run to three games with a 1-0 victory over London City Lionesses on Sunday afternoon, which puts them level on points with Sheffield United and Liverpool at the top of the Women’s Championship.
This was their second match and victory at their new home, following on from last week’s late show against Lewes, but once again the team found themselves having to grow into the match. The Lionesses, who were formed last year as an independent breakaway side from Millwall, were always going to prove a sturdier test of Durham’s mettle, and arrived in the north east looking to frustrate the Wildcats.
Pitched against a murky grey cyclorama down at Maiden Castle, they began the game aggressively and made their presence known. Liz Ejupa looked a real menace up top, as Durham endured a handful of heart in mouth moments during the early stages.
Lee Sanders’ side gradually began to find their feet as the half wore on, with far better approach play and composure, but they failed to find that all-important golden touch.
Tempers flared on several occasions as the visitors got under Durham’s skin. A cacophony of protest resounded perpetually from the London City bench, with head clashes, vehement penalty appeals and rash challenges abound. Unable to break down this snarling pack of Lionesses, it looked to be a miserable afternoon for the Wildcats.
This was until Beth Hepple, the woman of the moment, collected the ball on the edge of the box, jinked inside and found the bottom corner with her weaker foot. This sumptuous curling effort on the stroke of half time made it her fourth goal in three games, and Durham were more than relieved to go into the break a goal up.
City would now have to become more expansive and adventurous on the ball if they were to find an equaliser, but were totally unable to outfox an incredibly solid back four of Ellie Christon, Kathryn Hill, Becky Salicki and skipper Sarah Wilson. Hill was especially excellent, playing in centre-half instead of her more habitual full-back role; unflinching in her ability to cut out attacks and play the ball forward with productive effect.
Space began to open up and Durham became ever more slick and self-assured in the final third, with Christon making a string of marauding runs down the right flank. Bridget Galloway entered the fray just after the hour mark to provide extra zest up top, with the atmosphere becoming increasingly hostile as City failed to find a way through.
They chucked on the formidable pairing of Freda Ayisi and Kallie Balfour in an attempt to slice through this resilient Durham outfit, clad in royal blue, but Lambert in particular proved too strong in holding midfield and effortlessly snuffed out the onrushing City attackers time and time again.
Galloway rounded the keeper with 15 minutes left on the clock, but to the amazement of everyone at Maiden Castle failed to double her side’s lead. However, the result was never in doubt, with Briggs coming on in place of Roberts in the dying embers to sure things up and take the sting out of the game.
Apart from some minor late scares, City were virtually invisible in the final third and too often let their frustrations get the better of them. They were no match for this well-marshalled Durham unit and, contrary to the belief of Lionesses manager Lisa Fallon, deserved to lose on the day.
Match-winner Beth Hepple spoke to Palatinate at the final whistle, in full belief that her side deserved to win the game and spoke confidently about her side continuing this unbeaten run:
“I think we’ve got a better squad than we’ve ever had: we’ve got the experience, the back room staff, everything. It’s been brilliant so far and I’m confident that we can keep going.”
Next up for Durham is Leicester on Sunday, who will once again prove another challenging test having also got off to an unbeaten start. It is proving increasingly clear that there are no easy games in this year’s Women’s Championship, but from the evidence of their start to this campaign there is no reason why Durham can’t go the distance and clinch promotion to the Super League.
Durham: Borthwick, Christon, Hill, Salicki, Wilson, Lambert, Robson, Roberts (Briggs 90), Hepple, Gears, Sharpe (Galloway 64)
Goals: Hepple (45)
POTM: Mollie Lambert
Image: George Ledger/ Durham Women FC