By Matt Styles
“The scruffy underdogs do it again,” reflects centre-half Becky Salicki after helping her side see out a vital 2-0 win over Liverpool on Sunday afternoon.
Back at Maiden Castle, Durham comprehensively outfought and outthought their fellow title rivals to extend their unbeaten run to 11 and put them in a strong position ahead of the new year. This felt like a watershed moment: the time when underdogs stop being underdogs and we start to divert our focus away from not when but how this improbable streak will end.
It is only natural to be cynical when something extraordinary like this happens, and indeed question marks have overhung the sustainability of this indomitable form. One might question the absence of a regular goal-scorer, for example, an over-reliance on Beth Hepple perhaps, or more recently their defensive robustness following a turbulent display at Coventry last weekend, where at times it looked as though the wheels might be starting to fall off.
However, the Wildcats are possessive of a transcendent quality to always pull it out the bag and reignite the flame whenever it looks to be dwindling. Just when things seem to be falling apart, they don’t.
Maintaining an unbeaten run is always a precarious situation – hence why historically so few teams have achieved the holy grail of an invincible season – but Durham just keep chugging along, not knowing when to stop. Through setting their standards so high they have established themselves as one of the big guns: a force to be reckoned with and never underestimated.
Despite falling on hard times recently, Liverpool posed an adequately insidious threat to their invincibility. This is a team who, in manager Lee Sanders’ mind, should comfortably be getting promoted to the WSL given their calibre and resources. “Let’s not beat around the bush,” he commented before the game, “given where they’ve come from, the players they’ve got and the difference in budgets, they should win the league.”
The Reds had already tested Durham’s mettle on the opening day of the season, where the Wildcats were just three minutes away from defeat before Beth Hepple came to the rescue, but nine games had passed since then, with Durham amassing six wins and three draws in that time.
They were now different prospect: more self-assured and of a mindset where they do not expect to lose. As they have done so often this season, they passed this test with flying colours by nullifying the threat of England international Rinsola Babajide and taking chances when they presented themselves.
With a catalogue of international players, naturally Liverpool looked the more technically mature and comfortable in possession. They dictated proceedings for large stages during the first-half, but under Vicky Jepson their Achilles heel has so often been penetrating defences and finding the back of the net. This, of course, doesn’t bode well when facing up against a side who had kept four out of five clean sheets at home this season.
Sanders will have emphasised this to his side, and characteristically the Durham back line remained bolted shut. Drowning out the opposition in a sea of royal blue, cutting out passing lanes and limiting the opposition to a premium of clear-cut chances, this was a trademark Durham display. This was a truly professional performance, with no signs of the slackness that was exhibited against Coventry last weekend.
Spurs fans this season will know that such an approach relies on turning defence into attack effectively and being clinical in front of goal, and on Sunday the Wildcats were absolutely devastating. Their opener came from an electric counter-attack on the cusp of half time, which was rounded off with an clinical half-volley from Molly Sharpe that sailed beyond the reach of Liverpool ‘keeper Rachael Laws.
Liverpool cranked things up a notch in the second half, going close with a frenetic goal-line scramble just past the hour mark, though pressures were alleviated for the home side when, out of nowhere, Emily Roberts embarked on a fine solo run before firing her shot into the top corner from an unlikely angle. It was an audacious finish, enough for the Durham’s Twitter page to declare the ‘Goal of the Season contest’ over already.
When the final whistle blew twenty minutes later, the Wildcats could celebrate yet another superb result and perfectly executed game plan. Though Leicester’s win against Blackburn keeps them one point clear at the top, for Durham this victory has earnt them a four-point cushion between themselves and third-placed Liverpool.
Weathering storms, soaking up pressure and being clinical in front of goal, Durham’s identity is fast becoming crystallised, and no doubt recognised by bigger forces than themselves. There are no flukes or tricks about what is happening down at Maiden Castle: just an honest, high-octane and well-disciplined formula that is paying dividends.
Ultimately teams know what they’re getting with Durham, yet conquering them is proving a different matter; Lee Sanders promised us as much in August when speaking ahead of the new season. “Work. Football. Don’t relax!” was the mantra, and one that has carried his side on to unthinkable heights so far this season.
Without diminishing the clear talent in this squad, Sanders has recognised that raw desire and a strong team ethic is of high import at this level. Through the rough patches Durham invariably emerge with the desired outcome, and although it might not be the prettiest approach, crucially it is working, and out of it history could be made.
In the words of midfielder Sarah Robson Durham are an ‘unreal little club’, for whom the dizzying heights of the WSL are certainly calling. They remain chronic over-achievers, massively punching above their weight given their unique situation of not being affiliated with a men’s club and relative lack of resources, but the time has come to revise our thinking.
The context to this success story is, whilst important, rapidly becoming extraneous to our concerns. The bar has now been set. The model is working. It’s time we stopped being so astonished.
Durham XI: Borthwick, Hill, Briggs, Lambert (Brown 90), Wilson, Robson, Hepple, Sharpe (Galloway 63), Gears (Lee 80), Christon, Roberts (Salicki 80)
Image: George Ledger / Durham Women FC