Durham University A.F.C. secure safety on the final day

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The game (By Joseph Saunders)

Durham University A.F.C. M1s beat Loughborough University 3-1 in their final game of the season, securing their place in the league for next season. Both teams went into the match knowing a loss would see them drop out of the division.

Loughborough took the lead early on and carried it into half-time. However, Durham flew out of the traps in the second half, finding two goals within ten minutes – scored by Tom Hizzett and Zach Alfalahi. A late strike from Fin Gwillim sealed survival.

The game began in an understandably cagey fashion, with both teams playing tentatively due to the importance of the result. The first opportunity went to Loughborough; an accurate low drive which Durham goalkeeper George Arnold pushed just past his left post.

Only a minute later, the visitors found the breakthrough. After a fortuitous ricochet following a header, the ball dropped to the feet of their number nine, who was able to slot past a helpless Arnold. The better chances continued to fall Loughborough’s way.

A well struck effort turned the lights out briefly for Durham’s Jack Camarda, before a shot from a similar area was dropped on by Arnold. Durham’s Ollie England heroically hooked the ball away from danger with a Loughborough player about to pull the trigger.

Arnold continued to be busy, as Loughborough’s ever dangerous number eleven couldn’t squeeze his header past him at the near post. Durham would have been pleased to hear the half-time whistle.

Dazzling wing play allowed Loughborough’s number eleven a close-range volley three minutes into the second half, but his flicked finish span over the bar.

To an enormous roar, the rebound was tucked away by Hizzett for his ninth goal of the season, adding to his hattrick against Newcastle the previous week

They paid the price for poor finishing only two minutes later. Following sharp interplay on the left channel, Ollie England lifted a ball into the box. A brave header from Durham’s freshest talent, Gwillim, was stopped by a mixture of a scrambling keeper and post.

To an enormous roar, the rebound was tucked away by Hizzett for his ninth goal of the season, adding to his hattrick against Newcastle the previous week.

Only three minutes later, bustling midfield play from M1s captain Jack Gibbons released Alfalahi into a one-on-one against the retreating Loughborough right-back. Quick feet ensued. Suddenly, he shaped to shoot into the far bottom corner. The sound of the inside of the post and net rippling paid homage to the vintage wing play and expert execution.

Just like that, Durham were in the driving seat.

Loughborough continued to run themselves ragged but no longer had the ingenuity that saw them take the lead and momentarily crush Durham hearts. Few chances arose until the 75th minute, when a header from a corner landed plumb in Arnold’s outstretched arms.

With four minutes of regular time left, Hild Bede’s finest combined to ensure Durham’s survival. Alfalahi set Gwillim free down the right. Driving into the box, his shot across the goalkeeper was palmed into the ground and in off the post, making it three goals in three games for the flaming fresher.

Durham can be proud of the gritty performance they displayed under significant pressure. Full-time celebrations showed how important it was to them. Hopefully they can build on this ahead of next season.

What was said:

Following the match, M1s captain Jack Gibbons – grinning with obvious delight – said:

“The boys deserve it. We’ve worked hard all year, trained hard, played hard all these games, got some injuries back and the boys deserved it. We fought through eventually, so it’s Premiership football for the team next season.”

The ‘Great Escape’ (By Oliver Jervis)

Momentous occasions require moments of pure magic. Nothing else can save one in those dark hours of almost crippling desperation. No amount of willed struggle, frustration, or cries of despair are capable of amounting to such miraculous endeavour.

This may seem to be overdoing it slightly, and perhaps it is. Nevertheless, such lessons were learnt the hard and tiresome way by both Durham A.F.C M1s and Loughborough University M1s in their final day battle to beat the drop on Wednesday 1st February.

The scene was raw, riotous, and downright rip-roaring towards the end of the match. Yet, the long-desired box of magic and tricks arrived – and how Durham needed it. They finish the regular league season having scored 12 goals in their last three games; however, the story runs much deeper than such statistics.

To set the scene in slightly more detail, a decade of presence in university football’s highest division was on the line for both sides on that fateful BUCS Wednesday.

The permutations made for enthralling but sickening reading: victory for Durham would effectively guarantee safety and relegate their opponents. A loss for the hosts at Maiden Castle would send them down to the unknown abyss of the second tier. A draw had many tangled opportunities up its sleeve, with only few promising hope for the boys in white and purple.

A decade of presence in university football’s highest division was on the line for both sides on that fateful BUCS Wednesday

Regardless, the M1s had been forced to climb a mountain in order to reach this point. It was expected that any fazing or anxieties would be banished following such a journey. Why allow things to slip up now?

In the final four games of the ten-match season, eight points had been necessary to secure safety. A 1-1 draw away to Nottingham Trent before the turn of the calendar year ensured that some glint of hope lay on the horizon. Three consecutive home matches were to come. The side’s fate was firmly in their worn hands. It was, on the face of it, time to perform.

And that is exactly what they sought to do.

The adage ‘new year, new me’ was taken to a fresh level by Durham as they kicked 2023 off with a thrilling 3-3 effort against eventual champions Stirling. Having been in possession of a 3-1 lead at half time in that fixture, the signs were encouraging for the Maiden Castle mob.

The arrival of Hild Bede forward and fresher Fin Gwillim would also pay dividends after a debut goal in this match. Hope was the word, and this time it wasn’t being proffered by Barack Obama – instead, it was M1s captain Jack Gibbons inspiring the masses.

 Next on the calendar was a fixture ready to make any Durham football enthusiast froth at the mouth with sweltering saliva: Newcastle University at home for the annual charity match – in aid of ‘Sport in Action’.

This occasion in 2021 had produced a thrilling 3-2 victory for Durham over an otherwise marauding Loughborough side. Live on PalTV and under the lights, destiny awaited beyond the glossy posters plastered around each college bar.

The build up to the match was tense, with spectators flocking in from all corners of this cathedral city settled calmly by the River Wear. Billed the ‘North East derby’, a sense of exalted expectation arose: was it fault or fortune written in the stars?

Pictured: The wild celebrations soon spilled over into the changing rooms. (Image: DUAFC)

Cameras were duly switched on, floodlights flickered and shimmered upon the pitches around Maiden Castle, and the goals flowed delightfully. A hattrick for Tom Hizzett, Durham’s seemingly omnipresent talisman, was complemented by further additions to the score sheet from the boots of Gibbons, Gwillim, and substitute Ned Ventham.

Newcastle’s disheartening own goal equaliser soon became a mere consolation finish for the visitors. The hosts had simply been dominant in pervasive fashion. Durham were rocking; Durham itself was rocking.

A grandstand finish was thus set up at home to former football heavyweights Loughborough, with membership of the Aldi Premier North Division on the line. As aforementioned, characteristic mental fortitude, moments of genuine brilliance, and distinctive pace and passion saw the M1s cross that previously elusive line.

Euphoria ensued as members of the club and Team Durham in its swathing entirety swarmed the starting and finishing XI. History was made with the capture of survival. Careers had been duly defined, heroes had been miraculously uncovered, and now the national knockouts await for the side.

Whether the new year niceties of successful intuition can be continued remains to be seen. Following this resurgence in form, the odds are suddenly in their favour.

Featured image: DUAFC

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