By Luke Power
Durham Women commenced their FA Women’s Continental Tyres League Cup campaign with a 5-2 victory over Coventry United on 7th October, as hat-trick hero Beth Hepple dazzled under the Maiden Castle lights in her 150th appearance for the club.
The game was of a fickle and impulsive nature, with Durham only truly claiming dominance in the second half. Indeed, as the opening minutes chuntered by, the ball almost spent more time out of play than on the pitch, and neither side was able to claim a foothold.
Durham’s pressing intent was obvious from the first whistle, with the front four hive-minded and relentless in their pursuit of the ball, in turn instigating Coventry’s reversion to mostly route-one tactics. This, however, almost played into Coventry’s hands, as Durham initially looked unconvincing when dealing with the lobbed clearances and punted balls bombarding their back line.
Durham first troubled Coventry ‘keeper Susan Wood in the 9th minute, when Beth Hepple received the ball on the right-hand side, embarked on a mazey dribble across the pitch, and laid up Bridget Galloway, who lashed the ball at Wood from outside the box. The link-up between the front four of Hepple, Galloway, Molly Sharpe and Emily Roberts would become more formidable later in the game, with their slalom dribbling disorienting the Coventry defence and creating space for each other.
Yet it was Coventry who drew first blood 20 minutes in. An unconvincing clearance from goalkeeper Megan Borthwick fell to Anna Colville. She was barged off the ball, but it rolled to Helen Dermody, who drilled the ball from range under Borthwick, who was scrambling back into position.
After this, Coventry were emboldened, almost adding to their lead minutes later as Marie Gauntlett blazed a shot over the bar.
But the tide turned from the 25-minute mark as Hepple flashed in cross after cross and Galloway made inroads into the Coventry back line, cutting in from wide and looking certain to score until a stray leg blocked a shot bound for goal 31 minutes in.
Eventually, the pressure became too much. In the 38th minute, right-back Ellie Christon fizzed a low ball into the box, with Hepple pouncing out of the crowd to poke the ball home from point-blank range.
Six minutes later, Hepple got Durham in front. After Coventry defender Georgia Popple practically forced Sarah Wilson to the floor during a corner, referee Gavin Hock blew for a penalty and Hepple thundered the ball into the right corner from the spot.
By half-time a crowd of several dozen had gathered on the knoll next to the ground, and they were rewarded for braving the crisp evening with a second half of comical and eccentric moments.
There seemed an air of inevitability after the teams came back out, with Durham in complete control of possession and curating a flow of chances.
The most bizarre event of the game came 10 minutes into the second period when Molly Sharpe inadvertently scored via a looping cross from the right. Unassuming silence prevailed as the ball nestled in the goal- most people guessed it had gone through the side netting, seemingly including the referee, until a general consensus was arrived at by rounds of “did it go in? I think it went in”, with the referee eventually signalling for a goal to the belated delight of Sharpe, who, unsure of how to celebrate this mystifying goal, simply lifted her arms and exclaimed “yay!”
Just minutes later, Sarah Robson went down near the left corner of the area, winning an arguably soft free-kick, which Hepple curled in to claim her hat-trick.
Now it was 4-1, and Coventry were turning up the heat. Their full-backs pushed high, they cranked up the intensity of their passing, and their hostile treatment of Beth Hepple continued until she was withdrawn. The substitution was perhaps merciful- the star had been the target of late challenges all night long.
Durham were able to swat aside most assaults with relative ease, in part because they had brought along more substitutes and had fresher legs; they made five changes, whereas Coventry had only brought three for the bench.
The late stages were not without their scares for Durham, with Coventry making it 4-2 after 82 minutes thanks to a free-kick masterstroke courtesy of Becky Anderson, who drove the ball into the corner before substitute goalkeeper Brooke Mackain had time to react.
Young Durham substitute Lily Crosthwaite had made a notable impact after coming on, and took the liberty of marauding down the left flank like it was her own back garden. Her direct runs resulted in her bearing down on goal three times, usually opting for the unselfish option of squaring the ball instead of shooting, on the second time of asking picking out Bridget Galloway to prod home a much-deserved goal and Durham’s 5th of the evening four minutes before stoppage time.
Coventry’s efforts were admirable until the end. Reduced to ten players after an injury to defender Anna Wilcox with 15 minutes to go, it was always going to be an uphill battle, but the determination of both sides to score goals meant the game did not fade into embers, but rather burned ferociously until the final whistle.
After the game, Player of the Match Beth Hepple told Palatinate: “We were disappointed with how we started the game but we kicked on in the second half and that showed our team spirit. We’ll do anything for each other and always give 150% and that shone through in how we turned the game around.”
Durham can take confidence from this victory ahead of their other cup ties with Sheffield United and Aston Villa in November, although they promise to be sterner opposition. Only the winner of the group is guaranteed progression in the cup, though finishing second does offer a chance to make the quarter-finals depending on how strongly the second-placed teams in other groups finish.
Overall, Durham showed their subtle side on this evening, their play occasionally like poetry in motion, with a gentle rhythm of passing and the odd flash of flair. It also bodes well that debutants Grace Ayre, Lily Crosthwaite and Brooke Mackain performed assertively, offering a glimpse of the depth that this Durham side has.
Durham: Borthwick (Mackain); Christon, Ayre, Salicki, Wilson; Lee (Robson), Briggs, Galloway, Roberts (Atkinson); Sharpe, Hepple (Crosthwaite)
Unused substitutes: Gears, Greenwood
Goals: Durham: Hepple (38, 44 pen, 60), Sharpe (56), Galloway (87); Coventry: Dermody (20), Anderson (84)
Image: Craig McNair