Last season was one to remember for those involved at Durham Women’s Football Club. A second-place finish in the Women’s Championship, narrowly missing out on promotion to the Women’s Super League, capped off their finest season since the club’s inception in 2014. This season has already started off with success in a 2-1 win at Maiden Castle against newly-promoted Watford.
We sat down (albeit virtually, in true 2020 fashion) with club captain Sarah Wilson ahead of the new season. She talked everything from hopes for the coming year to her own personal achievements with the club.
“The aim for this season is to do everything we possibly can to compete”, Wilson claims. “We know that with the changes we’ve made this summer, the girls are doing more, we’re making sure we put all that into practice on Sunday”
Facing a newly-promoted side in Watford in their season opener, Wilson wasn’t taking anything for granted. “We’re not looking at them as a newly-promoted side, since the league’s so competitive. It’s an incredibly tough league to get into and they’ve had a fantastic year. We know it will bring a new challenge, we just focus on making sure we’re ready to go.”
The centre-back, club captain since 2015, recently signed a new contract to stay with Durham Women until 2023. She was key figure in the team that held the joint-best defensive record in the league last year.
On a personal level, she also became only the second player in the side’s history to surpass 150 club appearances, alongside Beth Hepple. She spoke of her pride at such an achievement. “It’s something I’m really proud of, being from the north-east as well. It’s not like the men’s league, we don’t play that many games across a full season, so it takes quite a long time to build up so many appearances.”
“There’s so many coming up to 75, 100 and 150 appearances. That just goes to show much people want to be at the club, how important it is to compete within the team.”
Joining this well-knit squad is Albanian international Liz Ejupi. She is the sole new addition this summer, but Wilson doesn’t think that will detriment the team. “It’s a huge benefit that we’re able to keep the same squad. A lot of the girls have been here 4, 5, 6 seasons, everyone wants to be working within the same group.”
“There’s been some huge changes in terms of coaching staff, full-time staff, the facilities and the amount of training we’re doing. That’s just something we’ve worked really hard on and can’t wait to put into practice.”
This new season also brings the much-awaited return of fans to stadia across the country, something that the Wildcats skipper is very much looking forward to. “It definitely makes a huge difference. We felt the virtual presence last year, steaming the games, getting fans involved. But you really do feel the benefit of having your home fans there.”
“Some might say we’re slipping away, not classed as one of the top teams anymore, but we thrive of that, it fuels us.”
“It’s such a family-oriented club, the girls are really approachable, and I think that’s important. If we can fill the ground, with the new stand coming in, we’re really excited for having those fans back.”
There were fans for the first time in 18 months at Durham’s 8-0 friendly win over Newcastle United Women. In the opening game of this season, over 600 turned up to see Wildcats earn their first three points. After last season’s success, and a perfect performance to round off preseason, Wilson insists there’s no added pressure this year.
“There’s a lot of teams going professional, so the pressure is on them, there’s none on us whatsoever. Some might say we’re slipping away, not classed as one of the top teams anymore, but we thrive off that, it fuels us”.
When asked if we can expect any new tricks from manager Lee Sanders this season, Wilson kept her cards close to her chest. “The team’s just growing on from last year, we’re getting stronger, we’re fitter than we’ve ever been. We’ve got people coming back from big injuries who haven’t played last year, which is like new signings. So now we just need to focus on Sunday”
Durham continue their Women’s Championship season on Sunday, facing Sheffield United away.
Photo: Durham Women Football Club