By James Smith, Sports Editor
Despite their home ground, New Ferens Park, being located just a short bus-journey away in Belmont, few Durham students seem to be making the most of their closest professional football club, Durham Women FC. Playing their football in the Women’s Super League Two since their formation in 2014, the ‘Wildcats’ have showcased the talents of both local athletes and Durham students, enjoying increasing success both on and off the field.
Manager Lee Sanders has been speaking to Palatinate about the season so far, and the brief yet fruitful history the club has enjoyed to date. Despite having only been playing in WSL2 as Durham Women for four seasons, Mr Sanders stated: “we’ve got to be honest and say that we’ve got to be looking to finish in the top two, and challenging for that title”.
Whilst women’s football continues to produce top-quality sport it remains sidelined within the mass media.
He pointed to the first few games of the season as encouragement, having beaten Everton for the first time in the club’s history, and drawing 3-3 against Liverpool in normal time in the group stage of the cup. Even after the loss to Reading Lee was positive, “we lost, but were really enthused by the performance”.
Given how close the match between Durham and Liverpool, a WSL 1 team, was, I asked Lee how close in standards he felt the two divisions are. “its the top four or five from WSL 1, where the budgets are so big, its difficult to compete against them”. Aside from this, however, he was keen to stress how competitive the remaining teams are, “there is very little evidence in a difference between the bottom end of WSL 1 and the Championship”
This is something that is often made of in professional men’s football, how close are the top two divisions? When I asked Lee about the comparison, and women’s football in the media in general, he said “I think there is a lot of work still to do”, whilst women’s football continues to produce top-quality sport it remains sidelined within the mass media.
Mr Sanders did remark that “it’s getting better all the time” and that “mainstream media is taking more notice as each season passes”, women’s football, for the most part, remains an entity discrete and overshadowed by its male counterpart within the media.
Durham Women FC, however, appears to be doing their utmost to buck this trend. They have recently won an FA Matchplay Experience Awards “that was over and above all of the clubs in the top tier”, Lee tells me proudly. He went on to say “its still a family environment, and that is what Women’s football does really well, it encompasses all the family”.
Over the past few seasons, New Ferens Park has seen increasingly bigger crowds. “More local people are embracing it,” Lee tells me, “they are thinking yeah we’ve got a football club, not just a men’s or a women’s, but a real football club that people in the local area can go along and support, and enjoy a day out that isn’t expensive.” Of this support Mr Sanders was greatly appreciative, “ it’s massively important”, “it just gets better every game we put on.”
It seems clear that off the pitch they are continually progressing as a club. Lee said to me that “the club has grown a reputation over the past few years, in terms of being a really well run club”. Clearly, their Matchplay award stands as testament to that, as well as winning the 2017 FA Women’s Super League 2 Club of the Year prize for their excellent progress as a club.
Lee pointed to this as well as the fact that “we have a very low turn over of staff and players” as a clear sign of their achievements, adding they are “always a good indicator that you are doing something right.”
All of this success has come in spite of the fact that Durham Women are one of the only top-level teams that are not affiliated to a major domestic men’s team, putting their successes into even greater perspective. Lee was clear though that this would not have been possible if it were not for Team Durham; saying they have been “tremendously supportive” since the merging of South Durham & Cestria Girls and Durham University in 2014.
He was also keen to stress the support of the FA with their youth programs. Although the fact that the FA have got involved seems more of a pointer to the well-run club the Wildcats are, more than anything.
So standing on our doorstep is an excellent, professionally won team, one that would cost a Durham student only two pounds per game to go and watch. In fact, Lee stated “we would welcome a little bit more input from Durham students for some of the stuff that they would want at the games”, to help expand a club that, let’s not forget, is part of our university. Crucially, however, he was keen to stress that “its good games on offer, very good games, some good football played.”
“if you’ve got any interest in football or women’s football, come along and watch”
That is not the only way you as a Durham student can get involved though, the club is currently looking for some help with Marketing and some graphic design, if that is something that would be of interest to you. There is also the chance to get involved as a player.
The first team is mostly made of postgrad students, but for those “players who maybe want to push themselves a little bit further, or a little bit harder”, there are reserve teams and other programs run by the club to get involved in.
Most of all from the interview Lee pressed me to challenge Durham students to get more involved, saying “if you’ve got any interest in football or women’s football, come along and watch”, and that there are “all sorts of things different people can be involved in, not just being a player”.
Photograph: George Ledger and Susan Gutteridge via Durham Women FC