By James Reid
Despite going much of the season unbeaten, Durham Women will spend another season in the FA Women’s Championship after a second-placed finish in the 2020- 21 season.
It was a season that had, for a long while, seemed to promise as a strong start saw the Wildcats top the league in October.
After a 1-1 draw to open the season away at newly-relegated Liverpool, Durham picked up momentum with victories against Lewes, London City, and Crystal Palace alongside a draw with eventual champions Leicester City.
It soon appeared to be a four-way fight for the title as 2020 neared its close, with Leicester, Sheffield United, and former Super League champions Liverpool all grouped closely together at the top of the table.
A crucial win away at Sheffield United in November was sandwiched by disappointing draws with Charlton Athletic and Blackburn Rovers to set up a crucial clash with Liverpool before Christmas.
It was perhaps Durham’s best performance of the season as they dispatched a much-fancied Liverpool side 2-0 at Maiden Castle thanks to goals from Molly Sharpe and Emily Roberts. The result appeared to be vindication that Durham were the real deal and that promotion to the Super League was very much a possibility heading into 2021.
Durham’s creator-in-chief Beth Hepple was in imperious form in the first-half of the season, with 11 goals in all competitions coming before Christmas.
As the new year came and went, it had turned into a two-horse race, with it becoming clear that a place in next year’s Super League would go to either Durham or Leicester.
A 1-1 draw with Lewes was not the start to 2021 that Lee Sanders’ side would have wanted, but four successive victories, including three 1-0 wins, kept Durham in touch with leaders Leicester, who went on an incredible winning streak after snatching a 2-2 draw against Durham in October. It set up a mouth-watering clash at Maiden Castle between the two in March in which only a win would do to realistically keep Durham’s promotion hopes alive.
It was not to be, as a dominant Leicester side ran out deserved 2-0 winners. It was the biggest step towards the Foxes’ eventual Championship title, which was secured at the start of April.
Though the game was only Durham’s first league defeat of the season, it left them three points and a game in hand behind Leicester, with the numerous draws earlier in the season – particularly against bottom-half opposition – proving costly in the bid for promotion.
Despite conceding just one goal in 2021 prior to the Leicester game, the goals had dried up too with Durham eking their way over the line in a number of games.
Winning in such fashion is sometimes seen as the sign of champions, but it was ultimately Durham’s undoing as they were unable to break down a strong Leicester side with the likes of Hepple often constrained by the broader system utilised; Durham’s use of five at the back often limited the attacking midfielder’s ability to impact the game going forward.
It was a loss that stung for Durham and they have gone on to limp home with a draw at home to Sheffield United and an unlikely loss away to Charlton alongside an impressive and valiant performance against Super League side Everton in the FA Cup, succumbing to a 90th-minute winner.
Despite what was ultimately a disappointing end to the season given an impressive start and going unbeaten in the league until March, there is much to be positive about for the Wildcats.
They have shown once again this season that they are knocking on the door of the Super League and are able to more than hold their place against teams with the backing of men’s Premier League sides.
And Durham have also created a competitive team their own way, with no support or funding from a men’s team, roots deep in the community and a focus on developing their own players through Durham Cestria.
Though there may be an element of what could have been for the Wildcats right now as their season has petered out with a bit of a whimper, the reality is that they are primed for another title challenge next season and will be better off for this campaign’s experiences.
They will undoubtedly go into next season as one of the favourites for the Championship title, something that has perhaps not been the case in previous seasons.
Moreover, manager Lee Sanders has already hinted that there may be a move to full-time on the cards which would only improve Durham’s chances, both in terms of training time and the potential to recruit players from further afield.
Durham have already shown their intent in this department with the addition of 22-year-old Ali Johnson from Blackburn Rovers in March, with the versatile wide player marking her debut with a goal.
Durham will be hoping that Johnson will be able to continue her goalscoring exploits next season, as goals were something that were relatively hard to come by for the Wildcats this season.
It is going forward that there is clear room for improvement. Just 34 goals were put away this season, compared to Leicester’s 54 and Sheffield United and Liverpool’s 37, with Durham often struggling to create enough chances in games to feed the likes of Bridget Galloway up front.
This is contrast to Durham’s imperious defensive record, just 15 goals conceded in 20 games saw Durham boast one of the best records in the league led by the imperious Kathyrn Hill, who will surely be a contender for the club’s player of the season.
Keeping their defensive steel while being more free-flowing and creative going forward will be the key challenge for next season. Too often this season Durham’s attacking play lacked fluidity and real creativity, often becoming truncated and met with a set and stubborn defence that is all too common in the Championship.
But Durham will likely be better placed to achieve this next season, even without any new additions. The likes of Mollie Lambert and Bridget Galloway have worked their way into the side after joining from Sunderland last summer and are now mainstays, with Lambert, in particular, looking like one of the best all-action midfielders that the Championship has to offer.
There will be the boost, too, of players returning from injury. The absence of Abby Holmes and Becky Salicki for much of the season saw the likes of Lauren Briggs playing out of position, to great effect, at left-back, while Iris Achterhof’s season was cut short on the first day away at Liverpool due to an ACL tear. The Dutch forward is on her way back and is a welcome boost up front.
These absences often left Sanders short on numbers, with the bench regularly comprised of just four players, but this also provided more opportunities for youngsters such as Lily Crosthwaite and Grace Ayre who will likely feature more regularly next season.
The future, then, is bright for Durham despite the fact that there is perhaps a tinge of disappointment that it will be another season in the second tier. They will go into next season far stronger than they entered the last, with another exciting season on the cards down at Maiden Castle next year.
With crowds likely able to be in attendance next season alongside an incredibly tight-knit squad and perhaps the odd new addition, Durham Women will certainly be worth a watch next season.
Image: George Ledger/Durham Women FC