By James Reid
14 points from their first six games have seen Durham Women make a fine start to their FA Women’s Championship campaign.
Having finished third in last season’s curtailed campaign, Lee Sanders’ side will have been cautiously optimistic going into this season, despite not having the budget of others competing at the top end of the division.
Wealthier challengers Liverpool were swiftly brought down to earth after their relegation with a 1-1 draw with the Wildcats.
It was a performance that perfectly summed up Durham as a side. Hard-working and difficult to play against to the end, something which was duly rewarded with a late equaliser from star player Beth Hepple. All of this, too, when down to ten players.
Such a result sent a message out to the rest of the league that Durham mean business this season. Liverpool are strong favourites for the title this season, but Durham matched them all the way, in turn revealing their own title credentials.
The point at Prenton Park was followed up with two home wins, and two clean sheets, against Lewes and London City. Both were dominant performances reminiscent of a side looking to challenge at the business end of the table.
Both matches were games that Durham were ultimately expected to win, but that is easier said than done. The Championship is an unforgiving league in terms of dropped points; there is little room for error in a bid for promotion to the Women’s Super League. Six points from their two home games was almost a must for the Maiden Castle side and they duly delivered.
It did look like it was going to be three wins from three as Durham led 2-1 until a late Leicester equaliser saw the Wildcats drop two points. It will have been disappointing to have dropped crucial points in such a manner, especially in a game that had been dominated by the North East side.
Nevertheless, it does little to take away from the good start that Durham have made. They currently sit atop the Championship after Liverpool lost 2-1 to Leicester. The disappointing draw was followed up by slim victories against Crystal Palace and London Bees, as well as a convincing 5-2 win over Coventry in the Continental Cup.
Games in hand for Sheffield United and Lewes mean that this may only be a temporary position, but a strong start to the season has left Durham in a good position to make a promotion push.
The star of the show has been forward Hepple who already has ten goals in just six games, including a hat-trick against Coventry in the Continental Cup. Durham’s number seven has excelled in a free role behind the strikers that has allowed her to lead the Wildcat attack while continuing to contribute goals herself.
It is, of course, early days. Five games do not make a season. However, Durham have shown only signs of encouragement thus far.
There has been an overreliance on Hepple to provide the goals thus far which may need to be addressed, though worries are soothed by the strength of Durham’s backline which has conceded just three goals.
The squad is small, too, with Durham regularly naming only four or five substitutes. This naturally leaves the Wildcats vulnerable to a sudden injury crisis and with limited flexibility.
There are signs of encouragement here, though, with a number of players such as Grace Ayre and Lily Crosthwaite stepping up from Durham’s sister side, Durham Cestria.
They will add vital bodies to the thin squad, though its small size contributes to something of a siege mentality amongst the current squad.
It is this mentality, along with the currently unstoppable Hepple, that has put Durham in a good position to mount a proper promotion bid this season. There is still a long way to go, but it should be an exciting campaign down at Maiden Castle.
Image: George Ledger/Durham Women FC