Palatinate continues its coverage of Durham Women – this time their home fixture versus Sheffield United in the FA Women’s League Cup. For those unfamiliar with the format of the competition, it is fairly complex compared to its men’s counterpart. Instead of going straight into a knockout round, the tournament commences with a group stage – with three groups of five teams and two groups of four.
The five group winners and the three best performing second placed teams then progress to the quarter finals. The other unusual quirk to this competition is that there are no draws in the group stage – a match level after 90 minutes will go to penalties, with the winner of the shootout taking away two points, and the loser taking one (in an EFL Trophy-esque format).
Prior to this game, Durham sat second in Group A on five points, one behind Women’s Super League side, Aston Villa, and one ahead of bitter rivals Sunderland. Fellow Women’s Championship sides, Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield United sat at the foot of the table, marooned on zero points. With Villa still to play, Durham’s match against Sheffield United surely would have been filed into the ‘must-win’ category by their Head Coach, Claire Ditchburn.
In terms of the game itself, a fairly lacklustre first half-an-hour was dominated by Durham, with Saoirse Noonan’s dangerous whipped cross narrowly evading Lauren Briggs, and Becky Salicki hitting the post after good build up play by Amy Andrews. It was the 30th minute where the deadlock was broken: a calamitous mix-up in the Sheffield United backline led to Andrews being able to nick the ball off their centre-back and display delightful composure to chip it over the stranded Blades goalkeeper.
The visitors displayed little threat in the first 45 minutes – the only clear-cut opportunity being a free kick, right on the edge of the D, which flew right the way over onto the athletics track. Surely this Durham dominance would be continued after the interval? It was not to be. Whatever the Blades’ manager, Jonathan Morgan, said at half-time, it must have been inspirational. Sheffield United peppered Durham’s goal after the break, racking up six shots compared to Durham’s zero. The Wildcat‘s backline resistance could only hold strong for so long, and it was in the 82nd minute where parity was restored – Sigsworth the scorer for the visitors.
It remained all square until full time, despite an injury time header from the Blades’ Isobel Goodwin going narrowly over the crossbar. And so the match proceeded to a penalty shootout to determine who would come away with the bonus point. Players from both sides initially held their nerves well – the first five penalties for each side were exquisitely dispatched. But when Eleanor Ryan-Doyle, who had only been on the pitch for mere minutes before the shootout, hit Durham’s sixth penalty wide, it looked as if it would be Sheffield United who would be taking away the additional point.
However, a fantastic save from Naoisha McAloon from the Blades’ sixth taker, Charlotte Newsham, saw the shootout continue. The same incident happened again for each side’s eight penalty: Abby Holmes’ penalty was saved for Durham, giving the Blades’ Charly Docherty a chance to take the spoils. Only for McAloon to come up with yet more heroics, diving to her top left corner to miraculously keep Docherty’s strike out.
Two more penalties for each side were converted, before Juliet Adebowale-Arimoro drew yet another save from McAloon, meaning that Durham took the shootout 8-7. The two points do take the Wildcats above Aston Villa into first place in the group, however, this should be taken somewhat with a pinch of salt, given Villa, as well as Sunderland in third, have played one game fewer than Durham.
The Wildcat’s final group game takes place on December 13th, against Villa in what will surely be a crucial game in terms of qualification for the knockout round.
Image: Luca Hughes Joshi