“I don’t think the FA want Durham to be promoted if I’m being honest because it’s not great for marketing. People don’t really know who we are. The teams that have gone up have been big badges with lots of money. But that makes it more desirable to get there. To prove people wrong.”
These are the spirited words of Ellie Christon. They’re not the only words said in our 46-minute interview – coronavirus hasn’t made us all that socially awkward – but they do best encapsulate the lion-hearted determination of Durham Women, the underdog club aiming for the stars that Christon has been with for seven years.
“We’ve come such a long way since the league started in 2014, but the sense of what it means to be a Durham player is still really present. That’s what makes it so emotional when we win. But this season does feel different. We’re winning when we’re not playing well and we’ve got more to give. The belief is there that we can get promoted.”
That belief is valid. At the time of writing, Durham sit second and are unbeaten in the league. In February, they host a crunch clash against league leaders Leicester on what could be a history-bending day. Win that, and they have a real shot of earning a maiden promotion to the Super League.
After Durham play, it’s a ritual for us Palatinate Sport Editors to assemble in our group chat and discuss the game. If you were mischievous enough to hack into that chat, you’d find abundant praise for Christon. Having started all of this season’s games bar one, the full-back is a key part of this promotion push.
Her journey began when her mother saw a newspaper advert by a local team asking for players to join. Perhaps Norton and Stockton Ancients sound more like a club for hardened football veterans than for eight-year-olds, but that didn’t stop her “banging in goals for fun” as a forward. Eventually she’d busted the net enough to earn stints in Middlesbrough and America, and by the age of 16 she had progressed sufficiently to claim a seat in the dressing room at Sunderland.
She reflects on those days fondly. “It was a really good experience as a 16-year-old being in a team that was fighting for the Premier League, which was then the second tier. We won the title for three consecutive years. There were some really good players there: I got to play with Demi Stokes for a bit, Jordan Nobbs, and I crossed paths with other players who have gone on to big things.”
There are wisps of feeling about the might-have-been. “My dream was always to play for England when I was growing up. I was lucky enough to get to international camps, but I never fulfilled my potential at that age. It was so competitive and I probably wasn’t psychologically strong enough. I was just playing within myself.
“At Sunderland, I was gaining experience on the pitch, but I reached a point in my career where I thought ‘I need to be playing regularly now.’” Newly formed Durham Women presented an opportunity, and Christon grabbed it with as many hands as she could.
Departing an established side like Sunderland was a bold choice, but that leap of faith has paid off. You could call Christon’s career something of a footballing safari: taking risks, embracing the experience fully, and getting up close to some of the most breathtaking names in the game’s DNA.
“I always look back to Lucy Bronze as my footballing inspiration. I was lucky enough to play with her when we were at university in Leeds; she was in her third year and I was in my first year. You could tell she was going to go on to great things. She epitomises what I want to be as a right-back. She’s influential going forward and defensively and that’s what I try to be on match day.”
The stylistic influence is clear. Christon’s game is a well-rounded one; while she can be depended on to put out a fire at the back, she also enjoys taking on opposition players, overlapping the winger, and whipping a ball into the box – usually a dangerous one.
Yet it seems the glee of attacking is a privilege reserved for only the athletic among us! When asked for advice on how to improve my own blundering ventures at right-back, Christon doesn’t hesitate to set my priorities straight. “Your most important job is to defend. Attacking takes a lot of endurance.”
Not that it’s a problem for Christon; endurance is her middle name. Well, not literally – but she is a strength and conditioning coach with Team Durham, and she manages the Durham University Women’s first team, who she guided to second in the league last season. Working towards a UEFA B Licence, coaching is a string in her bow that helps her approach the game uniquely.
“I’ve always been inquisitive, asking questions of my coaches. I became dead interested in understanding how it was helping me, and I saw the improvement in my own physicality and performance. I’m always analysing sessions, watching to see how coaches deliver them, and I apply the stuff I pick up. I’m grateful to Durham for letting me have my dual career.”
As the University are paired with Durham Women, Christon’s work schedule is effectively “built around football”, but the same can’t be said for every part-time player. Indeed, Christon highlights the sacrifices players in the Championship make.
The original calendar for January had Durham down for three away games at Lewes, West Ham and Crystal Palace in the space of a week. That’s an epic round trip of 1,591 miles, assuming players would return home for work on the days in between. Fortunately, the calendar-makers relented, extending the timeframe to 11 days, but the point stands. “It’s outrageous. Full-time players would have time to recover, but when you’re supposed to be getting up at 6 a.m. for work, you’re crawling by the end of the week!”
And so, our conversation reached its speculative climax: what if a close-knit, part-time side like Durham wrote the fairy tale and got promoted? Do players abandon their other careers and turn professional for less pay, knowing relegation could rip up the script after a year or two? Do Durham ditch their strategy of recruiting local talent and splash the cash on a Portuguese megastar?
Christon can’t know for sure; she isn’t some wizened fortune teller peering at us from behind an enchanted crystal ball. And she’s right to refrain from making outlandish predictions. Instead, she point to the club’s strengths as a sign of their potential.
“Lee [Sanders] is different to any other manager I’ve worked with. He’s really good at what he does: recruiting, securing sponsorships and partners, building this club. And Steph Libbey, the Head Coach, is UEFA A Licensed. She’s given us a real boost. With our coaches, it’s a small team but it works for us.
“We’re receptive to change and are used to new players coming in because of the University and recruitment system. New people come in every year.
“I think we are as good as the teams that are 7th or 8th in the Super League. We beat Manchester United at home in the year they went up. We beat Liverpool this year. Obviously, we’d have to set up a lot differently and have a deeper depth of squad to make sure everyone stays fit. The speed and intensity of that division is a step up. But we do fancy ourselves.”
Whatever happens this season, at least we know Durham have got a funky soundtrack for the journey. Of the dressing room anthems regularly boomed out by DJ-defender Becky Salicki, surely ‘I Love To Boogie’ by T. Rex has to take the crown. One can only hope Durham will be boogieing come May.
Image courtesy of Ellie Christon.