Durham’s highest-ranked men’s football outfit, Durham City AFC, look set for an interesting 2020/21 campaign.
City were seven points adrift at the bottom of the Northern League’s Division Two, one of many regional leagues at the tenth tier of English football, before the 2019/20 season was annulled.
Their second successive bottom-placed finish in the division represents the latest in a decade-long tumble down the English football pyramid which started with relegation from the Northern Premier League Premier Division in 2010 and has seen the club leave their New Ferens Park ground in Belmont to groundshare with fellow Northern League side Willington.
Looking to arrest that slide is new manager Didier Agathe, a former professional who began his career with Montpellier in France and also enjoyed spells with Hibernian and Aston Villa. It is for his time with Celtic under Martin O’Neill, however, that he is best known, largely due to his four league titles, three cup wins and one UEFA Cup final appearance.
Agathe ended his playing career on Réunion, the French overseas department of his birth, with JS Saint-Pierroise before setting up an academy on the island.
This experience of youth coaching was key to his appointment at Durham, where his remit is to oversee the club’s academy as well as its first team. He will be joined by experienced non-league hand Tom Wade – who is perhaps most well-known for leading Blyth Spartans to the third round of the FA Cup in 2015 – as his assistant.
The importance of youth to the City vision is reflected in the transfer business they have conducted so far. The likes of goalkeeper Dean Brooks, defenders James Byrne and Joe Whelan, goalscoring midfielder Callum Banki, and forward Calvin Payne, all in their late teens or early twenties, have re-signed for the upcoming campaign and will be complemented by a number of recruits from abroad.
23-year-old Ajax academy product Ismail Hussein can play anywhere in central defence and midfield, whilst utility player Jelaino Fonseca, technical attacking midfielder Quentin van Veenendaal, winger Gio Rojer and forward Youssri Aitouarg all have experience playing in Dutch academy football.
Additionally, heavyweight striker D’Andre Wainwright has represented Bermuda internationally and joins Durham after a number of trials with Football League clubs.
Foreign recruitment is a rarity in the tenth tier, and Durham’s business so far testifies to both the ambition and the professionalism of the club’s management and committee. Whether these signings will translate into wins, or adapt to the intense physicality present at the lower levels of the non-league system, remains to be seen, but what is certain is that they’ll be playing in style.
Durham’s newly-released Parma-esque home shirt is emblazoned with the red and white cross of the City of Durham’s coat of arms whilst their away strip features the yellow and blue of the County Durham flag. Priced at £32, £5 of every sale is to be donated to the NHS.
Image: Durham City AFC