As the game between Durham and Loughborough approached its final stages, captain Mike King surged forward through the opposition ranks, desperate to create an equaliser. Durham were 1-0 down and the crowd was starting to get nervous. King took it past one, two, three, four players before being hauled to the ground, and a free-kick was awarded. He placed the ball down, took a few steps back, and sent in a swerving, powerful delivery with his left foot. The ball cannoned back off the crossbar, and the opportunity was gone.
It was a moment which encapsulated the Palatinates’ frustration in a match which was crucial to their hopes of defending the Premier North title. They had gone into this game confidently in first place following a 2-1 win against Northumbria and a four-match winning streak, but in-form Loughborough were just a point behind.
It was a fast-paced game from the start, with tackles flying in from both sides. The first opportunity fell to the Loughborough number 9, whose fierce strike from distance flew past Pat Ulrich’s left post, but chances were limited as the two sides cancelled each other out to begin with.
All that changed as a defensive mistake by Durham let in one of Loughborough’s wingers, who darted into the area, sending a curling right-footed finish past Ulrich’s grasp and into the top corner. It was a goal worthy of breaking the deadlock.
After withstanding a period of heavy Loughborough pressure, the hosts tried to stamp their mark on the game. Left-back Tom Gilbey got forward well and fizzed in a cross for Billy Hodgkinson, whose deft flick forced the opposition keeper into a fine stop, tipping the shot over the crossbar. Minutes later the Loughborough No.1 was in action again, making a sprawling save from Joe Wykes after the winger had been sent through on goal by Hodgkinson.
But Hodgkinson was isolated up front, while the midfield were unable to control the tempo of the game. The visitors’ pressing was relentless and left the Palatinates little time to breathe. It could have been 2-0 just before half-time had it not been for Ulrich’s reflexes in repelling a shot from Loughborough’s number 10 with a strong left hand, before pouncing on the rebound.
The start of the second half brought a fresh wave of Loughborough attacks, but the central defensive pairing of Ollie Beauchamp and Dan Field held firm. It was then Durham’s chance to go on the offensive. King and Hargreaves were pushed forward to support Hodgkinson, while a switch to three at the back meant that Gilbey and Byerley were effectively playing as wing-backs.
Loughborough seemed to retreat further and further into their own half, committing cynical challenges to try and stop King and co. The series of fouls on the captain was a case in point, but soon after Tom Isola was also scythed down as he tried to dribble his way through the opposition. The midfielder displayed a few moments of skill, but was afforded little time on the ball in an increasingly frantic match.
King’s free-kick was the first sign that this would not be Durham’s night, but they refused to give up. The Loughborough keeper impressed again as Hargreaves turned a defender with ease and unleashed a shot, and Wykes’ effort from the ensuing corner was cleared off the line. Isola put in an inch-perfect free kick which was headed just wide, and then had a thunderous shot from distance blocked. The home side were exasperated.
As the match drew to a close, the Palatinates were forced to resort to Jack Dancey’s raking kicks from the back, but still there was no way through the well-drilled Loughborough defence. The knockout blow came as the away side broke through on the counterattack in the dying minutes. No.15 sprinted into the box, and Field brought him down. The referee blew his whistle and signalled for a penalty. The attacker coolly dispatched his shot past Ulrich, sending the keeper the wrong way and making it 2-0. It was game over for Durham.
Photograph: Team Durham