Love at first sight: a first taste of Durham Women’s football

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An Autumn chill had set against the tracked pitch of Maiden Castle. The darkness beginning to set in soon was pierced by floodlights. Fans and families slowly flocked in in their droves, filling up the stands and all four corners of the pitch. As the clock ticked towards kick-off, the anticipation was building. 7pm came, and the evening’s heroines emerged ready for action.

Before the game, there was an almost carnivalesque atmosphere. That sweet smell of sugary donuts wafting through the stands, hot dogs and chips that even I couldn’t resist. There was not an ounce of hooliganism or such around, this simply made for the perfect family day out. I could see it in the sheer breadth of supporters around me; students, families, casual supporters and even the diehard set of ‘ultras’ sat in front of us leading the chants (who were girls no older than 10, too). It was different to any other football match I’ve experienced.

Of course, it was no ordinary game for Durham Women FC. This was a break from a league campaign already in full swing, whose fine results had seen the Wildcats setting the pace in the Women’s Championship. A cup competition like the Women’s Super League Cup can throw up a plethora of challenges, and theirs was certainly no different.

Lady luck was seemingly not smiling on Durham’s chances. Pitted against four teams from the highest tier of Women’s Football, they would have a real test of their mettle against some of the country’s elite. Leicester City they were no strangers to; the Foxes pipped them to promotion to the Women’s Super League last season. Everton had been solid since their own rise in 2017. And of course, everyone already knows the names Manchester United and Manchester City.

It was the red half of Manchester that provided Durham’s first test in the cup. Despite being relative newcomers to Women’s Football’s top tier, they were now highflying, pushing for Champions League qualification in 4th place. Of course they had their own ‘ultras’ who had made the journey north, perched on the Wear-end of the stadium. And it was their fans who had the first laugh, United’s Ivana Fuso drawing first blood.

This was football at its purest, something which the modern game is seemingly losing touch with

What had, up to that point, been a rapturous atmosphere was silenced in one moment. Half time provided some much-needed reflection; the Wildcats were pegged back, and needed some sort of response. It took mere minutes of the second half for the roars to return, Dee Bradley levelling from a Beth Hepple corner. The crowd, no longer hushed, bellowed their team back on. Ella Toone’s wonder goal for the Red Devils could well have been cause for heartbreak, another mountain to climb for the hosts in a half they had dominated. But what followed was a moment that will make you fall in love with football.

Just five minutes remained on the clock before defeat grasped her ugly claws around Durham’s opening cup fixture. A free kick on the edge of the box from a tight angle, it was a picture-perfect moment. I blink, and suddenly the ball is nestled in the near top corner; 2-2, it was lift-off at the sold-out Maiden Castle. The whole team ran to the corner to celebrate with their fans, frenetic in swarming adulation.  

While they may have lost the resulting penalty shootout, conceding a bonus point to their visitors, that did not matter an iota. The end result merely capped off a valiant effort which showed that this team is ready for the next step. And they will take everyone with them. Hundreds stuck around after the final whistle to chat and take photos with members of the team. And not a single player hesitated to stick around.

This is a side united by a sense of community. Win, lose or draw, there are no egos, no fans chanting ‘off with his head’ at the manager after a few poor results. This was football at its purest, something which the modern game is seemingly losing touch with. For me, this was love at first sight. Durham Women, you’ve got me hooked.

Image: Durham Women FC

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