By Matt Styles
This was D-day for Durham, whose crunch match against Leicester City had been hotly anticipated by fans of the Women’s Championship following its postponement in February.
Both sides were acutely aware that this game would, for all intents and purposes, determine who clinches the sole promotion spot to the promised land of the Women’s Super League, with the Foxes and the Wildcats locked on 38 points apiece before play began.
Leicester, having played a game less, came into the game in fine fettle. Extraordinarily, they had won every game in the league since November, and were on a run of nine consecutive wins. Durham, meanwhile, were yet to taste defeat at all in the Women’s Championship, having conceded just one at home all season. With the league’s best attack facing up against the league’s best defence, something simply had to give.
The Foxes arrived at a blustery Maiden Castle with a spring in their step, and of the sizeable assembled party included former England striker Emile Heskey, who had rejoined the club last September in a coaching and ambassadorial capacity. Lee Sanders’ side needed no reminding that they would be coming up against a side with far more resources than themselves; an all-too-familiar feeling for these perennial underdogs.
But Durham like it this way, having repeatedly risen to the occasion throughout this long and hard fought title race. In his programme notes Sanders reminded the opposition of this, stressing how “our players will die for eachother. We’ll respect Leicester, but we won’t fear them.” However, with Emily Roberts sidelined and Mollie Lambert subsequently moved out wide for this pivotal showdown, it was an eyebrow-raising team selection that implied an overly cautious approach.
Indeed, there was very little action of note to report on in the first half. With so much on the line it was a predictably cagey affair as Kathryn Hill, atypically playing in front of the back four, nullified Leicester’s advances in the middle of the park alongside the ever-reliable Northern Ireland international Sarah Robson.
Beyond a glancing headed effort from Leicester defender Sam Tierney, clear-cut chances came at a premium. The wind howled as balls failed to find their desired target, with plenty of stoppages for injuries in the arctic conditions. Route one wasn’t paying off for Durham, who lacked attacking endeavour and industry in the final third, as an isolated Bridget Galloway failed to get any change from a sturdy Leicester backline.
Coached by Jonathan Morgan – who for a UEFA accredited coach only seemed to have ‘Press!’ and ‘Seconds!’ in his footballing vocabulary – Leicester looked the more accomplished and well-drilled. Their technical superiority shone through on several occasions, and of the two sides it was Morgan’s who looked most in control. The Wildcats, aware that a draw would be of little use to them, would need to crank things up a notch in the second half.
However, all the signs of portent before the break became actualised soon after it. Just three minutes after the restart, Tierney found the magic touch this time by capitalising on Durham’s failure to clear from a free-kick; poking home her first goal for the club with a smart volley that sailed beyond the helpless Megan Borthwick.
As the ball rippled the back of the Durham net, and the Leicester bench erupted into scenes of carnivalesque jubilation, everyone in and around Maiden Castle knew that this was a hammer blow for the home side.
Things got worse for them when, just past the hour mark, Leicester won another free-kick in ominous territory. The ball was whipped in by Charlie Devlin and Tierney cropped up once again to head home her second goal of the game.
With nothing to lose Durham looked to find openings in the remaining half an hour, but struggled to penetrate a stubborn Foxes resistance who employed all the tricks in the book to wind down the clock. Other than some half-chances from Beth Hepple and Bridget Galloway, Durham failed to mount much of a resurgence and the game rather petered out from there.
Leicester cruised to a crucial win which in turn spelled the end of Durham’s sensational invincible run. For the Foxes, barring a sensational collapse with four games remaining, it is a result which has in all likelihood secured them top flight football next season and condemned the Wildcats to another season in the Women’s Championship.
At the final whistle, contrasting feelings of joy and despair were mapped out by Durham players collapsing to the floor whilst Leicester celebrated frenziedly. With the Wildcats so distraught and dejected, namely centre-back Becky Salicki, it was manager Lee Sanders who took media duties.
“I take responsibility. I’ve set the team up in a certain way and I take full responsibility for it. I don’t think we got at Leicester as much as we should have in the first half. It was OK but we didn’t look threatening enough,” he reflected.
“The girls will be absolutely kicking themselves over conceding two set pieces, we do pride ourselves on that. But at the end of the day how can I point the finger at players who have kept countless clean sheets over the past few years? I can’t say a bad word about them. They’ll be hurting, and it’s my job to put an arm round them.”
Durham should take great pride from their performance so far this season. Promotion now seems like a step too far, but to go 16 games unbeaten with their relative lack of resources is an immense achievement that will go down in folklore. Next season they intend on going full-time, and this wonderful ‘little’ club should go from strength to strength.
“It is what it is,” added Sanders. “We’ve just got to work with what we’ve go to work with, in the parameters we’ve got to work within. We’re heading in the right direction and we’ll probably go full-time ourselves next season regardless of what happens. That’s the aim.
“People will look at this and say this was the game that defined our season. Actually we’ve dropped points earlier in the season which we probably shouldn’t have, which maybe came back to bite us a little bit.
“It’s not over. We have not had a good season we are having a good season. It’s a new day tomorrow and we just have to get ready and prepare for Sheffield because we want to finish as high as we can.”
Durham XI: Borthwick, Wilson (C), Salicki, Holmes, Hill, Robson, Briggs (Sharpe 61′), Christon (Brown 61′), Lambert (Gears 70′), Hepple, Galloway
Image: George Ledger / Durham Women FC