By Matt Styles
Durham extended their unbeaten start to five games with a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace on Sunday afternoon, which puts them top of the Women’s Championship after Liverpool fell to an unlikely loss against Leicester City.
There is something truly special happening down at Maiden Castle, and the cool composure of this Durham team is shining through from all corners of the club. The atmosphere was a serene one before kick off, with a healthy scattering of fans lined up on the riverbank ready to watch this exciting outfit.
The Wildcats, gleeful and buoyant, were the very antithesis of Crystal Palace in the build up. The Eagles have endured a disappointing start to the season so far and barely raised a smile, focused entirely on the task in hand. This was not quiet confidence, but fear, fear not only of this well-oiled Durham unit but of a certain diminutive talisman who seems destined for an England call up. This is none other than Beth Hepple, who ran the show once again as she fired home her ninth and tenth goals of the season.
Though Durham won the game, however, it was a characteristically cagey and fruitless start from the hosts; essentially a carbon copy of their last home league match against London City. Lauren Briggs came in for Mollie Lambert in holding midfield, but she and Sarah Robson lacked chemistry in the early stages and were overrun on several occasions, which led to a string of sloppy fouls and a general lack of equanimity.
Lacking structure and cutting edge, manager Lee Sanders cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines. Durham endured their fair share of warning signs, with Bianca Baptiste looking a constant threat, but the magnificent Megan Borthwick bailed them out with a catalogue of fine one-on-one saves.
Yet while it wasn’t a harmonious performance, Durham never really looked like conceding, and the trademark fixtures of their game remained identifiable. You knew that it would all come together sooner or later, but it looked as though they would need the half time break to have a rethink.
Then suddenly, just before half time, Molly Sharpe was adjudged to have been fouled on the edge of the Palace box by Annabel Johnson. No one in the stadium agreed with referee Jane Simms, not even the Durham bench, but her mind was made up, and the hosts had an opportunity to go into the break a goal up.
The whole of women’s football knows by now that free kicks from this range are Beth Hepple’s bread and butter, but there was simply nothing Palace could do as her effort dipped majestically into the top left hand corner.
The half time whistle blew shortly afterwards, as the incensed Palace manager Dean Davenport charged down the officials to bombard them with complaints and make his outrage known. He had a case, but Durham didn’t care. Wildcats one, Eagles nil.
The second half was nicely poised, and saw a heated start when play resumed as Aofie Hurley received a yellow card for a reckless late challenge on Robson. Davenport continued to give the officials grief from the dugout, but the reality was that Durham were looking by far the more accomplished side, and grew menacingly into the game.
The hosts finally began to sing from the same hymn sheet, as Hepple saw a looping header crash off the bar after a fluid move involving Christon and Sharpe down the right. Durham generally looked more dangerous in the final third, and just past the hour mark Sharpe won another free kick on the left hand side of the box, around 25 yards out.
This felt pre-destined, and lo and behold Beth Hepple stepped up, fizzed the ball goal bound, and managed to upstage her previous strike with a magnificent hit that sailed past the helpless Chloe Morgan.
Durham were now two goals to the good, and in full control as Palace legs tired. The Wildcats sent on the young prospects who had shone in the mid-week cup fixture against Coventry United, namely Lily Crosthwaite, but failed to gel in the short time they had on the pitch together.
Palatinate spoke to manager Lee Sanders and goalkeeper Megan Borthwick after the game, who were both thrilled with Maiden Castle becoming such a fortress and how the team always find a way to win despite not being at their best. However, they admitted their frustrations with Durham having to grow into games and not hitting the ground running from the get go.
Sanders said, “I wish we were there from the first second. There was a lot of miscommunication in the middle and Meg had to dig us out a few times with saves in the first half. We had some words at half time, we needed to be better.
“But look, they’re absolutely fantastic players and also fantastic athletes, and very professional as well. They work hard in training and deserve all the praise. They turn up day in, day out and don’t complain, they get on with it and work hard and they get the fruits of their labour on the weekend. We will never ever be able to accuse those players of not coming off that pitch giving 100%.”
Borthwick echoed the same sentiments, and was delighted to have kept another clean sheet.
“At the start of the season we wanted as many clean sheets as we can and so I’m over the moon, the focus for me is throughout the season to get as many as I can.
“Although we always try and fly off from the start and be 100% it’s not really happening, but to be able to get performances when we’re maybe not our best that’s excellent, and it shows where we are as a team.”
Durham’s next game is away at London Bees on Sunday, who sit bottom of the Women’s Championship table having lost five games from five.
Durham XI: Borthwick, Christon, Hill, Salicki, Wilson, Briggs, Robson, Roberts (Crosthwaite 86), Hepple (Atkinson 86), Sharpe (Gears 77), Galloway (Lee 82)
Image: George Ledger/ Durham Women FC