“That’s what it’s all about”: Durham Women 2-2 Manchester United

By Oliver Jervis, Sanjay Suri, and

Two goals apiece and a dazzling penalty shootout victory allowed Durham Women to claim bragging rights over a Lioness-featuring Manchester United side in their Continental Tyres League Cup group match. Here is how the magical night played out:

The build-up (by Oliver Jervis)

Few teams enliven a city like Manchester United. Few teams are capable of defeating teams like Manchester United. It appears Durham Women can count themselves firmly amongst such a prestigious category, especially after their David-esque triumph over the Red Devils in the well-regarded Continental Tyres Cup.

26th October 2022 was a date awaited eagerly in the diary by many across the steep hills of Durham, after it was announced that their very own football club would be facing a team stacked with golden Lionesses and diamond-like WSL players.

This prospect was made all the more enthralling considering the tightly contested battle between the two sides that occurred only last season, also resulting in a 2-2 draw. Thus, tickets for the game were sold out almost immediately at the time of release. The giants were coming to town, and the Prince Bishop’s stone was ready to be thrown.

Upon approaching the match, one could almost taste the lightning atmosphere building around Maiden Castle. Following a day packed with enticing BUCS fixtures, and a floodlit cup match being played out only pitches away, a hubbub of anticipation threatened to erupt. Fortunately, it would stay its course until the proceeding events truly mattered.

For those with a perceptive but humorous eye, indications of such an atmospheric change could be observed by the fact three fast food vans were in attendance for the match – as opposed to the typical solitary hotdog stand. Sometimes, incredible evidence can be found in the smallest of things.

26th October 2022 was a date awaited eagerly in the diary by many across the steep hills of Durham

Larger things, however, can also serve one just as well. For example, the stands were heaving more than half an hour before the 7pm kick off. Children, parents, and mere general spectators all huddled around the illuminated pitch, willing themselves on to capture a glimpse of players such as Ella Toone, Nikita Parris, or – of course – Beth Hepple. Local heroes most definitely die hard around these parts. Even Maiden Castle’s HIIT class attendants longed to see those mighty warriors.

Yet, such excitement was only mildly stifled upon the revelation of the night’s initial line-ups. The Lionesses, it seemed, were destined for a period on the opposition bench. Nevertheless, this did not halt proceedings.

Kids – in whatever football shirts they could find and wear – continued to play football behind the respective goals; parents continued to pay incessantly for hotdogs and donuts; the stadium’s PA system continued to blare out the tunes of the day – Dua Lipa and Little Mix included. The show had to go on, and so it did.

Eventually, once everyone had found their seats or a place to stand and spectate, the city of Durham began to eagerly await the two teams. They had clashed before on plenty of occasions, and it was time to do so again. The modern colosseum demanded its fight under the floodlights; therefore, they came. Nonetheless, were they entertained?

Pictured: A special atmosphere presided over Maiden Castle as the match got underway. (Image: ).

The match (by Maddie Parker)

Anyone approaching Maiden Castle on Wednesday evening knew something special was brewing. The sold-out crowd, clad proudly in their Durham merchandise, descended upon the ground ready to watch the Wildcats battle Manchester United in their second group game of the Continental Cup.

Durham — situated 19 league places below United — were the obvious underdogs, and if you were to imagine the perfect setting for a cup game this would be it.

You got the sense however that the Wildcats, with their impressive performance against Sheffield United and their recently improved league form, could muster the confidence to take on anyone. But could United, with an 100% record in the WSL this season and a star-studded line-up, prove too much of a challenge?

With the clock striking 7pm, the answer to that question would shortly arrive. Suspense finally spilled over and a cacophony of cheers, applause and the hammering of advertising boards rang proud around Maiden Castle as both teams strode out onto the pitch. Calm, collected and with a point to prove after their last clash, there was no doubt they were about to put on a show.

The start of the first half saw both sides getting a feel of the game with the Durham midfield delivering some particularly crunching tackles, courtesy of Dee Bradley. Although scrappy in the middle of the park, the away team found more fluency in attack and showed some warning signs to the Wildcats when Rachel Williams’ shot flashed just wide of the post in the 7th minute.

The home side’s troubles were exacerbated by United’s increasingly lively left flank, proving a nuisance for the battling Durham back four — evidently missing typical stalwart Sarah Wilson — as they were forced to fend off Adriana Leon’s crosses.

Going a goal down spurred the home fans into full force and served as a wake up call for the Durham offensive effort

Miscommunication in their own box from the Wildcats became a reoccurring theme in the opening half an hour, with Marc Skinner’s side stealing headers from the Durham defence and the home fans holding their breath as a few nervy clearances were made.

Where the Wildcats lapsed in concentration, the Red Devils pounced. This time it was a Maya Le Tissier throw-in floating into the box which was met by an unconvincing Becky Salicki header. Waiting patiently was Jade Moore who converted a well-executed volley into the bottom corner to break the deadlock for United in the 22nd minute.

However, going a goal down spurred the home fans into full force and served as a wake up call for the Durham offensive effort. Despite limited possession, counterattacking opportunities continuously fell at the feet of Maria Farrugia and Jess Clarke, although many of them were gratefully dealt with by United keeper Sophie Baggaley.

By added time at the end of the first half, the game was opening up and an inspired run from Jess Clarke earned the Wildcats an inviting free kick, taken by Durham’s set piece maestro Beth Hepple.

The equaliser was converted by Clarke at the right-hand post and no sooner had they celebrated than the referee blew the whistle, sending the Durham team back to the dressing room with some momentum for the second 45.

Balanced and well-contested, the second half started much like the first. With neither team quite managing to find that all-important breakthrough, United substituted off goal scorer Moore for frequent Lioness Katie Zelem.

Pictured: Beth Hepple (far left, running away) was eager to make her mark on the match. (Image: ).

Fresh legs may have been the lucky formula as, just minutes later, the Wildcats were 2-1 down after a sublime chip from Vilde Bøe Risa, leaving Naoisha McAloon helpless in the Durham goal.

With the home side showing signs of tiring, they swiftly responded with substitutions of their own — Rio Hardy and Lily Crosthwaite replaced Farrugia and Clarke respectively. In the 72nd minute, Maiden Castle simultaneously were introduced to the second Lioness of the evening as Nikita Parris came on for Williams.

With renewed energy, Durham began to push United further into their own half as they – and their adoring fans – desperately searched for a second goal. As another of Hardy’s chances glimpsed wide, however, you got the sense that it just might not be the Wildcats’ day.

Matters were made worse when usual talisman Saoirse Noonan departed the pitch injured in the 88th minute, forcing Durham down to ten men. And yet still the home side refused to give up.

When Beth Hepple’s corner was met with a goalmouth scramble in the last minute of the match, Maiden Castle was briefly silenced before it erupted into ecstatic celebration as Sarah Robson fumbled the ball over the line.

With the Wildcats gleefully piling on top of one another as the match was destined for a penalty shootout, you felt the intangible yet powerful magic of the cup descend upon the ground.

One expects this McAloon masterclass to be one that lives long in the memory

Now, when it came to penalties, it was tough to predict who may be triumphant. Despite Durham having won their last shootout against Sheffield United, one must remember that such a triumph was their first success from the spot in the club’s history. By contrast, United had some significant penalty woes in their first group game against Villa.

Thus, after 90 minutes of cagey yet entertaining football, it all came down to those brave enough to step up to the pressure.

But with just twelve yards separating Hepple, Hardy and Galloway from glory, each converted their efforts to the sound of rapturous applause. By stark contrast, Zelem’s shot aimed wide of the left post and McAloon’s heroics carried Durham from there.

Both United’s second and fourth penalties were saved by the dynamic Durham keeper, who was showered in praise by her teammates at full time. With the final penalty score ending 3-1 to Durham, the 2-2 draw was almost perfectly reminiscent to their clash last year with the Red Devils – but with an even sweeter ending.

Shirts signed and selfies taken, joyous Durham fans returned home with their beloved Wildcats sitting top of their cup group, ready to prowl on with the same vigour and fearlessness which has got them this far. One expects this McAloon masterclass to be one that lives long in the memory.

Pictured: A remarkable night proved the Wildcats possess the heart to challenge any side in the country on their night. (Image: Joe Harston)

Reaction (by Joe Harston)

Any worry about last weekend’s postponement at Birmingham halting momentum — or even struggling to continue after an exhausting test like Manchester United — should by now have been quashed.

Last-minute heroine Robson spoke to Palatinate Sport on this matter:

“We used to fall flat after games like this, but now we’ve got a different group of people who want to be better and want to improve.”

While this performance certainly wasn’t the prettiest, a penalty shootout win against a team unbeaten in the WSL this season is a major achievement and one that should allow the Wildcats to kick on and climb up the league table.

Farrugia once again stood out as the dribbler who would provide flair within a rigid Wildcat’s midfield — sometimes positioned on the right and sometimes bridging the gap to the striker, her mazey runs would not look out of place in the WSL. Some improvement in picking the right pass to release the likes of Hardy and Galloway will make her a crucial addition to the promotion push.

Mollie Lambert’s return to the starting XI was a welcome one, following her inspired cameo against Lewes. While unable to make the same impact on the night, her ability to drive the ball forward provides necessary attacking balance to the midfield, with the strikers looking much more comfortable in their roles when she is on the pitch.

For lots of these youngsters, Wednesday night was the night heroines were made

The need for Lambert’s progression comes from the deep-lying role Hepple has picked up thus far this season. The midfield maestro has played a role true to the number seven printed on her back: a playmaker with exceptional passing ability to pull the strings in the middle third, but she will also dig deep and defend well when called upon. In essence, the captain of the day is a true leader.

Possibly the only negative comes from the premature end to Noonan’s night, after she hobbled off following her arrival from the bench. She’s been in fine form this season — partaking in international duty for Ireland also — and despite precautions being taken, she has unfortunately highlighted the risks that come with additional competitions. One can only hope to see her back on the pitch soon.

Time for dwelling on this magical night is now over as the Wildcats look ahead to a tough clash on Sunday as a typically tricky Crystal Palace visit Maiden Castle.

An excited Robson looked ahead to the fixture:

“We owe Palace one after they beat us twice last season and beat us well. They celebrated like they had won the World Cup. We just have to be on our game.”

Unsurprisingly, ticket sales for the fixture grew rapidly in the aftermath of the cup fixture, with lots of first-time fans eager to return in search of reliving the same magic all over again.

For lots of these youngsters, Wednesday night was the night heroines were made. Nevertheless, they have a full season ahead of them to cement that status.

DWFC (Clarke 45+1, Robson 90+5) 2 – 2 Manchester United (Moore 22’, Bøe Risa 66’)

DWFC: N. McAloon; G. Robert, S. Robson, B. Salicki (G. Ayre 83’), E. Christon; B. Hepple, D. Bradley, M. Farrugia (R. Hardy 72’), B. Galloway, M. Lambert (S. Noonan 80’); J. Clarke (L. Crosthwaite 72’)

Substitutes not used: M. Borthwick

Manchester United: S. Baggaley; M. Thorisdottir, M. Turner, A. Tounkara, M. Le Tissier; V. Bøe Risa, H. Ladd, R. Williams (N. Parris 72’), J. Moore (K. Zelem 63’), A. Leon; M. Thomas

Substitutes not used: S. Middleton-Patel, E. Toone, L. Galton, L. Garcia, L. Staniforth, J. Simpson

Featured image: Joe Harston

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