The off-pitch innovation behind Durham Women FC’s success

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Ahead of their game against Blackburn Rovers on Sunday 13 October, Durham Women, managed by Lee Sanders, were unbeaten in four games with a 100 per cent winning start to the WSL2 season.

Their success, perhaps even their very existence, is made all the more remarkable by the unique circumstances in which the club operate.

Durham are the only outfit in either WSL division not to be attached to a men’s team, and therefore possess neither the subsidies nor the pre-established fanbases with which many of their competitors are blessed.

Similarly unique is the club’s relationship with Durham University. Their roots can be traced back to 2006, when current General Manager Lee Sanders founded South Durham and Cestria Girls − a youth football club for girls.

In 2014, Cestria partnered with Durham University and applied to join the newly-expanded Women’s Super League as Durham Women F.C.

As part of this partnership, the club has unfettered access to the University’s state-of-the-art facilities at Maiden Castle, owing to their small budget; Durham would not usually be able to access such high-quality facilities.

Alongside training and player development, the Wildcats also benefit from their relationship with the University in terms of recruitment.

Four of their current squad − defender Kathryn Hill, midfielder Megan Bell and forwards Molly Sharpe and Iris Achterhof − signed for the club on scholarship deals akin to those commonplace in American university sport.

Whilst playing part-time in the WSL, the costs of undergraduate or postgraduate tuition at the University, as well as accommodation in the city, are covered by the club.

Moreover, after the demise of Sunderland Women, the absence of any other professional women’s football club in the North East of England has allowed Durham to establish firm links with local clubs through their sister club programme.

They also have a strong team of reserves, Durham Cestria, which allows young players to develop in a strong, competitive environment.

Cestria won the North East Regional Women’s Football League last season and currently occupy third place in the FA Women’s National League Division 1 North.

As such, astute decision-making and off-pitch innovation are working to great effect for the underdogs based at New Ferens Park.

Durham’s recent performance stands as a testament to the status of women’s football as the premier format of the sport within the city.

Image courtesy of Durham Women FC

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