By Matt Styles and Ben Fleming
Four points from Durham’s first two games in December, albeit in somewhat shaky performances, continues the Wildcat’s unbeaten start to the season and leaves them just one point behind league leaders Leicester with one game to go in the calendar year.
Durham 0-0 Blackburn Rovers
First up, Durham and Blackburn played out a 0-0 draw in a wet, windy and frustrating afternoon for both sides at Maiden Castle. Opportunities throughout the match were few and far between for both sides with both keepers being called into action with scarce regularity.
It was Durham, choosing to start with a back three, who started brighter on the ball in the early stages forcing corners and looking to dominate at home. But, as Blackburn, entering the game with the best form in the league over the past five games, began to gain a firm hold in the game, it was the away side who created the better chances. Ellie Fletcher’s fired just over the bar whilst a last-ditch challenge by Sarah Wilson prevented a clear goal-scoring opportunity for Elise Hughes.
For Durham, opportunities came from the wing-backs who got forward well and with great regularity. Nicki Gears and Emily Roberts headed just wide on two occasions throughout the first half as Durham began to use the width to their advantage. However, too often the final ball or cross would let the Wildcats down as the first half ended goalless.
In the second half, the much-needed composure in the final third continued to evade both sides as they pushed for a winning goal. Sharpe saw a snapshot blocked well by Blackburn by Richard whilst Alicia Johnson saw her effort go wide of the post.
Clear cut chances would evade both sides for the rest of the match with an injury-time effort from Sarah Robson the closest either team came to breaking the deadlock on an afternoon were the respective defences demonstrated their superiority throughout.
Speaking after the game to Palatinate, Sarah Wilson echoed the frustrating nature of the performance.
“It could have gone either way on the day so we are frustrated with the point but on reflection, we will probably look back on it as another important point on the board and we just need to be focused on pushing on from there.”
Coventry United 3-4 Durham
Wilson’s words rang true as Durham pushed on with their performance last weekend, exhibiting their fighting spirit as they ran out 4-3 winners against Coventry United in a far more eventful affair. This extended their unbeaten run to a remarkable ten games and puts them just one point behind table-toppers Leicester.
Characteristically, however, the Wildcats had to do it the hard way. Growing into games has become a keynote this season, which was exemplified by this second-half come back at the Butts Park Arena.
Following a frustrating run for Coventry going into this game, having lost six on the trot in all competitions, they came flying out of the traps. Beth Merrick stunned Lee Sanders’ side by netting twice within the opening eight minutes, firstly through an emphatic long-range strike that sailed past Megan Borthwick and then with a cool slotted finish having being left in oceans of space.
Uncharacteristically sloppy and ill-regimented at the back, it didn’t look like it was Durham’s day as their unbeaten run hung in the balance. However, it wasn’t long before Durham’s own talismanic Beth rose to the occasion. Unsurprisingly it was Hepple who responded almost instantly to bag her 11th goal of the season with an instinctive poked finish.
The momentum was now with Durham and there looked to be a route back into the game for the visitors, but Merrick dented any hope of parity before the break by completing a spectacular first half hat-trick to steer United into an unlikely 3-1 lead.
If they were to preserve their invincible start, Durham would need to respond in the second half and fast. Their 5-2 win in the Continental Cup last month had proven that they can find the back of the net against this Coventry side, and indeed it didn’t take long for them to peg United back after the restart. Just two minutes into proceedings Emily Roberts fired a delightful effort into the top-right hand corner following some pinball in the box, with whatever Lee Sanders said at the break seemingly having the desired effect.
Coventry then went into their shell, acutely aware of the onslaught that would follow from a pack of wounded Wildcats. Penalty appeals, a disallowed goal and some exhibition goalkeeping from Susan Wood followed as the Durham players began to cut frustrated figures on their turbulent trip to the Midlands, however Coventry’s resistance eventually gave way as Sarah Robson added a third 20 minutes from time with a well-hit strike into the roof of the net.
Jay Bradford’s side would soon find out that when it rains, it pours, as four minutes later Roberts bagged her second of the game to fire the Wildcats into a richly-deserved lead. The comeback was complete, and Durham saw out the game with relative ease from there, coming close to adding a fifth through FAWC Player of the Month nominee Nicki Gears.
At the final whistle you could sense a palpable sense of relief from the Wildcats, who were visibly elated with this rallying display and can dare to dream of an invincible season. They knew that this result kept them within touching distance of that coveted promotion spot to the WSL, and it stands them in good stead for their crucial clash against Liverpool this weekend.
Though this was a phenomenal come-back, illustrative of the incredible fighting spirit endemic in this side, Durham’s schoolboy complacency in the first-half and lack of cutting-edge against Blackburn will leave cause for concern as they prepare for the second half of the season. This a side that set themselves high standards, but going the distance will involve finding consistency and hitting the ground running in games.
Ultimately, though, you cannot knock Durham’s immense character. To be unbeaten after ten games is a truly special achievement, and you just know that this well-drilled Lee Sanders unit will fight all the way and continue to thrive on their reputation as serial over-achievers.
The Wildcats are on course to achieve something truly historic, let’s just hope that fans will be able to watch it all unfold down at Maiden Castle in the new year.
Image: Durham Women FC