By George Simms
Durham Women twice came from behind to grab a well-deserved Continental Tyres League Cup draw with WSL side Manchester United in front of a sold-out Maiden Castle.
Set-piece goals from Dee Bradley and Beth Hepple cancelled out Ivana Fuso’s low first-half finish and substitute Ella Toone’s 30-yard wonder-strike in an incredible advert for the women’s game. Although United took home a bonus point after winning the penalty shootout, Durham still grabbed a vital point in their tough Conti Cup group.
Durham made three changes from their 2-0 weekend derby win over Sunderland, as Abby Holmes, Ali Johnson and Danielle Brown replaced Lauren Briggs, Bridget Galloway and Ellie Christon. Durham initially set-up with four at the back, a tactical change away from their familiar three, to try and contain and frustrate the visitors.
Although United didn’t start a full-strength side, making seven changes from their 2-2 weekend draw with Manchester City, they still boasted eight internationally capped players in their starting eleven. United had the brighter start of the two sides after Ivana Fuso laid the ball off for Alessia Russo after just six minutes, but the England forward’s strike was well saved by Megan Borthwick.
United’s breakthrough came after 35 minutes, as electric Welsh winger Carrie Jones squared the ball into Fuso on the penalty spot. Although Borthwick got a hand to her low, first-time finish, it wasn’t quite enough, and the visitors took the lead.
However, Durham started the second half as the stronger side and were rewarded on 51 minutes, as Dee Bradley rose highest to meet Beth Hepple’s corner and head the ball past a helpless Sophie Baggaley. The corner had come after a fine chance for Northern Ireland international Sarah Robson.
The next 20 minutes saw both sides frustrate each other, and the deadlock was only broken by a slice of magic from Ella Toone, who had come off the bench after Fuso had picked up a knock. After Hayley Ladd did well to keep possession and lay it off to her, Toone fired a rocket into the top left-hand corner from 30 yards, giving Borthwick no chance in the Durham goal. It was testament to Durham’s defensive resilience and tactical set-up that only such a moment of brilliance could put United back ahead.
But yet again, Durham fought back from being a goal behind, creating chance after chance in the last 20 minutes. With just four minutes left on the clock, Beth Hepple, who had cut a frustrated figure from open play for most of the evening, curled a stunning free kick into Baggaley’s top corner from the left-hand edge of the area.
Both sides then had good chances in stoppage time. Alessia Russo broke through the Durham backline and rounded a stranded Borthwick, only to slice the ball wide of an open goal, in a moment which some United fans may have found reminiscent of Fernando Torres’ infamous miss for Chelsea at Old Trafford back in 2011.
Sarah Robson then curled a late chance just over the bar, but neither side could find a late winner and the tie went to penalties. Although both sides got a point for the full-time result, a bonus point was on the line for the shoot-out winners. United were flawless from the spot, whilst Becky Salicki fired her penalty wide, meaning the Red Devils picked up the bonus point.
Women’s Championship leaders Durham almost perfectly executed their game plan to sit back and frustrate the star-studded visitors. As captain Sarah Wilson told Palatinate after the game, “we gave them a little bit too much respect in the first half and then when we actually started to play in the second half, and get at them and really push towards them, it showed what we can do”.
This was the first time that Durham had ever sold-out a game, with 1468 fans under the lights at Maiden Castle. Some fans could even be seen sneaking a view over the barrier from the raised banks on one side of the pitch. The Wildcats now sit third in Conti Cup Group B, after Manchester City put five past Everton in the other group fixture.
As Wilson told us, the draw gives Durham a “little bit of hope for the league”. Ahead of the upcoming international break, Wilson seemed confident in Durham’s prospects, saying, “I don’t really know what we need to work on to be honest, because I feel like we got it right tonight”.
Durham’s next match sees them host London City in the Women’s Championship on 31st October.
Durham: Borthwick, Hill, Lambert (Christon 71), Wilson, Robson, Hepple, Salicki, Bradley, Brown (Galloway 62), Johnson (Briggs 56), Holmes
United: Baggaley; Blundell, Mannion, Thorisdottir, Harris; Boe Risa, Ladd; Staniforth (Galton, 68), Jones (Hanson, 59); Russo, Fuso (Toone, 67).
Goals: Bradley (51), Hepple (86) | Fuso (35), Toone (75)
Image: Durham Women Football Club