Lee Sanders is at the heart of a gripping story. Why? Because he is the manager of Durham Women Football Club.
Having founded them originally as a girls’ youth team in 2006, little did Sanders know that tying shoelaces would not be his greatest pressure. Fast forward to now, and he is setting his sights on promotion to the Women’s Super League, the pinnacle of domestic women’s football, after guiding his team to a third place finish in the 2019/20 Women’s Championship season.
“Teams hate to play us. They say we’re the worst team to play against because they know it’s going to be a physically tough game. We’ve beaten Liverpool, Everton, Manchester United – teams with playing budgets in the millions. On our day we can beat anybody.”
An incessant work rate characterises this Durham Women team. When lockdown began, Lee gave the squad a week off, before commencing a gruelling training programme: six days a week, constant monitoring from fitness coaches, and a ten-kilometre run as a treat on Sundays.
“It was tough in the first week after lockdown, but by the time we got to week two or three we were flying. We changed things up every week and kept it interesting. As a result, they’ve come back to training in such good shape and we’ve been able to go straight to the ball work. The players really should be given credit, as well as the staff. There’s a lot of people going above and beyond.”
The intensity has paid dividends in their pre-season results. A 1-0 win against Champions League outfit Glasgow City was followed by a 4-0 trouncing of fellow promotion contenders Sheffield United. “We turned Sheffield over good and proper,” he jokes, before talking of his respect for them.
Durham Women returned to training at Maiden Castle at the beginning of August. Ever since, they have been required to have two Covid tests per week in order to continue full-contact training and “get used to a football again!” The lockdown period was one that impacted every football club in some way, but Lee points to the watertight running of the club as a business to explain their relative comfort.
“We’ve been very lucky and held up by the FA as a model club. I said from day one that we were never going to be in trouble due to Covid. Other women’s clubs often rely on the men’s team, but we’re not like that. We’ve got a very robust business model supported by the University and some other major partners. We were always going to be fine.”
Not that Durham Women are swimming in cash like some of their rivals. Durham are in the rare position of not being affiliated with a men’s club, which means they do not enjoy the same transfer market war chest as many of their competitors.
Durham have to find a different way. Using the academic draw of the University and spending hours monitoring local youth talent is part of the formula. Indeed, several first-team stars balance their playing commitments with studies at Durham, while other stars like Beth Hepple have been reared at the club from junior level.
“We haven’t got that badge to rely on or that financial backing, and it can be hard when you don’t have that status. But it also gives us the autonomy to do what we want.
“I’ve been asked a couple of times about partnering up with other clubs like Newcastle or Sunderland, but we wouldn’t be Durham if we did that.”
As well as this fierce sense of identity, other clear values for Sanders are humility and open-mindedness when identifying areas for improvement.
“I’ll never profess to be the best coach. I probably manage things in a different way. We’ve got coaches who are better coaches than I, but similarly I do things that other coaches may struggle to do. There’s different skillsets for coaching and managing. If you can bring in somebody who’s better than you at something, why not have them on your staff? It’s only going to enhance the players’ experience and how you grow the club.
“I watch a lot of local women’s football. I make it my business to know every single good player that’s coming through in the north east. We have to know who they are. Some would call me a control freak- I’m happy to admit to that! That’s what we do.”
Making every area of club management personal to him is a distinguishing feature in Sanders’ style. Alongside recruitment, Sanders is responsible for scouting the opposition, organising travel and accommodation for away fixtures, and fielding centuries of questions from Palatinate Sport Editors.
He rarely has time to himself. His response when asked what he does to relax? “Work. Football. Don’t relax!”
He adds tentatively that he sometimes goes out to eat.
“Truthfully, you don’t get a lot of time away from football. It’s pretty difficult- it’s not just the first team. We have a regional talent club, two college academy sides, we have a reserve side, an U20s side. I watch every Durham University Women’s team home game. There’s a lot going on all year round, whether it’s recruitment, player reviews, watching games. I do a lot of recruitment for the university team as well. Running a football club is full-on all year round. You don’t get a lot of time to relax.”
The season ahead promises to be a thrilling one for multiple reasons. Durham commence their season with a bang: an away jaunt to newly-relegated Liverpool on September 6. Pioneers themselves, Liverpool became the first side to offer all their players full-time professional contracts before storming to the inaugural Women’s Super League title in 2013.
Ahead of Sheffield United, Leicester, and Durham, they are the onlookers’ favourites for the precious promotion spot to the Women’s Super League. But Durham have bolstered their ranks this summer, with midfielder Mollie Lambert and striker Bridget Galloway, who has scored 39 goals in the last two seasons, joining from Sunderland.
Both are young and hungry. Both have Women’s Super League experience from when Sunderland played at that level. Both add quality to a squad already brimming with talent: internationals, players with promotions under their belts, players who have won awards.
Durham are also moving to Maiden Castle as part of a construction project which will see a roughly 500-seat stand built. It’s big news, bringing the team closer to the student community, who Sanders believes will be allowed to attend games from the very start of the season. For the more sluggish members of the student community, games will be streamed live on the FA Player, meaning there is no excuse not to watch!
Maiden Castle could also open its arms to international teams such as England Women on occasion, meaning world stars may get the chance to muddy their boots on the infamous grid car park.
A pathway into the Durham Women team is there for any aspiring footballers. Lots of the Durham University Women’s squad train with Durham Women, giving them the opportunity to impress. Moreover, Durham Cestria, who play in the fourth tier, act as a breeding ground for young talent, and Sanders encourages players to test their mettle at that level.
“I would encourage any students that have a talent to look at Durham Cestria. It’s a good level to play at and it opens a lot of doors, even into the first team. I think a lot of people think it will be easy playing at our level or Cestria’s, but they are competitive levels with good players. They’re good environments for young players, but you might get kicked off the park!”
Whichever way results go for Durham Women, the season ahead is one which will surely leave an indelible mark on us due to world circumstances. But in this unassuming, picturesque corner of the British country, flowers of optimism are blooming, and the scent of potential suffuses the air.
Image: Mark Donnelly