Durham Women’s underdog Championship challenge inspires a city

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The only side in the top two tiers of women’s football without a male counterpart have more than held their own this season, pushing the professional heavyweights all the way

7 May ~ The people of Durham have never had much luck when it comes to sport. The local football team are in the second tier of the Northern League and approaching a century since their last Football League appearance, the popular Durham Wasps ice hockey club relocated to Newcastle in the mid-1990s, and the county cricket club have suffered financial troubles and punitive sanctions in recent years.

There is a strong, defiant identity to the city of just over 50,000 people but, without a sports team on the national scene, local pride doesn’t have much of an outlet. Now, however, a short bus journey out of the city centre – few would recommend the walk, the city having been purposely built in a hilly area nobody could be bothered pillaging – will take you to a prospering football club representing the city in an area thoroughly dominated by Newcastle United and Sunderland.

Durham Women FC, formed in a merger in 2013, are the city’s biggest sports club. That in itself is fairly unusual, but it isn’t the only thing which sets them apart. Currently the only team in the FA Women’s Super League without a male counterpart, they won a place in the inaugural season of the revamped Women’s Championship and have been progressing ever since, culminating in a sensational 2018-19 season under manager Lee Sanders, who had set up one of the club’s forerunners, South Durham & Cestria Girls, in 2006.

The Wildcats launched a promotion charge, scrapping with heavyweights Manchester United and Tottenham at the top of the Championship, and while with one game remaining it has been confirmed they will finish outside of the top two promotion places, they have landed some heavy blows. In September, they became the first team to take points off United’s purpose-built promotion-winning machine in a goalless away draw. In the reverse fixture in December, they became the first team to beat them in the league with a 3-1 win, star players Beth Hepple and Zoe Ness among the scorers. Before that game, United had only conceded one league goal.

It was a result which made waves on social media around the north-east, Durhamers waking up to the remarkable story unfolding at their doorsteps. In mid-March, the impact of this sort of result was made clear. After winning away at top division Bristol City, the Wildcats were drawn at home to reigning League and Cup champions Chelsea in the quarter-final of the FA Cup.

It was the sort of event everyone at the club would have dreamed of, a chance to pack out their stadium, New Ferens Park (set in an industrial estate just outside the city), and make a mark on a national, not just local, scale. Heading to the ground you feared an anticlimax, but the buzz around the place settled any fears. The club were hoping to record a four-figure home attendance for the first time and smashed their target, quadrupling their average turnout with a crowd of 1,629. A raging squall contributed to a scrappy game but Durham rattled their opponents in a 1-0 defeat, Lisa Robertson hitting the woodwork and Ness seeing a stoppage-time effort cleared agonisingly off the line.

The difference between seasoned internationals and up-and-coming semi-pros was clear at times but older spectators in the crowd could tell the scores of youngsters among them that this was a proper FA Cup tie. And yet even before kick-off, the result was never likely to be the story. Of those 1,629, plenty were seeing a Durham team play for the first time. Some of those were bringing children to their first game and, in a competitive but warm atmosphere, were unlikely to be bringing them to their last.

On the same day, a world record attendance was set for a women’s club match at Atlético Madrid v Barcelona, while later in the month Juventus’ women’s team also drew a huge crowd for a league fixture. To date, Durham has rarely been more than a footnote in the country’s sporting histories but as women’s football continues to write its own story, this team are making sure theirs is a stirring chapter. Sam France

This article first appeared in WSC 386, May 2019. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here