Durham Women go from rags to riches in FA Women's Championship
New Ferens Park image: Roger Smith (cc-by-sa/2.0)
When founding South Durham and Cestria Girls in 2006, thoughts of competing in the same league with Manchester United crossed no one's mind. Twelve years later that is the reality. Cestria Girls and Durham University's merger in 2014 produced Durham WFC. The Wildcats compete in the in FA Women’s Championship.
Compete is the operative word. In fourth, they're only two points behind the rampant Red Devils and the only team to have beaten the Mancunians. Ever. Okay, it's United's first season in women's football but still. The truly impressive part is that Durham manage all this as the only club not affiliated with a men's side.
Championship rules allow players to be on part-time contracts. Durham's players all balance work or full-time study alongside playing football.
Durham’s top scorer this season is Beth Hepple. She has been with the club from the Cestria days. The 22-year-old's seven goals in 12 games play a big role in the club’s position. The attacking midfielder netted in the 3-1 win over Manchester United. Her form made her December's Championship Player of the Month.
Zoe Ness is a club mainstay, too. Six goals in nine games highlight her ability.
Sarah Wilson captains the Wildcats. The defender juggles football with work as an NVQ tutor. The 27-year-old previously played for Icelandic club Úevalsdeild.
Lee Sanders began the Cestria project when his 12-year-old daughter need a team. Twelve years later, he is on the verge of managing a top-flight club. Unlike many modern managers, Sanders responsibilities are not limited to coaching the team. Alongside planning training sessions, picking the team and scouting the opposition, his weekly tasks also include booking travel and hotels for away trips and even printing the names and numbers on the match shirts.
With no backing from male counterparts, it’s not hard to believe that the Wildcats operate on of the lowest budgets in the Championship. Despite this, they still compete as equals against teams such as Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Aston Villa. Hotel stays are commonplace for the team due to their remote location. Their nearest away game is Sheffield United. The club must be savvy with its spending.
Some of the big teams travel in luxury coaches. We take nine-seater mini-vans and then we play them off the park. I don’t have anybody coming in at the start of the season saying ‘here’s a pot of cash’ and we can’t just turn around and say ‘can we have more please’ because it doesn’t exist. We’re just clever with it. You cut your cloth to suit, don’t you? The players are well looked after, we stay in decent hotels, but at the same time they’re either students or they work and this is their passion. This is why they do it.
Durham aims to finish as high as they possibly can in the league this season. Two promotion places to the Super League are available and they are well within range. Promotion would mean a change around the club. Super League rules require clubs to offer fulltime contracts. The team must either find a partner or benefactor to make the leap.
The Wildcats have proved that football is not all about money and big names. It’s about people coming together, believing in the project and working collectively towards the final goal. If that continues, then New Ferens Park will have an opportunity to host the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea sooner rather than later.
Durham’s next fixture in the Women’s Championship sees them host Aston Villa at noon today.