Women’s football is steadily gaining popularity in the North East and Durham, a town where sport is dominated by the university, is seeing the Wildcats outstrip struggling Durham City AFC for support and success.
The team, formed in 2014 thanks to a merger between Cestria Girls and the Durham University sports set-up, have established themselves in the second tier of the Women’s Super League. Connecting the facilities of the university with the local community, and continuing to play in the city at New Ferens Park while the men ground share at Consett, a good 10 miles away, the Wildcats are steadily developing a youth network and attracting crowds that compare favourably with several Northern League teams in the area.
Their first home game of the season, an FA Cup 4th Round tie against Charlton, brought a couple of hundred fans to see if they could build on an emphatic 9-0 crushing of London Bees and continue the steady growth of interest in women’s football locally.
But if Durham are a good example of the growth of the game, the visitors’ history demonstrates much of what is wrong with women’s football in this country, though. Croydon, a successful club in its own right, won the League and Cup double in 1999 but the following year the players voted to accept a hostile takeover by Charlton Athletic (then a model of Premier League stability under Alan Curbishley).
Initially things went well. Charlton Women were invited to play Arsenal in the inaugural women’s Charity Shield, a 1-1 draw at Craven Cottage in 2000 and the first time I’d seen a women’s game in the flesh. For the next seven years the team, under the guidance of manager Keith Boanas, was always a strong contender for honours. An FA Cup win, two League Cup triumphs and several top-three league finishes put the Addicks up there with Arsenal as the dominant force in women’s football … only for the plug to be abruptly pulled when the men’s team was relegated from the Premier League and the budget was slashed.
News of the decision came on the morning of Charlton’s FA Cup final clash with Arsenal, a telling indicator of the status of women’s football when compared with the men’s game. Charlton were able to reform themselves as part of the Charlton Community Trust, the Addicks’ Football in the Community scheme, but the damage was done. A squad full of internationals had evaporated and the team eventually stabilised itself at a lower level.
As such there wasn’t much between the teams on the pitch. Charlton, backed by a bell-ringing fan, may have been slight favourites on paper, but Durham had the better of the early play and deservedly took the lead through Beth Hepple. Hepple, a local girl studying at Sunderland Uni, has been an ever-present for the post-merger Wildcats and her intelligent prompting in midfield is one of the stand-out features of the Durham team.
Charlton hit back, equalising quickly before wasting the chance to take the lead from the penalty spot. Goalie Helen Alderson made the save to deny Gemma Shepherd; Alderson would make a further impressive stop in the second half to preserve the 2-1 lead Nat Gutteridge provided when she headed home a corner late in the first half. That early Alderson save apart, the second half was quieter. Another Gutteridge header late on secured the win for Durham. The Charlton bell fell silent; Durham prepare for a trip to Meadow Lane in search of their first ever FA Cup Quarter Final spot.
New Ferens Park, Durham
Feb. 28, 2016. FA Women’s Cup, Round 4
Durham Wildcats 3 (Hepple, Gutteridge 2) Charlton Athletic 1 (Shepherd)
For more photos see the Flickr folder