The focus of the past week was on the importance of community sport, inspired by an upcoming article for We Are Our Media. So, with the Women’s Super League kicking off in Durham, and a one-year-old daughter in tow, the blog headed out to explore community-based football in action.
It started with a queue at the New Ferens Park turnstile – always a rare sight. Durham got over 600 in for this game, the highest crowd in WSL2 on the opening weekend of the season. One of the keys to that success is the relationship between the Wildcats and a host of youth teams across the region. And it really is right across the region, from Durham and its immediate suburbs as far as Whitehaven, on the Cumbrian coast. Today the youngsters – girls and boys – were invited to join in a half-time parade and photo shoot in front of the main stand, and that sister club initiative pays dividends: kids come to the games, bring parents, siblings and grandparents. Crowds increase, as does a sense of occasion at matches. The club grows steadily, as do the profits from the tea hut.
For the city of Durham, where sporting prowess is typically connected with the university and tends to revolve around the more public school pursuits of rugby and cricket, the Women represent something of a breakthrough. Durham City AFC, the leading men’s team, is in its second full season of ground-sharing out of town: its new adopted home in Willington is one of the great Northern League venues, but represents another down cycle in a frustrating rollercoaster of a recent history. Although the noticeboard in the carpark outside the ground still promotes City’s ‘Next Home Game’, current circumstances suggest it will be a long time before a date and time appears in the gap.
The Wildcats, though, have more than filled the void. WSL2 is the second tier of women’s football in England, and Durham rubs shoulders with teams that enjoy illustrious connections. Today’s opponents, Tottenham Hotspur, share resources with the Premier League team; it’s a familiar tie-up in the women’s game these days, even if the cash available to the ladies would barely register a blip on the men’s wage bill. Another rival, Doncaster Rovers Belles, are among the oldest and most prominent women’s teams in the country. For Durham, founded as recently as 2014 in a merger between town and gown, progress has needed to be swift. On the field, the team has never been out of its depth in this company; off the field support has steadily grown and Durham was awarded the Club of the Year prize for WSL2 last season in recognition of its progress.
On a previous visit to Durham, Beth Hepple caught the eye. Against Spurs, once again, she was at the fulcrum of the team’s play, a reliable outlet in midfield and blessed with the creativity to unpick the visitors’ defence. Durham’s first clear chance came from her astute pass, and it was no surprise that she opened the scoring. Spurs might have felt hard done by, and responded with a goal from Bianca Baptiste on the next attack, but Durham regained the lead in first half stoppage time through Nicki Gears.
An offside flag early in the second half saved the hosts as Spurs, newly promoted to this level, looked to get back into the game, but there were few serious scares after that. Durham’s sisterhood had something to celebrate; hopes of improving on last season’s fourth place are very much in place.
New Ferens Park, Durham
Sep. 24, 2017. Women’s Super League 2
Durham Wildcats 2 (Hepple, Gears) Tottenham Hotspur 1 (Baptiste)