THERE is a new team of Wildcats in town, but they don’t mind being called the underdogs. Only ten months after forming, Durham Women make their Super League debut this week with the small matter of a first WSL North-East derby when they host Sunderland at New Ferens Park.
It’s safe to say it has been a whirlwind few months for everyone connected with the club and work will continue right up until kick-off on Thursday to make sure they make a big first impression on the WSL stage.
Durham were a surprise inclusion when the Football Association announced the line-up for the new two-tier franchise last summer after an application had been hastily put together.
The brainchild of Lee Sanders and Quentin Sloper, the club is an amalgamation of South Durham and Cestria Girls Club and Durham University, who have already been part of Durham Wildcats’ assault on the top level of British Basketball since 2011.
They might not have the honours and history that the likes of Sunderland or Doncaster Rovers Belles boast, but that in itself offers the chance to go into their first season in the big time with the advantage of having no pressure on their shoulders.
Even though there is no threat of relegation, Durham won’t settle for propping up the table, though, and like their basketball counterparts the main aim over the next couple of seasons is to establish themselves before making a push towards joining the heavyweights of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City in WSL 1.
While Sanders and head coach Rob Atkin have added a host of players with international and Women’s Premier League experience, the core of Durham’s squad comprises home-grown players, who have graduated up through the ranks of South Durham and Cestria.
Six of them have been together since the age of ten, including Beth Hepple, but even the lure of WSL 1 football and an offer from Doncaster couldn’t lure the 17-year-old away from her roots.
Scotland Under-19 international Zoe Ness also attracted interest from the top tier, but Durham’s ability to hold on to their young stars only reaffirms the importance of the North-East’s involvement in the Super League.
“I always imagined that I would either have to move to America or move to a different area,” said Hepple, who will juggle her Super League commitments with her AS-levels at Sunderland College this summer. “It is an honour to be linked with WSL 1 teams and Doncaster Belles, but when it’s here and we’ve worked hard as a club to get to this stage, why move?
“My focus is here and I want to carry on the journey with this team. I was 10 when I first started playing for South Durham and Cestria and there’s about six of us that have been together ever since. It’s amazing to think we all started as young girls just desperate to play football and now we are about to start the new WSL season.
“I’ve always thought to play at that top level I would have to move away like others have, but to have it on your doorstep and with the girls that you’ve grown up with is special.”
Thursday night promises to be special for everyone involved with Durham, but none more so than Sunderland-supporting Hepple.
Durham Women go through their paces at the Graham Sports Centre in Durham
The Lady Black Cats are heavily expected to mount a challenge for promotion in the first season, but midfielder Hepple believes she would rather be in Durham’s shoes as underdogs.
She said: “We will go into every game believing we can win, but we have to be realistic in our aims. We are a new team, whereas a lot of the other clubs have been around for a lot longer than we have.
“We are the underdogs, but I prefer it that way because there is less expectation and pressure on our shoulders. It also gives you more motivation to prove people wrong.
“I think the fact a big part of the squad has been together all this time could help us going into the season. It’s still scary, because it’s totally different to anything we’ve done before, but it’s also very exciting.”
Head coach Atkin, who has worked in women’s football for 15 years having held the role of football development officer in Newcastle, admits his side have some catching up to do. But while it would be an unlikely statement from the likes of Gus Poyet or Alan Pardew, Atkin believes Durham should use their North-East rivals as a benchmark for the future.
“Every team has goals that are achievable and realistic and if you need to change them half way through a season then you do,” he said.
“It’s an unknown journey, but ultimately these players are good enough to establish this club going forward. We can consolidate then we can look at how we improve and how we progress onto the next level.
“Sunderland have done that. They’ve got to where they are through a lot of hard work. We are playing catch up but that’s not a problem. If we can use them as a benchmark and get near to them then that’s all we can ask. All our players can do is learn against the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool, who we both play in cup competitions this season.”
Durham expect a crowd of around 500 at New Ferens Park, also home of Northern League outfit Durham City, on Thursday and Atkin hopes a North-East derby can whet the appetite of the region to turn to women’s football when the men’s season finishes in a few weeks time.
He said: “The Sunderland game is a great way to start the season and hopefully it will drum up more interest in the game, but we could beat Sunderland then lose our next seven games, so we can’t just look at that game.
“It’ll be a fantastic night for the region and it will showcase the standard of women’s football. It has gone up and it keeps getting better all the time. We hope people will show an interest and support both our teams.
Durham start the season with three games at New Ferens Park this month, against Sunderland, Millwall and Watford
“We hope the place will be full. We want young kids to come to the game and think “wow” and they can be part of it in the future. There wasn’t the opportunity for girls 15 years ago that there is now.”
TICKETS for Durham v Sunderland can be purchased on the day of the game at the turnstiles at New Ferens Park or in advance from http://durham.fawsl.com/tickets.html. Season tickets are available at £35 for adults and £15 for concessions, while single entry to home matches will be £4 for adults and £2 for concessions. Family tickets are also available priced at £10 for two adults and two children under 16.