LOOK at the current top six in the Women’s Super League table, and you could be forgiven for thinking you had mistakenly come across the standings for the top-flight of the men’s game. Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea, Everton, Tottenham, Manchester United. It could be argued it is a major positive that the biggest men’s teams are now taking women’s football seriously, but there is also something mildly depressing about the way in which the same big names have already hijacked a sport in its relative infancy.

Which only makes events in the Championship, women’s football’s second tier, all the more remarkable. Four games into the season, and the team at the top of the Championship table, with a perfect record of 12 points from 12, is Durham Women. Not Aston Villa, Sheffield United or Crystal Palace, teams who sit below them despite benefiting from significant financial support from their respective men’s teams. Durham Women. How on earth have they achieved such success?

“Listen, it hasn’t been easy,” said Lee Sanders, Durham’s manager, and the driving force of the club that was created from a merger of South Durham & Cestria Girls, a club he founded in 2006, and the women’s team at Durham University. “You look at the likes of Manchester United or Arsenal, who have access to huge revenue streams made available by their men’s teams, and clearly without having that type of support available, we’ve had to do things differently.

“We’ve grown at a much slower pace, but that’s made us have to account for every penny we spend and I think it’s made us much more stable. We’re not reliant on one source of funding like some other clubs maybe are, so we’re not as vulnerable if circumstances change.

“We’re fortunate in that we’ve developed some really strong relationships with the sponsors that have backed us as we’ve risen and grown, and we’ve cemented some really strong links with our key partners, such as Durham University and Durham Sixth Form.”

And, more than anything else, those two key links underline why Durham have overtaken Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough to establish themselves as the premier female team in the North-East, and why there is a sense of cautious optimism about the club’s ability to compete if they were to find themselves promoted to the WSL this season.

For a number of years, Durham have teamed up with Durham University to offer prospective signings an opportunity to study for postgraduate degrees, now the relationship has embraced undergraduate courses too.

Durham’s pitch to talented youngsters is relatively simple. Yes, you can chase the money and sign for a Manchester City or a Chelsea, but you’ll be competing against the best players from all over the world and, if you don’t make it, you certainly won’t be set up for life. Or, you can come to Durham and still try to make it in an elite footballing environment. But at the same time, we’ll also help you gain academic qualifications from one of the leading universities in the world.

As a sporting set-up, it is commonplace in the United States, and has been embraced by some sports in this country, such as rowing and netball. In the world of elite football, though, it is unique, and helps explain why Durham have been able to attract a standard of player that would otherwise almost certainly have been beyond them.

“From day one, the relationship with the University has been a massive part of who we are and what we do,” said Sanders. “We’ll contract what you might call semi-professional or professional players, but at the same time we’ll get them on a postgraduate or undergraduate course and we’ll pay for their studies.

“That’s not the whole of the squad – it’s probably a 50-50 split between girls who have been with us through the ranks, and then players who have come in with a direct affiliation to the University. But it works because the students really buy in to the club and, because they’re students, they can tailor their course around basically being a full-time player.

“I think, sometimes, the value of what we can offer can be overlooked. We’ll pay for someone to get a postgraduate degree at Durham University, and we’ll also pay for their accommodation in Durham city. You add that up on a year-by-year basis, and it’s probably the equivalent of what a WSL player gets a year in wages. Obviously, at the very top, there might be exceptions, but in general I think the package we can put together is very attractive.”

And while Durham have not been averse to bringing in players from outside the region, a big part of their focus remains the sporting and academic developments of girls from the North-East.

“We’ve got a thriving youth system, and links with a lot of the clubs in the local area, and that’s really important to us,” said Sanders. “We want to give North-East girls a chance to make it as a professional footballer, but we also want to say, ‘Look, all our links with the University are open to you too’.

“Maybe you’re a talented young footballer, but you think the academic side of things is completely beyond you. We’re saying we’ll work with you to try to make that happen.”

Durham’s success is especially welcome when posited against the decline of Sunderland Ladies, who were demoted two divisions from the WSL when the men’s club withdrew their funding last year.

That was a hammer blow for Sunderland, who were responsible for producing five members of the side that started England’s friendly defeat to Brazil at the Riverside last weekend, a tally that would have been seven had Carly Telford not been named on the substitutes’ bench and Demi Stokes not picked up an injury that forced her to withdraw from the squad.

No club has done more for women’s football in the last decade than Sunderland, no region has been more integral to the success of the national team than the North-East, a fact not lost on England boss Phil Neville.

“You look at the likes of Steph (Houghton) and Jordan (Nobbs), and they’ve gravitated down to Manchester or London because the opportunities weren’t what they should be in this area (the North-East),” said Neville. “But this is an area that should have a WSL team, and hopefully next year with Durham, it will do.

“You can see the way they’ve developed in the last two years. Chelsea went there in the FA Cup 12 months ago, and only just won 1-0, and I remember Emma (Hayes) saying, ‘Dearie me, I wouldn’t like to play them every week’.

“They beat Man United last year, so at some stage, they’re going to come up, and straight away you’ll have a focal point for the local player to go and play for Durham. Ideally, the WSL will grow to 15 or 16 strong clubs, and geographically, it has to cover the whole of the country.”

Neville left the North-East eulogising about the region’s love of women’s football, and having attended last weekend’s international, Sanders is also convinced there is a passion waiting to be tapped in to.

“It was great to see 30,000 fans for a women’s football game,” said Sanders. “Even three or four years ago, you wouldn’t really have seen that happening.

“So that shows the interest is there, but just as importantly, you’re seeing it right through the system. You’ve got ourselves, Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough playing at a good level, but then below that, you’ve got really good, popular, upwardly-mobile clubs like Chester-le-Street, Norton and Stockton and Durham Cestria. They’re all playing at tier four or above, and they’re all growing.

“That’s massive because it means the growth of the sport in the region as a whole is much more sustainable. It makes me even more convinced that the North-East can definitely support a club in the WSL. Fingers crossed, it’s us.”