By Joseph Saunders
Durham Women beat Sheffield United 1-0 at Maiden Castle in the dim midday sun. Jess Clarke’s 89he The winning minute lifted Durham to seventh in the league, allaying fears over a potential relegation battle.
United were the better team in the first half, although chances were few and far between the two teams. Sheffield’s Rhema Lord-Mears fired from an early free kick.
A rare opportunity for Durham fell into the path of Grace Ayre, whose long-distance effort went over the bar. At the other end, Naoisha McAloon dropped a free kick to Georgia Walters.
The Blades managed to force in a few more chances before the halftime whistle blew. Chene Dion Muir saw her feeble shot deflected, coming on for the injured Mia Enderby.
Just a few minutes later, Walters was given the best chance of the game, but he went under the cross at point blank range. McAloon must have breathed a sigh of relief.
The second half continued in the same vein as the first, with both sides continuing to cancel each other out. A spark was needed. Maiden Castle held her breath as if she was trying not to turn it off. Ayre’s enterprising move down the right created some space in the box. A touch from Beth Hepple saw the ball fall to Mollie Lambert at the far post.
He took the ball well and curved it agonizingly off the post. The reverberations of the woodwork were drowned out by the moans of the crowd.
Durham began to fight for promotion away from their rivals. Hepple skidded another shot. the 71street Minute, a murmur ran through the crowd as rookie matchday team and academy graduate Poppy Pritchard made her debut.
Almost immediately, a golden opportunity fell into his lap. Fantastic vision from central defender Sarah Robson put her in the goal against Fran Stenson. Pritchard’s first two touches set her up ideally, but the third was a disappointingly sluggish shot that exposed her inexperience under pressure from her.
There were many promising signs from the youngster and one can expect her playing time to increase for the remainder of the season.
Surprisingly, Durham squandered another excellent chance just four minutes later. A scramble after a through ball left Stenson sprawled on the ground and Durham substitute Bridget Galloway rampaging towards goal.
Despite enough time, he rushed into his shot. United’s Grace Riglar cleared the pushed effort off the line without too much stress. Would it be ‘one of those days’?
With time running out, the Wildcats pounced. Left-back Georgia Robert picked up the ball in a seemingly unfortunate position, but turned and lobbed a cross diagonally across the box.
Skimming past tense heads, the ball found its way to Jess Clarke advancing at the far post, who was able to volley in an easy shot thanks to poor tracking from the defender. She walked away to celebrate with the bank.
The result leaves Durham just one point out of the top half at time of writing, a massive improvement from his early season form.
Also, their next three matches see them take on teams below them. The opportunity for another upgrade in league position is therefore well within reach.
Match winner and former England attacker Jess Clarke spoke to club media after the match:
“We changed a few things at half time and the substitutes that came on did brilliantly, but I think we held to that belief throughout the game.”
About his goal:
“We know that (Georgina Robert) has a crossed ball in her locker and as soon as I saw her line up I knew how to get into the area and I did and I got deep.”
Durham XI: McAloon, Robert, Wilson, Robson, Ayre, Hepple (c), Lambert, Briggs (Pritchard 72′), Clarke, Noonan (Bradley 45′), Hardy (Galloway 72′)
Unused substitutes: Farrugia, Salicki, Christon, Saunders
Sheffield United XI: Stenson, Newsham, Hartley, Riglar, Lord-Mears (Cusack 70′), Paul, Barker (c), Walters (Haywood 77′), Enderby (Muir 35′), Rayner, Sweetman-Kirk
Unused substitutes: Wilcock, Francis-Jones, Brown, Davies, Graham
Image: Oliver Jervis