By Chris Bailey
NEW England Under-20 international Beth Hepple has been let off the leash this year thanks to Durham’s rock-solid defence, according to her skipper Sarah Wilson.
The Wildcats are still clinging on to the faint hope they can work their way into Women Super League 2’s two promotion spots ahead of a must-win encounter with Everton today.
But, whatever the outcome at New Ferens Park, Durham’s season is already a vast improvement on their seventh-place finish from a year ago.
Having shipped 32 goals in 2015, this time around centre-back Wilson and company have been breached just 14 times in the league – allowing Hepple to be released from her defensive duties.
The midfielder – who earned her first Under-20 cap last month – has flourished with a 13-goal return from her 19 appearances in all competitions so far.
Wilson explained: “It might be where I play, but I have to say we’ve got one of the best defences.
“Some of the performances we’ve put in show that, when we defend, we defend for our lives.
“We brought in some quality players and and it’s made a big difference. Becky Salicki has been a big difference-maker and Chloe Macek has only got better.
“And that’s helped us push Beth higher up the pitch because, previously, as she’s such a good player, we had to play her as a holding midfielder.
“This season, she’s been banging in the goals and has been called into the England squad, but Beth will say it’s not just about her. There’s such a togetherness in the team.”
Fourth-placed Durham could do with a few more goals as, with three games to go, they must not only bridge a six-point gap with the top two teams, Yeovil and Bristol City, but catch up on goal difference.
But 25-year-old Wilson insists her side have not come this far to throw in the towel just yet – with third-placed Everton first in their sights.
“Promotion is still in our minds and everyone else’s minds. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the other games, but we think that the pressure is not on us,” she added.
“We’re fighting for everything but we don’t have that pressure while Everton do. We are going to go for it.
“Going into the season we said we wanted to be top four and, when you get good results, you start looking higher up the table – but it did take us a little while to start believing in ourselves.
“Now we believe that, whatever happens this year, we can compete with the best in the league.
“The fact is we have an incredible coaching team, including the strength and conditioning side, so our facilities are as good as anyone’s.
“The real problem we’ve had is putting goals away. We look back at some games and think we could have done more.
“But I don’t think we should dwell on what’s been. We haven’t the right to be where we are as we’ve had to earn it.”
*This article was originally published in The FLP’s Women’s Football Weekly supplement on 9 October.