Only three teams have beaten Women’s Super League leaders Manchester United in all competitions this season – reigning champions Chelsea, a resurgent Aston Villa and the side they face in the FA Cup this weekend, Durham.

A 95th minute Durham equaliser levelled the October Conti Cup tie at 2-2, before three perfect penalties etched another extraordinary upset into the Wildcats’ rapidly-expanding history books.

Around Maiden Castle, the stadium and training complex they share with Durham University, you often hear mentions of “Little Durham”. In many ways, it’s an ironic nod to the club’s humble roots, the only women’s team in the top two tiers established without the backing of a men’s side.

But it also has the inescapable connotations of a swimmer remarking, “Look at that little fin cutting through the water.” It undervalues a club which has beaten United twice in four games since 2017, and never lost to them in 90 minutes, a side with realistic ambitions of reaching the WSL after going full-time last summer.

Lee Sanders, a perennially successful local youth coach, established Durham Women in 2014 with support from the university. Nine years on, he is still head of football, simultaneously manager, sporting director, general problem-solver and dogsbody. Sanders jokes that he’s perhaps the worst-paid person at the club pro rata, a sign of his unerring dedication to what has become his life’s work.

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As Sanders said: “Working at a club like ours, it’s not just a job, it’s a vocation. Everybody puts their heart and soul, their life into it. Everybody that comes here lives and breathes the club. We don’t have a high turnover of players or staff, we try and look after everybody best we can, and that’s getting better.

“Men’s clubs are willing to invest and that’s brilliant, but we’re a different model. In some ways it’s quite exciting, because the owner of Netflix could come in and say we want to invest in the club, all of a sudden that elevates us. We also make our own commercial deals. If you look how much we bring in commercially, we probably do better than a lot of women’s clubs.”

The squad still hinges around an unmoving core. Captain Sarah Wilson and talisman Beth Hepple have been at the club since Sanders founded it, while stalwart defender Becky Salicki and Northern Ireland international Sarah Robson joined in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

At just 26, attacking midfielder Hepple is the club’s record appearance-maker, having only missed five games in Durham’s history, and record goalscorer, with 62 more goals than any other Wildcat. Creativity statistics are hard to come by in the second tier, but renowned for her wicked set-pieces, Hepple must rank top there too.

Sunderland born-and-bred, Hepple has been in demand for years, yet her commitment to the Durham project has never wavered. She told i: “I love the club, I love the north-east, I love the players around me. I’ve been here my whole career and I see the potential in the club.

“Women’s football has grown so much, going from part-time, training a couple of nights to week, to being here every single day is amazing. You feel like you can compete with bigger teams like Man Utd more.”

Yet there have been short-term challenges for the club. Having never finished lower than sixth in a Championship season, Durham now sit eighth. Key figures chose to leave the club, and an almost entirely new coaching staff and day-to-day structure have unsurprisingly taken time to adjust to.

Centre-back Salicki is another enduring figure at the club, ever-present throughout the past six years. She admitted that Durham’s constant upward trajectory since their establishment perhaps gave the players an unrealistic optimism for this season.

“It’s been hard to be honest,” Salicki told i. “It’s something that the majority of us have never done before, there’s been a lot of familiar faces that have left – it has been a transition period. For us Durham diehards who’ve been here a little while, our expectations were still very, very high.

“Realistically, we should have had a little bit of a reset and looked at the realism of where we were and what we’ve put together in a short period of time. I don’t know if the expectation to gel together, for it to all happen really quickly, was maybe too much for us to expect so soon.

“We are starting to see the training that we’re doing and the new stuff we’re learning off our coaches really starting to show now, we’ve just got to wait a little bit longer for it to properly click.”

DURHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 21: Lee Sanders, Manager of Durham reacts prior to the Barclays FA Women's Championship match between Durham and Sunderland at Maiden Castle on August 21, 2022 in Durham, England. (Photo by Mark Runnacles - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)
Lee Sanders founded the club and is still head of football (Photo: Getty)

Alongside training and playing at Maiden Castle, a joint scheme giving players the opportunity to earn postgraduate degrees or doctorates demonstrates the importance of the Wildcats’ relationship with the university. American midfielder Dee Bradley is a current beneficiary, with Rangers captain Kathryn Hill and Crystal Palace skipper Annabel Johnson also Durham graduates.

As Sanders says: “The facilities are second to none. In terms of our training facilities, they will be better than a lot of other clubs in and around ourselves, and some clubs in the Super League.

“That’s part of the long-standing relationship that we’ve got with the university. You could argue we’ve got the brightest team in the league because they’ve all got a PHD or a master’s degree. We’re giving them something for their future, because at this moment, [football] isn’t going to make them millionaires.”

It’s been four months since Durham’s Conti Cup victory over United provided a much-needed highlight in an unfamiliar poor run of form. On Sunday, the Wildcats face Marc Skinner’s star-studded side once more, visiting Leigh Sports Village on the same day United’s men play the Carabao Cup final.

Durham are bussing fans down for the occasion and those around the club are quietly hoping the blue support may outnumber the red. It would not be a surprise for ever-growing “Little Durham”, who attracted nearly 1700 to their season opener against Sunderland.

Consistency has eluded them this season, yet previous results against the Red Devils could give them all the confidence necessary to reach their third FA Cup quarter-final in six years.

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