Beth Hepple leading Durham’s promotion bid in Liverpool duel

The government’s recent decision to keep north-east England under tier 3 restrictions was hardly music to the ears of those in the hospitality trade but Beth Hepple can be forgiven for harbouring mixed emotions. Durham’s leading scorer usually juggles training with helping run the pub owned by her partner’s family and its temporary closure has left her free to concentrate on Sunday’s vital Championship promotion match at home to Liverpool.

The pandemic dictates that not only bars but grounds in the north-east are closed to the public but those tuning in to Durham’s live stream of the noon kick-off – with all proceeds from the £6 fee being donated to the End Child Poverty movement – will be treated to a meeting of two of England’s most efficient finishers.

While Hepple hopes to improve her tally of eight goals in 10 games this season, Liverpool’s exciting forward Rinsola Babajide will look to increase her count of five in nine appearances for a side who, despite frequently enjoying 70% possession in league games, have not always found opposing defences easy to deconstruct.

With Durham second in the Championship, one point behind the leaders, Leicester, and one ahead of third-placed Liverpool, this is a high-stakes duel in the quest for the sole promotion slot. As the campaign reaches its halfway point before the female game’s festive break, the glitzy lights of the Women’s Super League can be glimpsed at the end of a lengthy, hazard-strewn road.

The remainder of the journey is likely to involve Jonathan Morgan’s fully professional Leicester and Vicky Jepson’s Liverpool vying with semi‑professional Durham, Sheffield United – coached by the former Leeds men’s manager Neil Redfearn – and Blackburn in the struggle to swap places with the WSL’s bottom side.

For the moment, a Bristol City side who lost seven first-team players last summer are favourites for relegation, but remain within touching distance of Aston Villa, West Ham and Brighton. An important game at the Chigwell Construction Stadium – where West Ham were due to host Gemma Davies’s improving Villa – has been postponed because of a Covid-19 outbreak at West Ham.

It comes at a moment when West Ham are still without a manager following Matt Beard’s departure but are understood to be close to appointing the Wales manager, Jayne Ludlow.

Whoever falls through the WSL trapdoor, Lee Sanders, Durham’s manager, is desperate to fill the vacancy and restore top-level women’s football to the north-east. Unusually, his side lack a parent men’s club, but operate under the umbrella of Durham University where several players combine academic study with football.

Jepson is certainly not about to underestimate Sanders’s ability to do his homework. “This season’s been a wake-up call as to the level of the Championship,” says Liverpool’s manager. “Since we were relegated [last summer] everybody’s raised their game against us and we’ve had to become the masters of beating blocks as teams sit in against us.

“What we do with our possession is key. As a team we’ve had the most shots in the league, but our shots to goal ratio needs to improve in the new year.”

Sanders revels in modifying such ambitions. “Teams hate playing us,” he says. “They say we’re the worst team in the league to play against because they know it’s going to be physically tough. In the past we’ve beaten Liverpool, Everton and Manchester United, teams with playing budgets in the millions. On our day we can beat anyone.”

It would though be wrong to dismiss Durham as scruffy underdogs out of place alongside Leicester – who have an intriguing game at Blackburn – and Liverpool. “People harbour a misconception about us because we’re not attached to a men’s team,” says Sanders.

“We haven’t got the millions of some clubs but people don’t appreciate the wraparound care and support we give our players. We’ve got great staff, absolutely outstanding training facilities and a model that works. We’re also about two-thirds of the way towards being full time. We’re sort of bridging the gap so that if, and when, we do make that step up it’s not too big for us.”

Despite being bottom of the WSL, Bristol City are only four points adrift of Villa and their manager, Tanya Oxtoby, believes her young squad can avoid making a downward step next summer. “We’ve got to stick together, we’ve been in the position before,” she says before the trip to Casey Stoney’s high-flying Manchester United. “We’re only one point from where we were this time last year, so we know what it takes.”