Lee Sanders has offered his thoughts on a ‘strong’ 2018 for Durham Women – and reflected on some of the high points of another memorable year.
With the new year ready to begin, Sanders offered his thoughts on the last twelve months, which have seen the Wildcats once again competing at the top of the second tier of women’s football – while also achieving plenty of off-field success.
“I think 2018 has been a very strong year for the club, both on and off the field,” he said.
“As with any club we’ve seen some changes in personnel but I’d like to think we’ve improved and our current standing in the league probably reflects that as well.
“Overall, we can say it’s been a good year.”
The year has been packed full of highlights for supporters and players alike – and Sanders was keen to highlight several of the on and off-field milestones hit by Durham over the course of 2018.
And those highlights extend well beyond the first-team, with the continued progression of our reserve side and the establishment of new education options proving to be key memories.
“Obviously the club getting to the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup was a great experience, particularly the week building up to the game,” added the club’s manager.
“The scoreline was tough when you consider how the game actually went, but to get there was a great achievement for the players and everybody at the club.
“Our first academy system, allowing players to play in the National Football Youth League and study either A-Level or BTEC qualifications, was launched this year and that’s a big step forward for the club.
“We had been working on that for a year previous, but it came to fruition in 2018.
“And the progress that the reserve team have made – they narrowly missed out on promotion to the National League last season but are looking very strong contenders for that this season.
“For a group of players who are predominantly aged 18 and 19, and in the face of adversity a lot of the time, it’s a great achievement and something the whole club can be proud of.”
In addition to the reserve team, the club also have a thriving Regional Talent Club (RTC) and development, handing players of all ages the chance to develop in an environment which suits them.
And in a year which saw the RTC promoted to tier two status by the FA, Sanders was keen to praise the ongoing work of their staff.
“In the RTC, we started off as a tier three and worked really hard in year two to earn a promotion to tier two this year,” he explained.
“A lot of credit has to go to the staff of the RTC, the players who have conducted themselves well and the parents have been great as well – they’ve been exceptional in terms of things like fundraising and raffles which contributes towards the added costs of the programme.
“They’ve had a good year and again, it grows.
“Some years will be more successful than others, but the programme is very good and it’s nice to be recognised as one of the best places for young and senior athletes to come and improve in a really positive team environment.”
Such a fruitful development pathway has seen the club able to hand opportuntities to several youngsters in 2018 – with Megan Elliott, Hannah Greenwood and Chloe Ryan all featuring for the first team in the closing weeks of the year.
And Sanders is keen to keep handing out opportunities to younsgters in the future.
“We always want to try and do that as a club,” he admitted.
“Sometimes that’s difficult because the players we have aren’t over the hill by any means, and young players have to be patient.
“That’s a big thing nowadays, young players don’t always want to be patient and don’t always necessarily want to put the work in that’s required for a place in the team. Talent alone is great but no good without the desire to work hard away from everyone to push yourself on “
“But the players we’re talking about do.
“Hannah Greenwood, Megan Elliott – they started off in the reserve team in the county league and believed in what we were trying to do and achieve.
“Now them and many others have been promoted several times in their own right, and now not too far away from where we are as a first team. They’ve felt what it’s like to win, win leagues “
“Now they’re starting to get minutes for the first-team and the hope is that eventually they’ll be regular first team players.
“We started off, four or five years ago, with a very young group and now the young players have to be patient.
“We like to think we keep them level-headed and give them a good level of football to play, but also give them that experience of training with the first-team as well.”
All three were involved in a hectic final week of the season – which saw the Wildcats beat promotion rivals Tottenahm Hotspur and Manchester United in the league while losing out to the latter in the Continental Cup.
While the club faced their fair share of adverisity in the week – and with many of people writing them off – Sanders was delighted with what was an extremely positive end to 2018.
“It was a massively positive end to the year,” he added.
“I think everybody, other than ourselves, had written us off in that last week given the form of Spurs and Manchester United.
“Again, we had a little bit of adversity going into that week with injuries and freak incidents which everybody, staff and players, dealt with really well before going on to deservedly beat Spurs.
“Then in midweek at Manchester United in the Continental Cup – not many people will know but we actually only managed to get to the ground 25 minutes before kick-off due to road closures.
“That gave us very little time to warm-up and we conceded in the first 30 seconds of the game, but for the rest of the night it was an open game.
“It was at that point that we had to ask the players – what do you want to be remembered for? The team that almost beat the title-elect in Manchester United or do we really want to go out and prove something?
“They went out and did that on the Sunday and it was a tremendous result for everybody at the football club and was well deserved by the players too
“The fans were excellent, as they have been all year, and it capped off a good 2018.”
With 2019 now on the horizon, Sanders believes the side have turned a corner and are now well-equipped to compete with leading sides.
He said: “We’ve had some good results earlier in the season and some great performances in the Continental Cup – even though we didn’t qualify we had some very good performances against teams who are higher than us in terms of league standings
“I think those games actually set us up very well for the league.
“Yeah, we’ve had a couple of blips, but that comes with probably that little bit of inconsistency we’ve always had.
“But I think we’re breaking away from that and turning a corner.
“We’ve done well in the past and challenged, becoming a team that’s hard to beat.
“But in the past, when we’ve come up against a Reading, a Sunderland, a Doncaster or an Everton, we’ve maybe fallen a bit short.
“But I think we’ve turned a corner this year and that’s really pleasing.”
Stay tuned for Part Two of Sanders’ interview, where he offers some key ‘thank yous’ at the end of the year and shares his hopes for 2019.