One woman who has been largely part of this season’s progress is American-born, Dee Bradley.
Dee’s road to Durham
“I started playing when I was four with my twin brother. We just played in the local kids’ group and then as we got older, we played more competitively with a local travel team,” Bradley told VAVEL.
“I played with boys with my brother’s team, then I also played for girls with my age group. Once I got to my teenage years, I moved to a more competitive travel squad which led me to get a scholarship at Old Dominion. I was there for five years and after that I actually tore my ACL twice and was recovering from that.”
Bradley’s passion for football is something that has stuck with her over the years, even throughout her time on the treatment table after suffering back-to-back ACL injuries.
The Pennsylvanian said it was her family and friends who helped her get through the difficulty of being away from the pitch.
“It definitely was not the easiest two-and-a-half years. The support I had was incredible and I was really lucky to work with one of the guys from home (USA) who helped me get back on track with my knee.
“But I would give full credit to my parents and my brother’s. They were the people that got me through it. It has been worth it in the end, but it was definitely tough mentally and physically to come back from it.”
After overcoming her injuries, Bradley came to Durham, and has been in England for nearly 18 months now.
With how the move to Durham came about, Bradley said: “I had two former teammates from college at Old Dominion and I knew through them I could get in contact with the [Durham] coach, Lee [Sanders].
“I reached out and luckily, he was willing to give me an opportunity and come play for and work my way in to the team. It was through connections really.”
Regarding the northeast of England, it is a place where Bradley has settled in well.
“I love the northeast,” said Bradley.
“It is absolutely beautiful up here. It is a little bit more wet here, but both my parents are from Ireland, so I feel it is quite similar to that. I am quite used to it,” she joked.
Settling into Sanders’ side is also something the former college student has enjoyed.
“The girls have been fantastic. I really cannot speak any higher of this team and the girls on it because they have been so welcoming. Not only have I learnt so much from them on the pitch, but I feel I have made friends for life, and I am very grateful.”
Recently, the versatile defensive midfielder signed with agent Drew Diamond, who she feels can help her with achieving a big goal of hers.
“Drew can help me with my goal of potentially getting into the Irish national team. I just signed with him after Christmas. He is not just great for myself, but he is great for the women’s game in general.
“I want to keep growing as a player. Since I have moved here, I feel as though the English style of play suits me better. I am learning a lot from the girls, and I am getting in towards my peak now.”
On the teams’ ambitions, Bradley said: “Our goal is to get three points every week from now until the end of the season. That has always been our goal. I have the upmost confidence we can finish at least in the top three or top four. I know promotion is a bit of a stretch, but I do think within the next couple of years we can definitely get there.”
Bradley stepped up for her team, heading home for the equaliser and feels the Wildcats battled well throughout.
“I do not think there was a minute where we were outplayed, and we held our own. The score line might tell a different story. It was an unbelievable experience. I do think in the near future we can compete with teams like that, and it is really exciting to see.
“It was unbelievable. One of the coolest games I have played in. Our fans were incredible and if we did not have them that day, I do not know if the score would have been the exact same to what it was. We had a sell-out crowd for the first time ever. The atmosphere was unbelievable.
“Just playing against top players like the United squad have was something that I only dreamt of. It was nice to score against them as well.”
The leveller against the Reds was a moment Bradley holds in high esteem, alongside signing her first professional contract.
On signing her first professional contract, the 25-year-old said: “It was a dream come true. It meant a little bit more because of all the injuries I went through, and all the hard work had paid off. It was incredible.”
The growth of the Women’s game
Growing up, Bradley looked up to Roy Keane and two-time USWNT World Cup champion Mia Hamm.
She said: “[Mia] Hamm was the one person for women’s football in the US who changed the game.”
The growth of the women’s game in the UK has been staggering in recent years, and Bradley admits it is one of the reasons she came to Durham.
“As superior as the women’s national team has been in the US, something they have lacked is the range of leagues they have. Here, I do not even know how many [there is], but there are a good eight or nine leagues. The top four are quite competitive. It is pretty cool to see how such a small country has that range of depth in competition.”
Compared to the States, Bradley believes the English game includes a lot more ball playing.
“In the US, I think you can get away with being athletic, in the most respectful way. In terms of reading the game and playing out from the backline, it is so much better here. Especially with the position I play in the defensive midfield role, it is nice to get on the ball more. I think it suits me better here. From college play compared to here, it is night and day.”
With the Women’s Euros being held in England later this year, Bradley is looking forward to the tournament.
“I am excited for it so I cannot imagine how the whole country feels. It is an amazing opportunity for women’s football in general. In terms of progression for women’s football, it is massive for England as a whole to have it held here and I think they are going to get some pretty incredible crowds. It is just nice for younger players to go and watch live and inspire and motivate themselves.”
“It is just cool to have a teammate who will be able to experience it. We [teammates] are going to see if we are able to catch some of her games and cheer her on.”
Boldly, Bradley predicts: “I think England will be tough to beat, but I am going to have to go with my teammate Sarah and go for the underdog. Northern Ireland are going to go far."