This Sunday should have been host to the biggest game in Doncaster Belles’ illustrious history. Final game of the season, with a win needed for survival in the top flight. The Belles have never been relegated, and they would have been playing to preserve that proud record, rallying the support of the town behind them in the process. This could have been a huge weekend for women’s football in Doncaster, driving publicity, interest and pride. Should. Would. Could. But won’t.
Instead, thanks to the Football Association’s decision to demote the Belles made five months ago, that potential buzz has dissolved into an apathetic whimper; duty over intrigue. What could’ve gone down to the final 90 minutes of a long, tough season, was taken out of the Belles’ hands just 90 minutes in. The Belles, arguably the key component in women’s football history in this country, have been pushed aside for its perceived future.
The FA wants women’s football to engage a new generation of fans, to draw in a new audience for the sport. What draw is there in reducing 93% of a professional club’s fixtures to a dead rubber, a pointless exercise? For all the hubbub and the buzz the FA want to create around the women’s game as they seek to move forwards and progress one question will always remain; where were you for the first 100 years?
Whilst football’s governing body has dragged its heels, the Doncaster Belles have consistently broken down boundaries, from gaining respect and admiration in a traditional working class town, to becoming the UK’s first social enterprise centred on women’s sport. And whilst homosexuality remains taboo in the men’s game, it’s now more than two decades since the Belles partied with the women’s FA Cup trophy in a gay club, as part of the double celebrations, filmed by the BBC.
As recollected by Jennifer Doyle on that brilliant website The Sport Spectacle, the FA didn’t take kindly to seeing their trophy in such progressive surroundings and admonished the Belles for their behaviour. Gillian Coulthard was stripped of the England captaincy and FA Secretary Graham Kelly sent a sharp letter to the club admonishing them for their appearance. A few years later the Belles, runners-up to Arsenal in both league and cup, were inexplicably omitted from the new Charity Shield for reasons that were never fully disclosed, but presumably had their roots in that unique of trophy parades.
You could argue these incidents were precedents for the ‘demotion’ imposed on the Belles in April, I suppose it depends how parochial you’re feeling. But then as the FA say in their own documentation of the Belles’ subsequent appeal “The clock was effectively set to zero”. Basically, forget everything you’ve done for the game in our absence; football starts now. Mind, we probably should’ve sense the writing was on the wall when the FA’s original swanky PDF outlining the FAWSL’s next five years managed to feature photos of all the current sides competing in the Super League… bar one.
You’ll see a lot of pictures of Boreham Wood, the home of Arsenal Ladies in that document. I was there last month watching the Doncaster as too were the Noisy Belles, the club’s unofficial supporters club. As I stood there with my friend James who was experiencing his first Belles game he nudged me, pointed at the Noisey Belles in full voice and said “This is brilliant.” ‘The ‘this’ he gestured at, was a mix of supporters, club sponsor, the team’s vice chairman and even an injured Belles player all together on the terracing bellowing support and ringing all manner of bells. You won’t see such levels of camararderie, togetherness or sense of community at many other games.
The Belles are a community club, but such stuff of football fabric and substance doesn’t matter to the FA, who reserve the right to decide how fitting a community is of football. They did it with Wimbledon and Milton Keynes a decade ago, and they have done it with Lincoln Ladies again this year. In approving Lincoln owner Ray Trew’s decision to franchise the club to Nottingham and rebrand as Notts County the FA have effectively sanctioned the removal of one club from its community and come perilously close to killing off another, with the new Notts County franchise almost putting Nottingham Forest to the wall this summer.
There are countless flaws in permitting Lincoln’s relocation and rebranding, with much hazy reasoning at its base. Speaking to the BBC in April Trew said “Basically you have to be affiliated to a men’s football club – that’s as much as I can say at the moment” – is that so Ray? I think the independent Super League success story that is Bristol Academy would beg to differ. You’d expect less haziness from a man who had previously been so vocal in asserting that people get the right end of the stick when talking about Notts County. The new Lincoln/Notts County bastardisation will play their home games at Meadow Lane along with the County men’s team and Nottingham Rugby Club; a three club sharing agreement that was supposedly the sticking point of the Belles’ own application.
Speaking to Doncaster Free Press’ Hayley Paterson in August, the FA’s Kelly Simmons stated; “Ultimately it’s about the FA being in a big partnership with the clubs – because they were all consulted throughout the creation of the WSL – and having an agreed set of criteria standards against the license and clubs needing to meet that. I think it’s a really dangerous precedent if we relaxed any of that criteria. So the decision was predominantly about facilities and the concerns outlined in the bid, it wasn’t about finances.”
So what was it about then? Because the question remains. If Lincoln/Notts County can share a ground with two other clubs why can Doncaster not? The FA and other defenders of the demotion have all cited this point about primacy of tenure, but the truth is such a clause was not included in the bidding process. I’ve looked through the documents and the paperwork that is available and this vital stadium clause, this one that the Belles so crucially failed to meet, that the FA keep referring to it simply doesn’t exist. There is nothing in the documents that says a club must state that it has first use or second use on the pitch they play.
There is nothing contained within that paragraph that states a club must show that it is first or second in line for use of their pitch. Nothing at all. You can read it again if you like. I’ve read it five times to be sure, but it isn’t there. Nor is it anywhere else in the document, which is still readily available online if you’d like to rummage for yourself.
As for Simmons other oft reiterated point that decisions were not made in relation to finance. To suggest that it were not even a slight concern or point of interest seems somewhat at odds with some of the content from their response to the Belles appeal;
“If [Mr Game] said something to the effect that he looked forward to, or would welcome, an application from a newly affluent club, because of the financial benefits that it would bring to the women’s game, then that simply reflects one of the objectives of the ‘Game Changer’ initiative, namely to establish a financially sustainable semi-professional women’s game. No-one could properly accuse Mr Game of having an improper ulterior motive on that ground.”
In essence, it’s not about money, how could you possibly think that? But wouldn’t Manchester City’s potential millions be good for the game eh?
The point about financially sustainable football brings to light one of the other points of which the FA were critical of the Belles was their failure to spend more money on the playing side of the club to bring in recognised talent. But suppose they had satisfied the FA in this area, and shipped in a couple of Scandinavian internationals or a Brazilian playmaker, where would that leave them now? Would those players hang around to play in the second tier, particularly if a return to the top flight in a year’s time was far from guaranteed? What do you think?
Thankfully the Belles have recruited sensibly and locally, and the result is a young side who want to stick with the club that showed faith in them. These are talented players, players who have won international age-group caps, and shown that they are capable of playing at the top level. That they are capable of perfect timed last ditch tackles like this, or of delivering mesmeric outside of the foot through balls such as this, or showing composed finishing past international goalkeepers like this. Each of these three players; Lynsey Cunningham, Millie Bright and Jess Sigsworth committed to playing for the club again next season whatever division that may be in. As Belles legend Karen Walker infamously said “The big difference between Doncaster Belles and the other successful clubs is that players don’t leave Doncaster Belles”.
So for these players that will not and have not left, and this club which has represented our town at the top level longer than any other. For John Buckley and his coaching team, for Alan Smart and the backroom staff and everyone else who has spent a whole season motivating a team who’d had their purpose taken away. For the sake of sticking two fingers up at the clueless hypocritical fuckwits who purport to run football in this country. For all these reasons and more, please, please, this Sunday, forget Sky’s super soar-away hyperbole and being a consumer of the Premier League brand, and be a supporter instead. Go to the Keepmoat, and watch the Belles play their final top flight game. Because such is the unpredictable feckless flip-flopping of the FA, you may never get another opportunity to do so.
Doncaster Belles host Birmingham City at the Keepmoat Stadium on Sunday 29th September. Kick-off is at 2pm. Admission is £5 adults and £? For under 16s and senior citizens. Bring a bell and make some noise.