Things were very different three months ago; heatwaves only lasted a day or two, England were set to disappoint at the World Cup, and Doncaster Rovers Belles were celebrating. On 13 May, I was one of a number of Doncastrians standing a hefty goal-kick away from the Thames, applauding Doncaster Rovers Belles as they took the field to face Millwall as FA Women’s Super League 2 champions. Neil Redfearn’s side had lost just once, rattled in three goals a game, and would ultimately finish the season 10 points clear of their nearest challenger. As deserving a title as you could imagine.
Ordinarily, a second tier triumph would be the gateway to new season optimism; an eager anticipation at being able to test yourselves against higher opposition. But the Belles already knew this wasn’t to be the case. Once again the Football Association had chosen to restructure and reformat the top tiers of the women’s game; and so there was to be no automatic promotion from tier 2, just an application process, key to which was an ability to sustain (i.e. afford) a professional women’s football club.
The Belles were not the only club to reason that the sums required for this were simply unfeasible; Sunderland, who had finished a credible seventh place in the top tier, also chose not to apply for a top tier licence. Instead the Belles applied for second tier status; a place in the newly created Championship, alongside many of their peers from this season, other clubs making the step up from the regionalised third tier such as Charlton and Lewes, and financially well-backed clubs thrown in out of nowhere, i.e. Manchester United.
Somewhat inevitably, this led to a number of Belles’ better players, and manager, seeking the opportunity to take the move up to the professional division. Redfearn was appointed manager of Liverpool women, and duly signed Welsh international Rhiannon Roberts from the Belles. But then, one departure became several; Jess Sigsworth and Kirsty Hanson left for Manchester United, Maz Pacheco joined Reading, Leandra Little followed Roberts and Redfearn to Liverpool and things were starting to look worrying. No manager, hardly any players, and then the loss of a crucial sponsor, as BPP University and the Belles’ partnership came to an end. Surely the club couldn’t fold?
Mercifully not, but they were about to head in a different direction. On 12 July the club made a much anticipated statement. Without the finances needed to support a semi-professional second tier side in keeping with the criteria set out by the FA, the Belles had applied to withdraw from the Championship, and instead will compete in the third tier Women’s National League. ‘Our 50th year is upon us and the recent changes have allowed us to reflect and refocus,’ read the Belles statement. ‘Our philosophy has always been centred on creating opportunities for women and girls in football. We are proud of our legacy which has pioneered the women’s game’.
It is symptomatic of how the FA have bludgeoned their way through the domestic women’s game in recent years that this legacy ultimately counts for nothing. When the FA announced the teams that had been awarded a spot in the revamped Women’s Super League their head of women’s football, Baroness Sue Campbell, said ‘The revised competition structure will positively impact on the delivery of the women’s game across all levels, both on and off the pitch… Such is the strength of women’s football in this country, there have been some difficult decisions to make but they’ve been made with the sport’s best interests at heart.’
It’s hard not to feel anything other than anger on reading Campbell’s statement. It’s hard to see how the sport’s best interests are being served, or how the national delivery of the women’s game is being positively impacted by implementing a structure that puts a sizable barrier between the haves and the have-nots. Football is playing second fiddle to finance; community clubs who’ve fought their way tirelessly up the divisions have been pushed aside to make way for top men’s teams who’ve suddenly seen the light. Eight of the 22 teams in the top two divisions are from London; three more – Reading, Brighton and Lewes – are within a commuter journey. How do the northern girls of today become the women’s football stars of tomorrow under this model?
‘Belles ought to join with Club Doncaster,’ some of you might say. And I agree that this is the way forward for them, as I am sure they would too. But doing so isn’t as simple as a quick handshake and a photocall. And even if it were, it wouldn’t fill the financial gap that exists between a local women’s football club operating within its means and the projected budgets requested of them by the FA’s criteria for it’s top two divisions. And the women’s game is already littered with examples of clubs who’ve gambled and lost, from Fulham to Notts County.
The Belles have always been competitive on the field, they have always championed local talent, and always been a positive light in their community. Everyone knows the Belles. The name is synonymous with women’s football. That’s not to say they deserve special treatment; they’ve not had anything handed to them in their 49 year existence; it’s all been a fight. But they do deserve the right to compete where their name was made – on a football pitch. That they cannot, and that their name will be absent from the top two divisions of the game should be of great embarrassment to the Football Association.
by Glen Wilson
This article first appeared in issue 95 of popular STAND fanzine, published on 11 August 2018. Subscriptions to popular STAND are still available for the 2018-19 season, and can be ordered here.