The Belles’ Toll; On The FA’s ‘Relegation’ of the Doncaster Belles
When you enter the Belle Vue Bar beneath the Keepmoat Stadium, on the wall to your left, you’ll find a huge picture of one of Doncaster’s most famous footballers in action for England. It is not of Kevin Keegan, the Armthorpe-born European Footballer of the Year, nor is it Alick Jeffrey, predicted to be one of the all-time greats before a tragic broken leg suffered against France. No. Instead it is of Karen Walker, 83 caps and 40 goals for the national side, all achieved during a two decade long stint at Doncaster Belles.
Everyone knows the Belles. Whilst the town’s other football stars, like Keegan and Graham Rix, went beyond the borough to achieve success the Belles have done it all right here. Only two footballers to have plyed their trade in the town have been inducted into the Football Association Hall of Fame; Walker is one, the other is her long time team-mate Gillian Coulthard. Until this year Coulthard held the record for England caps, having won 119 of them whilst scoring a goal for every fourth one. Between them they spent 44 seasons at the Belles; longevity and loyalty which reflects the pride and togetherness ingrained in the club. As Walker herself once said; “The big difference between Doncaster Belles and the other successful clubs is that players don’t leave Doncaster Belles… there is a feeling here that we are representing the north.”
When people think women’s football, they think Doncaster; the club that won the heart of author Pete Davies and inspired Kay Mellor’s Playing the Field. Formed in 1969 by female raffle ticket sellers from Doncaster Rovers’ Belle Vue Ground they were originally the Belle Vue Belles, becoming Doncaster Belles when they entered the Sheffield League just three years later. In the mid 70s they switched to the Nottinghamshire League where they soon became dominant. How dominant? Well, between 1978 and 1993 the Belles lost just one league match. A single loss over fifteen years; a phenomenal record that was finally ended by Arsenal, in the second season of the National Premier League.
It wasn’t just the League in which the Belles found success. In 1983 they lifted the FA Women’s Cup, and would reach the final again in ten of the next eleven seasons. The Belles won the trophy six times in that period, their sixth coming in 1994 when a goal from Karen Walker despatched Knowsley United at Glanford Park.
These emphatic performances in the regional leagues and the national cup ensured the Belles became founder members of the Women’s Premier League when it was created in 1991. Doncaster won the inaugural title with a 100% record and have remained in the division ever since. Thirty six teams have contested the top-flight of women’s football since its inception, some like Bronte and Barry Town have ceased to exist, some have been reincarnated – Knowsley United became Liverpool, Everton used to be Leasowe Pacific and Charlton were once Croydon – but the Belles remain the only ever presents. Whilst others have faded or fallen the name of Doncaster has been resolute in the league table for as long as there has been one. Until now.
Doncaster Belles won’t be in the top division next year. Not because of relegation, not because of liquidation, not even due to rebranding. They will not be in the top division next season simply because the FA has decided they will not be. In 2014 the FA have elected to further build upon the Women’s Super League with the introduction of a second tier FAWSL2. All current Super League teams have retained their seat at the top table for the new FAWSL1 except one, Doncaster Rovers Belles, who will be replaced by Manchester City.
The FA announced this decision via a news story on the FAWSL website on Friday 26th April. No fanfare, just a curt 120 word article which outlined the two divisional make-ups. There was no reasoning given (indeed a fortnight on there still has been none) just a token disclaimer “The FA will make no further comment until this process is complete.” Twenty two years of top-flight football ended via a press release that could have been written on a postcard.
If the manner of the announcement shows scant regard for the participants in the game which it is supposedly seeking to promote, the FA’s timing leaves even less to be desired. The FA put out this press release just one game in to the current Super League season. What does that leave Doncaster to play for? How are the Belles to be expected to retain players, coaches, supporters and vital sponsors when the entirety of the campaign they’ve spent all winter preparing for has already been rendered worthless? Is demoralising a whole team of professionals, and a whole club and community committed to your sport really the way to grow it?
A tweet from Belles England under 19s star Jess Sigsworth summed up the mood of the players; “Can’t put into words how upset I am. Feel like all this hard work is just for nothing!” In an interview with the BBC Belles manager John Buckley went further, proclaiming it “the most farcical thing I’ve ever heard.” Buckley continued; “Not many things knock the stuffing out of me, but this has… I just don’t understand the timing. It’s demotivating for the players.” When he spoke with the Doncaster Free Press Buckley pulled even fewer punches; “The timing of the FA’s decision is embarrassing. It’s completely unprofessional… I’m gobsmacked. The timing is just sickening, I’ve struggled to come to terms with it but we made sure we got all the players and staff together to discuss what to do next. The players have been psychologically battered by the news. My players are complete professionals and will still battle to the end, it’s just devastating for them and I’m pretty sure this decision has just come down to money.”
Buckley’s assertion of it coming down to finance is a conclusion most will draw given that it is Manchester City who will replace the Belles in the top flight. City have not only never played in the top flight before, they have only ever played in the second flight once; the current 2012-13 campaign representing their first ever in national competition and one in which they are set to finish in mid-table. What do they bring to the top flight? With the FA unwilling to comment, we are left to draw our own conclusions; big name, more cash. Whether that’s the case or not everyone is thinking it.
Sadly it wouldn’t come as a surprise either; the FA is not without form when it comes to inexplicably eschewing the Belles in favour of big names from the men’s game. In 2000 the FA introduced a Charity Shield for the Women’s game, and the participants of its first run should naturally have been Charlton who had done the double in 1999-2000 (albeit whilst still known as Croydon) and the Belles who had finished as runners-up to them in both the Cup in the League. Instead the FA plumped to pit Charlton against Arsenal for ‘commercial reasons’. Because everyone knows nothing dissuades sponsors like the sight of earnest northern women kicking footballs about. Even now the odd, unexplained decisions keep coming; on Friday the FA cancelled the Belles’ match with Liverpool scheduled for this coming Wednesday; again they have not yet proffered a reason.
The Belles may not fit the FA’s ‘commercial reasons’ but they are integral to their own community. In 2009 they launched the Belles for The Community initiative; Britain’s first social enterprise delivering community, social, health and educational services with female sport as a focal point. They have not been bankrolled by local millionaires or funded as a division of a men’s team, but instead do things the hard way, but the right way, and whilst five of their current FAWSL opponents play their games outside the communities they represent, they also do so in the heart of their own town.
I led with the history and the achievements of the Belles to give context to their standing in the game, but should clarify that I do not think a bursting trophy cabinet or significant cultural impact should render a team above relegation. Had the FA simply stated that the top seven finishers in this season’s FAWSL would retain their place in the top flight for next season then neither I, nor the Belles, would have any argument had they subsequently ended the season in eighth and bottom place and so dropped a level. That’s fair. That’s natural. That’s football.
But it is not for football that the Belles have been removed from the top flight. In the first two seasons of the Super League they have not finished bottom, instead Liverpool have grasped the wooden spoon on each occasion. They have not been taken from the top flight due to facilities as in the Keepmoat Stadium, of which they are fully-fledged co-tenants, they boast the best regular home ground in the league. And they have not been kicked out due to a lack of support, because whilst the Belles crowds could be higher, they have not been the lowest in the league, and they’ve certainly not been the quietest. Instead, they have been demoted and removed simply because the name doesn’t fit, and the pounds in their bank account couldn’t match the pound signs rolling around the eyeballs of those at the FA who make these decisions.
The new Super League set-up is full of inexplicable non-reasoning to the extent that is arguable the Belles are not even the hardest hit. (There is no place for Leeds in either division despite the fact they remain in with a shot at the Premier League title, whilst Lincoln have been allowed to completely rebrand themselves as Notts County and retain their top flight status despite abandoning the city which has backed them for the last decade). But come next season the Belles will be the most notable absence from the top-flight table; people will look at the Women’s Super League standings and think “What happened to Doncaster?” And you can’t simply reply “oh, they had a bad year and were relegated,” because they didn’t. Instead they were simply not wanted. Shafted and scratched out by an FA who have made it abundantly clear they care more about finance and ‘partners’ than the people and the teams who did more than they ever could to establish the women’s game in this country in the first place.