Tolling for the Belles; On a Week of Campaigning

Doncaster Belles Protest The FAThe amount of traffic this website has seen since we shone a light on the nature of the FA’s restructure of the Women’s Super League has been unprecedented; thousands of views from all over the globe. Whilst I’m proud of this site and our humble print fanzine, I don’t for one minute assume that all who should know about the FA’s approach to altering women’s football and how it has affected the Belles will seek out the information or find it when visiting here. So this past week we have been out and about; making our presence known and getting this case out to a wider audience.

Even though it was two weeks after the actual restructure that I finally penned my piece, our article has formed the basis of coverage from further reaching websites and blogs in the subsequent days and weeks. We were indebted to Ian King at Two Hundred Percent for covering the story – including its wider implications for Lincoln – and encouraging people to read more via our own articles. Steve McKewitt of The Huffington Post also covered the story, using very similar phrasing to our own initial piece, though deigned not to cite the fanzine as a source. Ah well, at least it’s out there. As the story moved online; we spent the week looking for other ways to draw attention to what was happening to the Belles, so here is what we’ve been up to.

SATURDAY 18TH MAY

I’ve killed time on trains in many ways; but writing a ‘cry’ for the town crier was a new one on me. That was what I found myself doing at 10:30am last Saturday as I travelled north from London for something of a guerilla protest in Doncaster’s Frenchgate Centre. The FA had been touring the Women’s FA Cup Trophy around Doncaster in the build up to the Cup Final – the irony of trying to gather support for the women’s game in a town in which they’d just shafted the main exponents of it seemingly lost on them – and with a scheduled appearance at lunchtime Saturday one of our fanzine brood Tony Greenhall had spotted an opportunity to make the protests heard.

Whilst the trophy was kept in a silver flight-case by two nervous men in FA polo shirts, we gathered in once of the main concourses; small in number perhaps, but great in significance as amongst our few were both the leader of the Council and the newly elected Mayor of Doncaster, not to mention bells and banners from the self-styled Belles Noisey Fans, and of course the town crier, who read out the following cry, whilst we distributed leaflets explaining what was going on, and encouraging folk to get down to that night’s game.

Oyez, Oyez, Oyez!FA Women's Cup Doncaster Belles
Citizens of Doncaster, let it be known.
Today we protest on behalf of our team, the Doncaster Belles.
For twenty-two years the Belles have represented Doncaster at the highest level of women’s football.
No other team, no other town, can claim that honour.
Yet the Football Association, who stand here today showing their wares, have decided the Doncaster Belles are not worthy of their place in football’s top flight.
The Belles are to be relegated by the FA, unjustly and unfairly.
The Football Association want to use our stadium, but they do not want our team.
Please join us in protest.
Sign our petition.
Attend today’s game, and cheer on the Belles, your team, as they play Everton this evening.
And sound the bells, for The Belles of Doncaster
God Bless the Belles!

Eventually the trophy was brought out of its carry-case and placed in the middle of the Frenchgate Centre where people were free to have their picture taken with it… so we did just that (see right) whilst countering the FA’s flyers for the women’s FA Cup Final with our own flyers explaining what the FA had done to the Belles.

What we had strived to do, was create a show of support and of numbers by getting people to that night’s game. In the end only 301 people made it down, and saw the Belles put in an improved performance against Everton in the Continental Cup, only to be hampered by an inability to take key chances and finally fall 3-1.

MONDAY 20TH MAY

On Monday night the BBC launched their new weekly Women’s Football Show, ahead of which we tweeted our hopes that the BBC would give apt coverage to the issues created by the FA’s restructure plans for both Doncaster and Lincoln, and not just cosy up to the FA party line as their new broadcast partner. Yes, it was optimistic, and yes, they went for the latter. The programme broadcast a bit of FA promotion about the restructuring; featuring quotes from Hope Powell and Kelly Simmons, the FA Director of the National Game and Women’s Football, before a very brief chat about the implications, with Lincoln becoming Notts County brushed off in a sentence, and the Belles relegation also given minimal coverage too. My own disappointment at this coverage led to a twitter exchange the next morning with the show’s presenter Jacqui Oatley which can be seen to the right here.

Twitter; Jacquie Oatley and popular STANDInterestingly in the very one-sided video piece there were quotes from Simmons and Powell about the introduction of the second tier; “Promotion and  relegation will help strengthen the women’s game generally,” said Simmons, “it will help ensure we keep the strong clubs and the best clubs at the top”. Surely that is only the case if, from the outset, that promotion and relegation is determined by on-pitch performance. As Hope Powell said; “You have to perform otherwise you’re going to be relegated, that level of competition it helps develop players, it is healthy.” So where does being arbitrarily relegated one game into the season come into that? How healthy is that for competition, and for player development?

Throughout the piece Simmons stressed the need for clubs to be sustainable, it was a repeated mantra. The Belles are sustainable; they have been for four decades, and they have been sustained through their own hard work. Surely the lessons learned from what happened to the ladies team of Charlton and that of Fulham would indicate that being sustainable on your own is much less risky than being sustained on dependence of investment from your partnered men’s team.

Though the flagship programme for women’s football in England may have brushed over it, the issue around the Belles’ relegation did at least garner more attention from across the pond. Over in the US Stefan Fatsis chose to highlight Doncaster Belles’ demotion on The Slate’s sports podcast; Hang Up & Listen. Stefan’s piece on the Belles can be heard 45 minutes and 30 seconds into the broadcast; props to him for help taking this to a global audience.

TUESDAY 21ST MAY

On Tuesday, despite having not bothered to send a reporter along to the protest or the match on Saturday, the Doncaster Star did give coverage to the events of Saturday with a half page feature on the protest in the Frenchgate Centre. The piece included a number of quotes from Tony Greenhall who organised the protest, and also referenced the involvement and presence of the town’s mayor.

WEDNESDAY 22ND MAY

A day of radio involvement today, as I was invited onto both BBC Radio Sheffield and Talksport to discuss the FA’s restructure of the Super League. The interview with Toby Foster on Radio Sheffield’s Breakfast Show can be listened to here (with apologies for the quality of my recording), whilst the late night discussion with Mike Graham of Talksport can be heard here.

THURSDAY 23RD MAY

TA flag in protest at Doncaster Belles 'relegation' displayed at the Women's Champions League Finalhursday is the day on which Doncaster’s weekly paper, the Free Press, goes on sale and credit to them, and particularly reporter (and former Belles player) Hayley Patterson for really pushing the story, more so than any other local media over the past fortnight. Hayley has made repeated requests to the FA for reason and explanation, but has been only met by the words ‘No Comment’ and a return request for the paper to help promote the FA Women’s Cup Final as the FA continue to show more cheek than Niki Minaj’s backside. Credit to Hayley also for this fantastic Comment piece, which appeared in the paper and online.

Also helping to push publicity in Doncaster, Tony Greenhall went on Sine FM’s Breakfast Show to discuss the issue too, although we’ve been unable to get audio of the recording.

Meanwhile, Thursday also saw the UEFA Women’s Champions League Final take place at Stamford Bridge between Lyon and Wolfsburg. I’d already arranged to go, so it seemed an apt time to take the protest to a higher level. Having spent the night before painting a large banner we pitched up at Stamford Bridge and positioned ourselves in a prime spot, so that should Lyon get a second half corner we would be able to unfurl our banner in full view of the Eurosport cameras. Unfortunately Lyon failed to win a corner, but that didn’t stop us creating some awareness for those in The Shed end of the ground.

FRIDAY 24TH MAY

I mentioned in our last update that a number of Rovers fans had written to the FA to seek clarification on the reasons for the Belles’ demotion – because there has yet to be any – and that all had received the same short reply from the FA. Well, each of those who have written have now received another email back from the FA… and yes, it is another standardised reply meaning that each has again had exactly the same reply from the Association, which came as follows;

Dear [Name of Recipient]

Whilst I can appreciate your continued frustration, The Football Association cannot and will not discuss the elements of each individual teams bid. This fact is further enforced by the fact that the club (who have a right to do so), are appealing the FA’s decision.

Each club has been treated equally and fairly in the adjudication process and any decisions made have been based solely on the strength of a club’s application against the criteria clearly set out at the beginning of the application processes.

Those eight clubs have always been fully aware that licences were for an initial period, and that they would be required to re-apply for their licence from 2014. It has always been made very clear to all clubs that any club could apply for FAWSL Division 1 for season 2014 and that no club was guaranteed a place in FAWSL 1 based on previous licences.  In 2009/2010, ahead of the launch of The FA WSL, clubs were selected following a similar open application process, not because of their league position in the Women’s Premier League. We have not decided on FA WSL 1 and FA WSL 2 clubs on their position in the current FA WSL or other leagues.

As previously mentioned, we cannot comment on individual cases and clearly this matter is still ongoing (by virtue of Doncaster Belles appeal), we would expect that this be completed by mid June and may be in a position to offer further information at this point.

The Football Association receives many e-mails and letters from supporters of clubs complaining about what they see as favourable or unfavourable treatment. Football is a game of opinions, but our concern is to be even handed across the board. 

The FA is responsible for overseeing the domestic game’s regulatory function and ensuring it is fair for all participants. The FA does this without any bias to player, manager or club.

Thank you for taking the time to write, I understand this may not alleviate your concerns I trust this clarifies our position on this issue.

Best wishes,
John Stanley | Customer Relations

Sadly it seems the Belles appeal has given the FA a convenient excuse and opportunity to disclose no further details; I’m sure they;d love to talk more about it, but they sadly can’t. What this letter says is that the Football Association will continue to dictate the standing of women’s football teams in this country without any consideration for their performance or ability on the pitch, it says that at the end of Mr Stanley’s third paragraph. Actual footballing ability does not matter. Is that legal for a sport’s governing body? Surely it can’t be. I’d be interested to hear from any who know that subject better than me.

What have the Belles themselves been doing during this week of protest you’re probably wondering, well having chosen to appeal the decision there is sadly little they can say or do regarding the ‘relegation’, so instead they have been focussing there efforts on what they do best; playing football and being part of the community. On Friday night they had a big match… of wheelchair rugby

The petition started by the fanzine to help give weight to Doncaster Belles’ appeal to the FA can be found here. Please sign it if you deem appropriate, and share it with friends and colleagues and football fans.

For our earlier coverage on the Belles and the restructure of the FA Women’s Super League do please read our initial article, and last week’s follow-up piece.