D-Day at the FA; On the Doncaster Belles’ Appeal

FA Women's Cup Doncaster BellesHopefully this will be the last piece I write about the Doncaster Belles which doesn’t have a football match as its focus. With a bit of luck it will also be the last time I have the cause to write the word ‘relegation’ in inverted commas too. Today, following an adjournment a fortnight ago, the Belles will have their appeal heard by the FA, it is D-Day, the ‘D’ being for decency, as this will be the last chance to resolve this issue within the confines of football governance.

After much campaigning and awareness building by the fans the Belles are travelling to Wembley today with the aim of reaching a pragmatic solution, one which is not only fair and just, but also meets the FA’s aims and objectives with women’s football. It is believed that the Belles will push for a nine or ten team top flight, and positions within it to be determined by results on the field rather than franchising and decisions made by blazers in meeting rooms beneath stylised pictures of Booby Moore and Pickles the Dog.

Do they have a chance? In the spirit of reason and fairness and sporting ethos? Yes. Against the reasoning of the FA? Who knows. If the coverage of the appeal on the Doncaster Free Press website is correct then it is believed that the Belles initial application has fallen down on three key areas, which concern the FA;

1. Stadium ownership and providing guarantees that games will go ahead on given dates.

Only one FAWSL team owns its own ground – Bristol Academy – each of the others ground-share with a male non-league side. The Belles do actually differ from the remainder of the pack in that their home, though currently run by Doncaster Rovers, was built with them in mind; upon its construction the Keepmoat Stadium was a community facility to house the Belles alongside the Rovers and the Dons (Rugby League). As for games going ahead on given dates, well the FA would know about that given that it was they who cancelled the Belles home game with Liverpool in May.

2. The percentage of turnover spent on players’ wages

This is my favourite condition. In the FA’s eyes the Belles – an independent self-financed club – are not spending enough on players wages and are instead frittering their money away on wanton fripperies like junior teams, coaching and making the games accessible to the local community.

3. Corporate Governance

There are some great lines on this in amongst the initial application documents which the FA put out when the application process for Super League began; “Whilst there is no prescribed corporate structure or ideal ownership model for a club, The FA anticipates that most clubs will opt for a limited company structure. In most cases, The FA further anticipates that this would be a private limited company… If you do wish to adopt a legal structure for your club which differs from the standard limited company structure, please inform The FA as soon as possible by calling the Super League Advice Line, so that the issue can be discussed further.” A touch of the Henry Ford’s there, you can have any operating model you like… just so long as you are a limited company. The Belles incidentally are not a limited company, they’re a social enterprise, the first ever in the UK to have female sport as its focus, the sort of thing you would think ought to go in the ‘plus’ column, but no.

If those points have been correctly identified then it would appear that in the mind of the FA, the Belles’ appeal centred too much on them being a solvently run football club accessible to their community and too little on them being a limited company heavily investing in temporary and unpredictable assets. You can see why the FA might favour Manchester City.

In the FA’s eyes the ideal scenario would be female sides representing the big names in the men’s game, piggybacking on the success of the brand for desperate want of a better, less wanky, phrase. According to the Guardian the FA’s General Secretary Alex Horne alluded to that prospect on the launch of the governing body’s ‘Game Changer’ strategy for women’s football back in October;

“Horne said that the evolution of a professional league would depend to an extent on the commitment of top clubs. He praised Arsenal for seeing their women’s club as an extension of their community and commercial strategy and called on others to do the same.

Manchester City recently became the latest to bring their affiliated women’s team fully under the club’s umbrella but others, such as Manchester United, have shown less enthusiasm.”

A telling example there picked out by The Guardian there, with unexpected foresight.

What always seems to escape the FA’s memory as they strive to replicate the Premier League in female form is the fact that whilst Arsenal may have dominated the women’s game in recent years, the two other most prominent examples of traditional men’s teams investing in the women’s game went very much the other way. Mohammed Al Fayed threw money at Fulham’s Ladies side for a few years, they went professional in 2000, won the treble in 2003 and went bust in 2006. Meanwhile Charlton Athletic absorbed the successful Croydon Ladies side in 2000, but when the men’s team were relegated from the top flight they had to make financial cuts, and the women’s team’s funding was duly axed.

The FA seem unwilling to believe what the rest of us know and that is that no matter how successful, a professional men’s football club is not a reliable financial crutch. There are too many variables, from overspending to gambling on league positions (and therefore income), and of course the whim of eccentric owners. My club, Doncaster Rovers, are well run these days, but I’d sooner lend a tenner to Nick Leeson in the hope of seeing it again than I would the Rovers. Surely it is better for clubs to go it alone, be responsible for your own finance, establish a model which may not be flush with cash, but at least the sums you have are written in black ink than red. In the case of the women’s game the FA don’t seem to think so.

We talk about ‘the women’s game’ in this country as if it is a separate sport, suggesting there is football, and then there is women’s football in the same way in which there is tennis and then table tennis. It shouldn’t be that way. Yes the women’s game needs support in its growth, but only because the gender was neglected and othered by the Football Association for the first 125 years of the sport. The underlying principles of football should exist regardless of which gender is playing it; it is a sport, not a business and the performance and capability and rewards of its players and teams should be decided first and foremost on the field. Manchester United continue to operate at the top of the men’s game in a huge amount of debt, the Belles are being punished for operating pragmatically on limited means. How can that be right? The FA would not relegate a men’s team from the top flight through paperwork? Why should the women’s game be different?

The FA have a chance today to show that they do, as their strategic plan suggests, listen to the fans and enforce the notion they view men’s and women’s football equally as a governing body should. This will either be a great day for football, the whole of football, or a black one. The ball, as always, sits firmly in the FA’s court with an open goal ahead of them, and we can only wait for them to tap it home or fluff the chance.

Glen Wilson