Silenced Belles; On the FA’s Rejection of the Doncaster Belles’ Appeal

A flag in protest at Doncaster Belles 'relegation' displayed at the Women's Champions League FinalEight years ago I was elected as a Student Union officer. A month into my role the University reneged on an agreement to allow our Freshers Fair to be held in the Sports Hall – the only suitable venue – as they wanted to expand their enrolment process. I did my research, I sourced the numbers and equipment involved in each event, I scoured plans and timetables for the entire university, and I went to a meeting with a pro-vice chancellor ready to put across a very valid alternate option that satisfied both parties. Said Pro-Vice Chancellor, presumably having not expected a new officer to be so prepared and logical – let alone the Sports Officer – lost patience and became more and more exasperated before eventually yelling “You’re missing the point, this is already happening”.

The Football Association are that pro-vice chancellor. As the Doncaster Belles today discovered, no matter how much logic and reasoning and ethical decency you take to them you will discover that their decision has already been made and that an appeal process is nothing more than a box-ticking exercise. “Accountable to our members? Yep, we had that appeal remember, nice one, tick that off then”. The FA has decided what is good for the game, and it doesn’t matter what you, or I, or thousands of people with first-hand experience of the sport think. Football must be progressed, and whilst that happens, all sense of reasoning and sporting ethics can be swept aside as the body tasked with governing the game puts pound signs over personal involvement. I’ve never seen an FA committee meeting admittedly, but I suspect this is pretty much how one plays out. Stubborn unyielding selfish pursuit of a future only they deem correct. They’re pushing decent people overboard to get to the one lifeboat.

There is a history of the Football Association doing bugger all for football in our town. In late 1997, as Ken Richardson and his puppet Mark Weaver set about tearing Doncaster Rovers apart from within (not so much asset stripping, as stripping away all that remained in an effort to reach their perceived asset) Graham Kelly, then FA Secretary, pitched up at Belle Vue and took a seat in the Main Stand. Hundreds of eyes looked on him in hope, the governing body had finally taken interest, had seen what was happening, Richardson would have to go. But alas Kelly came, he saw, he left, and he did nothing more. He observed the slow suffocation of a football club first hand and then crossed the street and pretended he and the association had seen nothing.

But for the Westferry Consortium who purchased Doncaster Rovers in 1998, the Doncaster Belles may have been all we had left for our football. Whilst the Rovers experienced the worst that late 90s football could throw at a club the Belles had flourished; founder members of the new top-flight in 1992, twice double-winners, a self-sufficient club with a local focus of which the rest of their sport was envious. Their trophy trail may have tailed off in the last decade, but they’ve never left the top flight, and have remained at the forefront of the women’s game. Until now. Until one game into the current season when the FA decided they were no longer wanted, and they were duly demoted. The subsequent appeal against that decision, was, as you’re no doubt aware dismissed today via the following statement, buried at lunchtime on a busy sporting Saturday.

Following a hearing this week in front of an Independent Appeals Panel, The FA can confirm that Doncaster Rovers Belles FC has been unsuccessful in its appeal to retain its place in FA WSL1 following a decision not to offer the club a licence to compete in the top domestic women’s league from the 2014 season onwards.

The FA would also like to confirm that the licence offer to compete in The FA WSL2 next season is still open to the club, subject to licence criteria that still needs to be met.

The decision by the selection panel not to offer the club an FA WSL1 license was due primarily to them being unable to satisfactorily meet minimum facility requirements, alongside further concerns on their commercial and marketing strategies.

We look forward to continue working with Doncaster Rovers Belles FC and all our FA WSL clubs, who play a vital role alongside us in our commitment to continue to develop and build the women’s game in England.

That ‘facility requirements’ are cited as a main concern may seem surprising given that the Keepmoat Stadium is a ground much more advanced than all other current FA Super League venues (Liverpool’s adopted home of Widnes being an equivalent), and was also chosen as the host venue for this season’s FA Women’s Cup Final. However, it is not the quality of the stadium that is being called into question, but the priority of usage which sees the Belles fall behind both Rovers and Doncaster Rugby League in the pecking order. Whilst most teams ground-share (Bristol Academy the only side with their own venue), the Belles are the only side in a triangular agreement.

But at the time of the FA’s announcement on next season’s FA WSL structure this had only become an issue for concern once, in September last year, when a change in the Rugby League fixtures produced a clash between a home game for Doncaster RLFC and Belles match with Birmingham. That was eventually resolved with Belles playing on Saturday evening rather than Sunday – hardly the unworkable practice that the FA seemed to have painted it as. Indeed if the Belles were to play home games on a Sunday in April and May, August and September, and on a Saturday in June and July then it is highly unlikely that there would be a clash at all, particularly given that the Super League structure means that teams play no more than eleven home games in a season; seven league and no more than four Cup fixtures.

Is that one fixture crossover really just cause to end twenty-two years of participation in the top flight? The FA seem to think so, despite the club passing this section of the FAWSL application criteria in both the first and second stage of assessment, this was reversed to a fail following an interview process in March. In the FA’s 38 page document detailing the DECISION AND REASONS OF THE INDEPENDENT APPEALS PANEL on this case there is a section on this, and it would appear, though not set out elsewhere, that the main concern from the FA is not down to staging, but actually the option to screen the club’s games as part of a television agreement.

“[The FA] also heard from Ms. Guest how arrangements with television broadcasters and other commercial partners would require applicants to show that their use of a Grade A ground throughout the playing season could be guaranteed… The Belles were unable to give the Selection Panel that assurance, either in relation to the Keepmoat Stadium, or their alternative ground at Castle Park. There was no evidence before us that the Club advanced any kind of case to show that it could commit to regular evening kick-offs, whether at 6pm or any other time.”

So in terms of advancing women’s football, whilst the Belles weekend kick-offs may be accessible to their fan base and their community, there is a slim chance that they might not necessarily fit in with future and idealistic television schedules, so, you know, the FA had no option really.

It is a minor sticking point and one which hardly seems to justify placing the Belles in the division below. Stadium usage in itself is an odd issue for the Women’s Super League, particularly when you consider that Lincoln, or Notts County as they shall become, are yet to disclose where they will play their home games, whilst Chelsea, Liverpool, Birmingham and Arsenal all play their home matches a considerable distance from the city or area that bear their name. Surely a fixture clash once every three years in your home town, is a better scenario for the growth of the game than playing every match thirty miles away (as Birmingham have done at Stratford Town for the last three seasons). Alas it would seem not. After all, what use is a community football club serving its community when there are peak time audience demographics in the commuter-belt to satisfy.

If you’re considering reading that 38 page document then I would urge you to reconsider. It is a horrible statement, not owing to its final outcome, not even due to the way a sport is broken down into business and legal standpoints, but because it shows the true colours and working practice of the governing body for what we perceive to be our game.

With the Belles’ appeal the FA had the opportunity to show that they listened, that they were accountable, and that they upheld the sporting tradition of the game. Instead, the aforementioned appeal document shows that rather than listening, they have used the process as an exercise to  ruthlessly show why and how they were right. Rather than acknowledge the wider issues they have looked to identify what they perceive as a weak link in the Belles’ appeal and used it to protect themselves.

Alan Smart is the Belles’ chairman, he is an engaging and passionate man who has worked tirelessly to keep the Belles moving sustainably in a region awash with the apathy inevitably caused by the destruction of industry and minimal subsequent investment. I’ve met a lot of football people, in professional and amateur levels, men’s and women’s teams, and I’ve never met anyone as hands on and committed as Alan. The decision to demote the Belles devastated Alan, and rather than see this emotional attachment as an indication of his commitment the FA have used it to mark him as an unreliable witness. The FA has done all it can in that document to absolve any suggestion that their own practices and approach is flawed, and instead lay blame at the feet of one of the most committed individuals in the women’s game. It is a ruthless a character assassination, designed to paint a man as disorganised and therefore unreliable. It is a cruel cheap shot at a man who has wholly dedicated himself to the sport in the way that the Football Association has long failed to do so. It is disgusting.

There is more in that document, more that shows you the ridiculousness of what football has become, and how it will always be pointless to question the Football Association’s reasoning or logic. They are a law unto themselves lurching on the precipice of self-parody. Consider the following passage from the Appeal Document…

6.3 (v).  We are not therefore satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that there is any reliable evidence before us from which we can make a properly informed decision as to what precisely Mr. Game said, still less that he said anything to Mr. Guest to show bias, or the appearance of bias, in favour of Manchester City, or any other newly-affluent club that might enter the application process. If he 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.

No. No, of course they couldn’t. I for one welcome our new financially stoked overlords without any hint of an ulterior motive relating to the perceived amount of money they will bring to the game. Now, show me the money… make it rain Sheikh Mansour… make it rain.

So what have we learnt? That ultimately the appeal that drew me to the women’s game in the first place in that is was far removed from the money-centric beurocratic hyperbole of the men’s game is no longer true. That the Football Association cannot be swayed in its decision making process, not by logic, not by sporting integrity, not by widespread opinion, not by adverse publicity. I have absolutely no confidence in football’s governing body. None whatsoever. Nothing that has happened involving the teams in my town has given me assurances that they actually care about football as a sport. Fuck their respect campaigns and their glossy PDFs about involvement and strategy and five-year plans because until they practice what they preach they are the 50ft portrait hanging over the town’s main square; the omnipresent lawmaker that ultimately doesn’t give a shit about how their decisions affect you.

Doncaster Belles will play out this season. They have ten games still to play in the Women’s Super League, each as irrelevant as the next. How do you motivate players, or supporters, or sponsors to commit to them? Attendances will inevitably dip, results will most likely go against them, and come September the FA will use all this as justification that their decision was the right one. You’d have gone down anyway they’ll say, and they will never, never get it.

Glen Wilson