Bells, Banners & Belligerence; On Trying to Speak Out

Doncaster Belles Banner Confiscated by the FAThat banner in the picture there. I made that. I bought the paints and brushes on Tuesday lunchtime. I painted it (and much of our living room table too) late on Wednesday night. On Thursday I took it to the UEFA Women’s Champions League Final. On Friday I posted it to a group of Belles fans who were planning to attend the FA Women’s Cup Final at Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium. On Saturday it reached them up in Doncaster. And on Sunday it was carted off by officials acting on behalf of the Football Association.

Well, you might think, you can’t display that kind of thing in the stadium and expect the FA not to take umbrage. Perhaps. But it wasn’t in the stadium when it was confiscated. It wasn’t even at the turnstile. Nor was it actually on display. It was in a bag. In the car-park. Fifty minutes before kick-off.The story is best expanded on by Belles supporters’ group themselves fans, The Noisyfans, who documented their day out on their own burgeoning website;

As the news of the FA demoting Belles to FAWSL2 hasn’t been widely spread The Noisyfans thought the FA Cup Final would be a great opportunity to let plenty of people interested in women’s football know what has happened, and to give them a chance to support us by signing our petition. We also wanted to encourage fans to participate in 1 minute of applause, to support the Belles appeal, as a thank you to everyone who has supported Belles and also those other clubs who have felt aggrieved by the FAWSL application/selection process. We also planned to ring our bells to support both teams, and had brought along our protest banner. All in all we planned to have a great day, supporting two great teams on the pitch and the Belles (an even greater team in our opinion). It didn’t quiet work out that way.

Around half a dozen of the Belles’ Noisyfans, and the fanzine’s own Tony Greenhall, had spread themselves around the Keepmoat Stadium where they were handing out flyers about the ‘relegation’ of the Belles and the planned minute’s applause and also asking supporters to sign a petition to document the weight of support ahead of the Belles’ appeal over the decision. The group were subsequently approached by a number of stewards who said they were acting on behalf of the Football Association and asked them to stop flyering and confiscated the flyers. One steward proclaimed “they’re playing hell up there,” presumably referencing the representatives from the Football Association at the stadium.

They also duly confiscated the petition, and decided to see what else the Belles fans had; going on to confiscate their bells, a set of Belles shirts which had kindly been donated to them by kit supplier Jako, and the aforementioned banner. The stewards then demanded those fans in the group hand over the match tickets and be photographed/filmed by CCTV; the supporters rightly refused and the Head of Security was summoned. By now a small crowd had gathered, amongst them Belles’ manager John Buckley who managed to persuade the Security Head not to confiscate the match tickets too, but everything else was carted off.

During the match Doncaster Free Press reporter Hayley Patterson questioned the FA over this episode tweeting that she had received the following reply from an FA spokesman; “I can also confirm one bell was confiscated and one banner that DRFC security deemed unsuitable, that is it.” No reasoning for the bell – something which Belles fans always take to FAWSL games – no mention of the petition, nor the flyers, and a handy push of the blame over to the host club too, despite the fact that the stewards who had gone out to the Belles fans initially had said they were acting on instruction from the Football Association.

The minute’s applause did take place on 22 minutes, though somewhat muted without the presence of the bells, and as Tony Greenhall pointed out on twitter, it was aided, somewhat ironically, by fans clapping together the FA supplied ‘noise-makers’. Credit also at this point to Jonathan Pearce (a sentence I never thought I’d write), the BBC commentator for the game who did reference the minute’s applause and the issue during his commentary of the match live on BBC.

After the game, the fans went to collect their confiscated items and had them all returned… with the exception of the banner. This, they were told, was being retained as ‘evidence’. Though the steward when asked, was not sure as to who it was being kept by – the FA or Doncaster Rovers – or what exactly it was ‘evidence’ of. My poor art skills perhaps? An example of a canny use of an old shower curtain? Who knows. I emailed the Keepmoat Stadium earlier today for clarification on how, where and why the banner had been confiscated and duly retained, but am yet to receive a reply. If evidence of some sort of crime, well in the case of Lincoln Ladies the FA have sanctioned the removal of a club from its community; something which I would consider a much bigger crime against football than holding a banner in a car-park.

The Football Supporters’ Federation had also been in touch with the supporters in question and have been following up the issues raised with them, in particular the manner in which items were confiscated, the refusal to return the banner, and the request that the fans in question make themselves available to CCTV recording.

We should probably clarify at this stage, that this protest and all that it has involved has no official connection with Doncaster Rovers Belles; it has been put into motion independently by fans who are committed to the club, and wish to see it treated fairly by the Football Association, and allowed to retain its status in the top-flight on a football pitch rather than a balance sheet. The Belles themselves have, in view of the massive slap in the face dealt them by the FA, been incredibly professional and supportive of subsequent efforts to promote women’s football. When it would have been quite understandable to tell the FA where to go, the Belles squad were on hand outside yesterday’s final at a FAWSL tent meeting fans and signing autographs.

Given the FA’s reaction to the Belles fans presence yesterday I felt it appropriate to look at their overall stance on matters, particularly as the planned restructure of the Super League is part of the overall Football Association Strategic Plan. Handily this plan can be found on the FA website. Here’s a snippet from page 10 of that document.

The integrity of football relies on quick, consistent and sensible decisions… We will ensure the rules are applied consistently and transparently by communicating decisions quickly and openly explaining how they were made.

It is now a whole month since the FA delivered a curt 120 word press release detailing the planned make-up of FAWSL1 and FAWSL2. That, despite numerous requests from the Doncaster media for further explanation remains their entire communication on the subject. There has been no explanation as to how they were made, they have not been communicated transparently; the FA is at odds with its own Strategic Plan.

There’s more by the way. The following is from page 14 of the same document and is titled ‘Listening to fans of football’

The game in England is sustained by a huge range of football fans, from players to referees and club supporters to parents. We need to communicate effectively with everyone with an interest in the game by: Improving our communications with all the different fans of football and introducing them to new opportunities to get involved in the game. Working with the media to help improve ongoing communication with football fans.

It is hard to see how the FA have upheld any of these objectives when it comes to the restructure of the FA Women’s Super League. The communication relating to the decision put across to the FAWSL from fans via their social media networks has been flatly ignored. The media meanwhile has been offered nothing beyond ‘no further comment’ throughout, and though the FA are now maintaining that they cannot speak on the matter because of the Belles’ appeal, the questions were being asked before the Belles’ appeal was announced and also met stark rebuttal. It is hard to see how confiscating a petition can fit in with a purported ideal of ‘listening to the fans’.

I can only end by clarifying our stand-point on this issue, and why we are campaigning and petitioning. We are not doing so along the lines that Doncaster Belles categorically deserve their place in the top flight of the women’s game due to their historical standing, because that would be no better a solution or reasoning than that being implemented by the FA. Instead, what we are saying is that having done so much, and achieved so much in and for the women’s game in this country, without significant financial backing, or by partnering with a successful men’s club, the Doncaster Belles have earned the right to defend their top flight status in the way they achieved it; on the football pitch.

The Belles are financially sound, they’re not flush with cash by any means, but they are stable without the need to rely on backing from a successful men’s club and they are at the heart of their community. They were behind the first ever social enterprise in the UK to have women’s sport as its focus, what message does it send if that sort of foresight and engagement and inclusion is disregarded because they don’t have the bank balance of other applicants.

There cannot be much to choose between the application of the Belles and that of Manchester City, the difference must have been negligible, as it would have been with that of Lincoln and to a degree Bristol Academy. So with that in mind why not just take the obvious route of announcing that whoever finished bottom of the FAWSL would be relegated at the season’s end? Had that been the case, and the Belles had been that team we wouldn’t have a petition with over 6,000 signatures, we wouldn’t be organising protests and distributing flyers, we would have said fair enough, that’s football, that’s how it works. But to decide that no matter how your season pans out you will be relegated arbitrarily at the end of the season makes a mockery of the league and to an extent the women’s game.

No matter how loud we shout the FA will probably get away with this, because it’s the women’s game and therefore seen as different, as anything goes for some sort of greater good of making women’s football like the Men’s Premier League. They don’t seem to realise that the reason why we are going to women’s games in greater numbers, and following the game more regularly is because it offers a refreshing change from the hyperbole and money-centric men’s top flight. A chance to get involved, to meet and interact with players who are down to earth and happy to engage with their support. Well, at least it did until a few weeks ago. Now the talk is of ‘franchises’ and ‘products’ rather than clubs, and competition. Whether played by men, women, children, or toy robots it is still a sport, and so standing in the game should come down to performance on the pitch; that’s all we want for the Belles – to be considered and governed as a sports team rather than as a potential lure for ‘commercial partners’.

Points of Action

1. On Sunday 9th June, the Belles host Sunday’s FA Cup Winners Arsenal in their next home game. Please download, print and display this match poster to help encourage fans along to the game.
2. The online petition we have set up to help give weight to the Belles’ appeal has not yet been confiscated by the FA and can be found here if you wish to add your signature.

Further Reading

1. The protest at Sunday’s Women’s FA Cup Final was just the latest aspect of what we have been doing to carry the message of the Belles and the FA’s failure to act on sporting grounds. Here’s a round-up of what we got up to last week.
2. For more on this story and how it has developed, please read our initial article, and last week’s follow-up piece.