Later today, at an undisclosed time, representatives of the Doncaster Belles will be at Wembley to have their appeal against arbitrary ‘relegation’ from the FA Women’s Super League heard by the Football Association. After twenty-two years, the Belles’ status as the only ever-presents at the top-tier of women’s football comes down not to a football match, but to folk in suits with laminated security passes bearing three lions. Whether the Belles are succesful in their appeal or not, seeing a sustainable and historically important football club’s status and future settled in this manner cannot be for the good of the game in any sense.
Before I continue a point of clarification is needed; the Belles getting relegated is not bad for football – past glories and tradition should never make you exempt from suffering the bad times that afflict 99.99% of football clubs. However, it is the Belles being demoted, being forcibly removed from a division because they don’t fit criteria that have no basis on their ability to play the game itself, that is wrong. And to have that done just one game into the season, cancelling out months of preparation, of anticipation, of promises and commitments to players and sponsors is a filthy, dirty practice with demoralising effects on a football-based community of which the FA should frankly be ashamed.
It was four weeks ago exactly that I sat and wrote a very belated article (two weeks after the FA’s initial announcement of the planned FAWSL restructure) about what was happening, and how it was grossly unfair on the Belles. I’d intended to write it sooner, but work hadn’t allowed me the time to do so, and so I’d left it for ten days or so presuming the professional media would bang the drum on it soon enough. They didn’t, so when time finally allowed, I wrote that piece lamenting another poorly judged decision by the Football Association that had undone the appeal of the Super League, and tossed tradition aside in a pursuit of commercial quick-fixes. It was, as most articles are on popular STAND, or Viva Rovers before it, just me getting things off my chest, and hoping that I might create a bit of awareness amongst those who hadn’t noticed the daft way in which Women’s Football was being ‘progressed’.
To begin with it went that way; around 1,500 people read the story in its first day on the site; a record amount of daily visitors for this humble fanzine, and folk who left reassuring comments to suggest that others felt the same. But then, after a day’s lull, things snowballed on the Wednesday as freelance journalist Georgina Turner (to whom I am very thankful) tweeted link to the piece giving it a gale-force second wind which sent it viral. By lunch-time alone on that day nearly 5,000 people had visited the site, and subsequently many well-known and respected news outlets picked up the story too; some like the Huffington Post, nabbed my words and ran, others kindly linked to our campaign whilst helping provide wider exposure; Two Hundred Percent, The New Statesman, CNN, Talksport, and the local media pushed too, with Radio Sheffield and Sine FM pushing, and Hayley Paterson of the Doncaster Free Press Star, and South Yorkshire Times should certainly be credited for banging the drum (or sounding the bell) louder than most.
An article had become a protest, and as the club confirmed that they would appeal and therefore were limited by how much they could speak out against the decision, we – myself, Tony Greenhall, and the Belles Noisy Fans – continued to do all we could to push what was happening. On Saturday 18th May, ahead of the following week’s Cup Final in Doncaster, the FA had the FA Women’s Cup trophy on display in Doncaster. You could have your photograph taken with it, so on Tony’s suggestion, we did. And we brought along the town crier, the Mayor and the Chief Executive of the Council Jo Miller too. And at the same time, to help give weight to the Belles’ appeal, I began an online petition; and it, along with the names of the 8,345 of you who signed it, will be shown to the FA today.
We didn’t stop there in our bid to create further awareness. I took a banner along to the UEFA Women’s Champions League Final at Stamford Bridge, and then posted it north so that Tony and the Noisy Fans could take it to that Sunday’s Women’s FA Cup Final too. Unfortunately they were prevented from taking it in to the ground, and they were also prevented from distributing leaflets, from encouraging further signatures on the aforementioned petition, and from taking their infamous bells into the stadium by security who at the time said they were acting on behalf of the FA, but ultimately it turned out were simply following instructions from Doncaster Rovers. Thankfully for the overall cause, the prevention of the banner from entering the stadium, regardless of whose decision it was, actually helped publicise what was happening with the Belles more so than had it actually been allowed in.
The Football Supporters Federation kindly got involved regarding the banner, and the Belles and the Rovers have since issued a joint statement, which points to the stewards actions coming from an over-zealous interpretation of a recommendation made by the Belles. That said, for me the most telling aspect of banner-gate was not the poor interpretation of approach from the Rovers’ security team, but the inference in the statement that clubs are afraid to let their fans speak out on a cause they ultimately concur with, for fear of further provoking the beast that is the Football Association. Somehow a sports’ governing body has developed and affirmed the characteristics of tyrannical despotism; shh, don’t speak out, you’ll only make them angrier, imagine where they’ll demote the club to then.
It is into the offices of this in effect police-state that the Belles will tread today, hoping to argue their case and be reconsidered for a place, or at least the right to play for a place, in the top flight of the women’s game. Should they fail in their appeal then there is the suggestion and inference that a legal challenge would follow. The club have leading lawyers keen to offer their services. “I don’t think any judge in the country would find against Doncaster Belles,” said Carl Lygo of BPP Holdings to Tim Rich of the Independent yesterday, but despite all I have seen in the past month, despite all the outcry and the support, I still find it hard to share his optimism.
The Football Association are likely to intone that they have simply acted in accordance with the process they set out. They have considered proposals for licenses to FA Women’s Super Leagues 1 and 2 and have decided on the recipients of those licenses based on the criteria set out. The FA therefore see nothing wrong with their decision. And because they see nothing wrong with their decision they have failed to grasp the irony that a body responsible for the administration of a sport, has decided its elite level teams without once considering their sporting ability. That football ability, on-field performance, or current league position were not amongst those criteria does not seem to matter to the FA, what would any of these things have to do with furthering football and growing the game?
So, what do the Belles have on their side? They have, the last few weeks have shown us, overwhelming support. From supporters, to followers of the game, to the press and media and beyond there is a now a huge groundswell of opinion that the FA have called this very wrong. The Belles have not been the worst team in the Super League, they have not been the least supported, they are not in debt, they are not reliant on the whim of a sugar daddy nor handouts from male counterparts. They are a self-sufficient community club that has done all that the FA has asked of it – they have progressed against their own FA-approved Club Development plan – and they have done so within the best facilities of any current league club. They do not unequivocally deserve a place at the top-level of the game, but they certainly merit the opportunity to defend the one they have retained for two decades the way they earned it; on a football pitch.
Do I expect the Belles to win their appeal? No, They’re arguing sense and on-field sensibility against practice, procedure and appropriately worded paperwork. The FA won’t change its mind, firstly because they cannot understand what they have done wrong, and secondly because the potential lawsuit from Manchester City would be significantly larger and better funded that a potential lawsuit from Doncaster Belles, regardless of the kind gestures of legal support they have thus far received. If the FA does make a noble retraction then I will be as surprised as I am delighted.
So, what do I want? I just want the FA to show that football should be settled on the pitch. In a perfect world this would involve placing Manchester City in FAWSL2, with Sunderland (winners of the 2012-13 Premier League) in FAWSL1 instead and a statement that whoever finishes in 8th position in the current Super League will start next season in FAWSL2. The Belles being relegated is sad for the club and the town, but if it comes as a result of finishing beneath a dotted line on the league table and with an ‘R’ next to their name then it is not a tragedy for football. If instead they drop as a result of power-points and paperwork, with an asterisk next to their name and small print beneath the table containing the word ‘restructure’, then it is another terribly dangerous precedent against a general sporting ethos, set down by the people charged with running our game.