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

10 thoughts on “Silenced Belles; On the FA’s Rejection of the Doncaster Belles’ Appeal

  1. The so called independent appeal panel comprised two members of the FA. So a panel making a decision about the FA was hardly likely to be independent. The availability of the stadium was similar to the situation with other clubs but the legal team were not given access to information on other bids. The FA is now seeking to prevent Doncaster Belles from taking this to a true independent court to have the whole thing reviewed. Labelling something as independent does not make it independent. Commercially the Belles have proved their case by being in the top flight the longest of all clubs producing lots of England Internationals. Why must the new league be only 8 clubs? Lots of questions but the appeals panel did not question the merits of the original decision. This is injustice heaped on injustice.

    Carl Lygo, Professor of Law, Barrister and Chief Executive of the BPP Professional Education Group

  2. It does seem, to me at least, that the gravamen of the Belles complaint against the FA lies not in the recent unsuccessful appeal and not in the way the teams were selected for the FA WSL1 but in the criteria for the selection which had been laid down by the FA.

    It was way back in December of last year that the teams in the FA WSL were told that the league was to be expanded to two divisions and that they would have to re-apply for a licence. It must have been clear at that stage that previous record of an applicant club would not be taken into consideration.The Appeal Tribunal stated in paragraph 1-7 that the clock would be set to zero.

    It should have been at that stage that protests should have been made, but none were. Instead the Belles applied and agreed to be bound by the terms of the application and specifically clause 12 which provides, and I paraphrase, that the decision on selection is at the discretion of the FA panel and from which no appeal lies, except an appeal on the basis that the FA has not followed the procedure set out in the licensing process. To this the Belles and the other 32 applicant clubs agreed.

    That Mr Smart thought the Belles were a shoe-in for a spot in FA WSL1 is evidenced that the Belles application was only for that division and not an application for FA WSL2 in the alternative.

    In the events which have come to pass the Belles application ranked 9th and the panel had determined that the premier division should only have 8 competing teams. Reading the Appeal Tribunal’s reasons, it is difficult to argue otherwise than that the selection panel had performed the duties imposed upon it by the licensing process and that is what the Tribunal decided.

    It is true that the FA could have gone down another route and left the present FA WSL in situ and added a second division but it did not do so and the Belles freely entered into the licensing process which has now seem them allocated to the second tier. As a wise pro-vice-chancellor once said (and I paraphrase) this is now happening.

  3. Stated in section 1.7 of the Appeals Panel report, in rejecting the heritage and history and massive impact the Doncaster Belles have had in the women’s game, “The clock was effectively being set back to zero.”

    How hypocritical that this week sees 150 years of the FA celebrated as though heritage, history and massive impact is all that matter.

    I think it is now clear, if clarity were in doubt. The FA are, and have not been for some time, fit to run our game.

    Disgusting.

  4. I’m a Portsmouth fan and since the expansion of the WSL, have been following events with Doncaster with interest. While I was disappointed with Pompey being denied a place in the WSL (though had the PST taken over in April 2012 rather than April 2013, who knows how different that would have been), the way Doncaster have been treated by the FA is nothing short of disgraceful. Of course no team has an inherent right to be in the top division, but for a team to be relegated by committee is completely immoral and against the principles of sport and fair play, especially in place of a team which has clearly only got there due to money. The whole expansion process of the WSL has been an utter shambles, from relegation of Doncaster, the franchise-ation of Lincoln, the exclusion of big clubs like Leeds and Pompey (particularly Leeds) and so on.

    To completely ignore Doncaster Belle’s legacy for women’s football which is a lot more Manchester City seems completely wrong. At the very least, the FA could have just said that whoever finished bottom of the WSL this season would be relegated into WSL2, that would at least be slightly more fair. The major appeal with women’s football is the fact that it’s not so money centric but the FA seem to be doing their best to destroy the appeal. I mean, Doncaster were penalised for not paying as high wages as Man City?! Seriously, you can’t make it up.

    Also, I think the fact that the Belles groundshare with the men’s team is something that should be commended as I think it’s not right that women’s team should play in a different stadium or even a completely different town to the men’s team and if I was in the FA, I’d make groundsharing with men’s team a requirement for playing in WSL1.

    Saying that, with the way Doncaster have been messed around the FA, I’ve decided to adopt them as my WSL team (but Pompey remain my main team of course!).

  5. Ron Ipstone, a little bit of background reading may help you understand what has happened as you are obviously in the dark.

    The FA have contradicted themselves through out with one of the latest being that the Belles only have 3rd call on the use of their ground. Lincoln Ladies are being moved to Meadow Lane, Nottingham next season where the Notts County mens team and Nottingham Rugby club already play. Why have they been offered a WSL1 position under those conditions where they will have 3rd call on facilities?

    There are inconsistencies throughout the FAs processes which show at least professional incompetence verging on corruption at the other end of the scale.

  6. I do think Ron Ipstone is right to say that the Belles should have objected to the process at the outset, rather than waiting until an outcome was delivered.

    I also think Belles should have sought professional advice at a much earlier stage, to ensure that their bid documents were as robust as possible. By not doing this, they have exposed themselves to avoidable risks.

    That being said, the FA have failed to demonstrate in any auditable way that they have applied an assessment without favour. The FA have conducted their assessment inside a “black box”, and rely upon internal consideration only of matters of a wider public disclosure interest. As noted above, other applicants not able at present to satisfy the stadium criteria is a case in point.

    The disregard of playing performance in favour of the published criteria is unusual in that it departs from the principle upon which the league programme for the current season is based. What is the point of a competition where league standings do not influence status allocations?

    The timing of the original decision is odd in that it effectively negates the season for clubs affected, with negative impacts on morale, attendances and ability to raise commercial income via sponsorship. It imposes avoidable disadvantages on the Belles.

    The stadium access priority question is a rule without a reason, given the infrequency of the issue and the ability to resolve it through dialogue.

    The arbitrary provision for only a 3 week window of unavailability due to annual renovation is discriminatory in that it presumes stadia will use turf to repair the playing surface. The Keepmoat Desso pitch requires re-seeding, which typically has a much longer establishment period (ideally 8 weeks). Only Doncaster Belles among the Womens elite use this type of playing surface, although it is in common use by the major clubs in the mens professional game (including Wembley Stadium, HQ of the FA). Eligibility rules which exclude higher quality playing surfaces are irrational, arbitrary and without any clear justification, provided suitable contingency can be agreed.

  7. I am so sorry to hear this and I thank you for your email. I used to teach in Doncaster and some of our girls trained with and subsequently played with the . I wish I could be there in person to continue to support you all bit I now live in Cornwall. All the best to you all :)

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