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The Belles toll: Women's game in uproar over 'joke' decision

updated 10:34 AM EDT, Thu May 30, 2013
Gloom and dismay has spread across Doncaster since the Football Association announced its decision.
Gloom and dismay has spread across Doncaster since the Football Association announced its decision.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Doncaster Belles is one of the most famous women's football clubs
  • Club faces being relegated to second tier by English Football Association
  • Protests launched against decision labeled as a "joke" and "unjust"
  • Fans accuse FA of treating them like '"hardened criminals"

(CNN) -- Funded by the wealth of its mega-rich Abu Dhabi owners, Manchester City brought about a new order in men's football -- now it might be about to do the same in the women's game.

But at what cost? Doncaster Belles, one of the most famous and iconic names in women's football is on the brink -- and its fate has people up in arms.

Normally promotion and relegation is decided by a club's place in the league, but the Belles are to be demoted for "commercial and marketing reasons."

Last month, the English Football Association announced its plans for a new two-tier Women's Super League, with eight teams set to compete in the top flight and 10 in the second from next season.

The Belles, a founder member of the Premier League and one of the most successful clubs in the game's history, was expected to maintain its place in the Super League's first division, despite finishing second from bottom for the past two seasons.

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Instead the two-time league winners and six-time FA Cup winners suddenly finds itself jettisoned from the top flight and told it will have to play in the second division next term.

Meanwhile Manchester City's ladies team has been included in the top flight -- a move which has been construed by some to be financially motivated given the club's commercial appeal.

For Doncaster, it couldn't have come at a worse time given that women's football is on the up.

According to the latest FIFA figures, an estimated 29 million women across the world play football with around 12% of those being youth players.

Lyon have won universal praise for their style of football, though the French side was recently beaten in the Women's European Champions League final by German side Wolfsburg -- a game staged at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge stadium.

The FA's decision over Doncaster has been described as a "joke" and "unjust" by the general manager of Arsenal ladies, Vic Akers, with accusations that the decision is "more about money than football."

Doncaster has appealed and as a result told CNN that it was unable to offer any comment in fear of jeopardizing its chances of success, while City were also not willing to comment.

The FA will also not comment.

Iconic

Hayley's story

"I was about 12 at the time, around 1995, and the Belles were dominant. They'd completed the league and FA Cup double in 1994 and nobody could shift them," said Paterson.

"The incredible power of strikers Karen Walker and Gail Borman coupled with the tenacity of midfielder Gill Coulthard made the Belles a frightening force to be up against -- and I was joining their thriving youth academy in the under-14s.

"I remember my first game. I played left wing-back and I've never run so hard in my life -- the values of chasing down every ball and never giving up were instilled from the start.

"We won 4-2 and I came off the pitch shattered, just wishing I could sleep for a week.

"As a Doncaster-born and bred girl, it was a bit of a dream come true for me to play for my home team. Any opportunity I'd get, I'd race down to the Armthorpe Welfare to watch the Belles' first team in action.

"The first team were very approachable, although I never dared to in all honesty. The closest I remember getting to them was attempting to put a tackle in on former England international Vicky Exley during training, when I was about 16, she skipped past me like I wasn't there. Lesson learned.

"Looking back, I'll never know if I could have made it, but I still see my time with the Belles as something I'll never forget."

According to an email received by CNN, the decision has been based around the criteria of "financial and business management, commercial sustainability and marketing, facilities (including ground grading criteria) and players, support staff and youth development."

While not enjoying the same kind of backing as the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal or City's commercial appeal, Doncaster was confident its bid would be accepted.

"They've just taken the eight best bids and put them in the top-flight," said journalist Tony Leighton, one of the most authoritative voices in women's football.

"It's not just about what happens on the pitch but the criteria off it too, and perhaps that is where Doncaster have come up short.

"They haven't always been the best managed and they don't have a huge relationship with the men's team, although they do have an association and play at the same stadium.

"But the FA have announced, after just one game of the new season that Doncaster will effectively be relegated.

"After one game? How can you motivate a group of players when they know they will be relegated anyway?"

While the local community had hoped to ride crest of the wave of a women's game thriving around the world, instead the Belles are wondering just where to go next.

Domination

From 1978 to 1993, Doncaster dominated women's football in England, losing just one league match in 15 years -- a record eventually brought to an end by Arsenal in the second season of the National Premier League.

In contrast, City, which is owned by the deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Mansour, has never competed in the top-flight of the women's game.

"The FA will make no further comment until this process is complete, when final confirmation will be given on all clubs that will enter FA WSL1 or FA WSL2 in 2014.," said an FA statement. "This is expected to be completed in due course."

City have played just one season in a national league, finishing fourth, and the decision to include them in the Super League's top division at the Belles' expense has left supporters outraged.

"It's important that it's made clear that we are not protesting, and campaigning along the lines that Doncaster Belles categorically deserves its place in the top flight of the women's game due to its historical standing," Glen Wilson, editor of respected Doncaster website, Popular Stand, told CNN.

"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, it has earned the right to defend its top-flight status in the way it achieved it; on the football pitch.

"I cannot see how the Belles' application, and all it offers to the criteria set out by the FAWSL, could fall down below that of a team who have only played one season in a national division such as Manchester City.

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"And with the FA not stating its reasoning, and refusing to comment afterward, it leads us to draw only one conclusion; money."

Formed in 1969, the club became a trailblazer in Britain, becoming the country's very first social enterprise with women's football at its heart.

The Belles Community initiative, which was launched four years ago, enabled the local population to take advantage of social, health and educational resources and allowed young girls to get involved in the sport.

Thriving community

According to the 2011 census, there are 302,400 people living in Doncaster, which is in Yorkshire, northern England.

The men's football team, which was playing non-league football just 10 years ago, is now playing in the country's second tier for the first time in 50 years.

But in a city which Liverpool and England legend Kevin Keegan was born, it is the achievements of England Ladies star Karen Walker which are celebrated.

Walker scored 40 goals in 83 appearances for her country, becoming only one of two from Doncaster to have been inducted into the FA Hall of Fame along with former teammate Gillian Coulthard.

Both women played a huge role in getting girls into football and helping the sport grow both locally and nationally.

Only last October, the FA announced a new five-year plan to encourage women to take up the sport and increase participation within the UK to 253,600 by 2018.

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Hayley Paterson was just one of those who came through the club's Academy as a teenager before moving into journalism where she now reports on the Belles.

"Did the Belles finish bottom last term? No. Did the team finish bottom the season before that? No. So why was that decision made?" asked Paterson, who works for the city's local newspaper.

"It's saddening to see the club that I grew up with treated this way. We might just be 'little Donny' but that club is a pioneer of the women's game.

"It is the very reason women's and girls football is thriving in this country. The club is the only ever-present in the top flight and yet, in a flash, it is the only team replaced by Manchester City.

"People want answers. I want answers as a fan and as a reporter."

Hardened criminals

With passions running high last Sunday's Women's FA Cup final was marred by the alleged heavy handling of those protesting against the FA's decision.

With the game being played at the Keepmoat Stadium -- the home of the Belles -- stewards confiscated a banner, leaflets and a bell from supporters who had yet to even make their way from the car park to the stadium.

According to an FA spokesperson, "It was taken by officials from Doncaster Rovers as it was deemed to be unsuitable," though the banner has since been returned.

Tony Greenhall, the campaign spokesman, believes protesters have been treated as "hardened criminals".

"The FA's actions throughout this episode have been underhand and demeaning to such an important sporting organization," Greenhall told CNN.

"From the surreptitious release of the original statement regarding the FAWSL restructuring, through to the draconian treatment of concerned fans at the Women's FA Cup Final on Sunday.

"The FA's own guidelines boast of transparency in the decision making process yet they ignore all questions from fans and media.

"Doncaster Belles is a historic club, not just important to the town but to the whole of football. The fact that they can be shabbily discarded at the sight of a fat bank account shows the guardians of the game hold sporting principles in contempt."

Petition

Greenhall is not alone in his dismay at the FA's decision with an online petition having received over 7,000 signatures so far.

"There cannot be much to choose between the application of the Belles and that of Manchester City," added fanzine editor Wilson.

"The difference must have been negligible, 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?

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"Had that been the case, and the Belles had been that team, we wouldn't have a petition with over 5,000 signatures, we wouldn't be organizing protests, 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."

Fighting on

Wilson remains pessimistic over the fight to force a rethink by the FA.

"No matter how loud we shout the FA will probably get away with this," concedes Wilson.

"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.

"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'."

No decision is expected until early June, but Belles fans just want to find out whether the club's appeal has been successful, while others just want the FA to front up and confirm its position.

"What I want from the FA is an explanation," added Leighton.

"I've spoken to the FA on several occasions and all they say is 'look at the press release, there won't be any further comment.

"I don't think they'll change their mind and they'll probably stick with Doncaster going down, or perhaps they might expand the top division to make room.

"But they've shot themselves in the foot with the way they've handled the whole situation."

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