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it's a whole different ball game

Six times winners of the Women's FA Cup, the Doncaster Belles are the top team in the ever more popular game of women's football. Pete Davies gets on board their team bus
"EY, CLARE. Have you washed your bag?"

"I was waiting for you to ask that."

"She put it on floor outside dressing rooms," Helen Garnett gleefully explained, "and our Max, that's me dog, he only came on and wazzed on it."

"So if you see a dead dog in Donny," said Clare Davis, "it's Helen's."

It was 1 November, the England women's football team were playing Italy in a European Championship qualifier at Roker Park that evening, and the Doncaster Belles were heading up the A1 to watch the game. There were 38 players, parents, and club officials; one of these, Kevin Harrison, went down the aisle collecting pounds 7 a head for the bus. "We'll cover the cost," he said, "and the kids come free." Later they hit me for a lapel badge and two sets of raffle tickets; in women's football, you raise money any way you can.

Now in their 26th season, the Belles are the best known women's club in the country; they've won the WFA Cup six times, the national league twice since it started four years ago, and they're currently leading it again. Apart from seniors and reserves, they run Under-16, Under-14s, and Under-12 teams; one of the latter, Babes A, had scored 23, conceded 0, in their last five games. Chairman Mike Wallace pointed out one parent, a big, bald man with a moustache, gold earrings, and a broken nose who'd put his daughter on a tenner a goal. "So after she's scored eight," Wallace grinned, "he's threatening to bring her off."

To run this takes pounds 15,000 a year, and the Belles don't have it; the club has no sponsor, and survival off the field is a constant struggle. Other top sides, notably Arsenal, have increasing support from the men's clubs with which more and more are now associated, but with the pits all shut, there's not a lot of money in Doncaster.

Centre half Clare "Des" Utley, 16 years old, knows very well how thin the money is. Her father, a miner for 18 years, has been unemployed since Frickley Colliery closed in 1993; she brings home pounds 95 a week from a meat packing plant. "It's alright weighing and packing," she said, "but the last two weeks I've been in marinade. It's awful, you come out all covered in red. Barbecue flavour." So it's easy to see why she lives for Sunday. "You're playing England players, top level, it's right good. And some'll give you some elbow - but it's part of the game, isn't it? If you can't take it, don't play."

They may be strapped for cash, but their sport is now fiercely competitive, and women's football in general is booming. Over 500 clubs are affiliated to the FA, with over 15,000 players - twice as many as five years ago - and standards are rising fast. At Roker Park, with a squad drawn principally from four clubs in the FA Women's Premier League - Arsenal, Croydon, Wembley, and the Belles - England's amateurs outplayed Italy's professionals for much of a fast, fluent game, and were unfortunate to get only a 1-1 draw.

The FA also did well to get 1,722 people into the ground, even if many were local schoolkids let in free; it was worth having them for the noise they made. And there was plenty to make a noise about - chances at both ends, five bookings, and much rolling about in Continental agony. "Just like men," growled one Belle in the stand, "you breathe on 'em, they've broke their leg." But in a week when England's men were again being humiliated in Europe, it was a welcome spectacle - English footballers who could actually pass the ball to each other.

The player of the game was Wembley's Kelly Smith, winning her first cap on the left wing two days after her 17th birthday; every time she went at them you could feel the crowd keening, urging her on the way they did at Old Trafford when Giggs first emerged.

Belles club captain Gillian Coultard, winning a record 86th cap, completed an influential display with a well-taken goal - but another Belle, England's leading scorer Karen Walker, was on the bench in the first half, and that didn't go down too well. Still, what would a national team be without controversy over selection?

Back on the bus, Clare Davis, the Belles' reserve keeper, took time out from plotting revenge on Helen's dog to consider the evening. She said: "I've played some awful places, windswept plateaus, potholed parks; one game, one of their players told me we didn't want to play at their ground, it was contaminated. I've been wondering ever since, what with? So you see a surface like that, and all those people shouting - I'd love to play in a place like that. But," she sighed, "we should have won, shouldn't we?"

8England's women play Croatia at Charlton Athletic next Sunday, 19 November. Kick-off is at 2pm.