Belles left running to stand still

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The Independent Online
When the Doncaster Belles went on a sponsored run last Wednesday evening, they were not doing it to get fit for yesterday's Women's League Cup Final at Barnet; the team who are regarded as the women's equivalent of Manchester United were doing it to raise money for the bus to get them down the M1.

"You could say we're living light," sighs club treasurer Michele Jackson - a tall, composed 27-year-old who, when she's not playing sweeper on a Sunday, is assistant manager at the TSB in South Elmsall. Since they shut Frickley Colliery there, Jackson's seen her fair share of rocky bank accounts - but the Belles just now, she says, wouldn't qualify for an overdraft anywhere.

Over the past four seasons, the Doncaster businessman Robert Kantecki has put in pounds 5,000 a year. During that time, the Belles won the FAS Cup twice and the Premier League twice, but, something they feel is more important, they also established teams at Under-12, Under-14, and Under-16 levels.

Last summer, Kantecki withdrew to launch a new business, and the Belles have not found another sponsor. Jackson says, "We've got to believe we'll survive this season - but what about next? How do we bring the young ones on? Some of them are using the seniors' old shirts from three years ago, they look like they're playing in nightshirts - and it annoys you, because they've got so much potential."

Their manager, Mel Woodhall, a Cellar Services technician with Whitbread, says, "It's very frustrating. There's so much more we could do. I wanted a goalkeeping coach - but he's pounds 20 a session, and we haven't got pounds 20."

Instead, the players - some unemployed, others on meagre wages - reach into their own pockets just to get the team to each game. Jackson asks, "Is sad the right word? Probably not. But we've been one of the best teams in the country, this is our 26th season, we're top of the League, we're in the League Cup final - and we don't even know if we can carry on."

The Belles, with three current internationals, competing in a national league - yesterday was their fourth trip to London in four weeks - may be English women's football's most successful team but, being women, they don't even have a pitch. For home games they borrow Armthorpe Welfare's ground, and break even if 100 people come - which, sometimes, they do.

Aware of these problems, the Football Association pays the top women's clubs a subsidy covering about half their travel costs and officials' fees. They point to this as evidence of their commitment, and to the sponsorship they secured for the women's FA Cup from the TV channel UK Living. Reaching the quarter-finals of that competition, where they lost 1-0 to Croydon in the final, earned the Belles pounds 850 - or it will do. The cheque, as they say, is in the post.

Other aspects of the FA's rule - now in its second season - are less helpful. When the Belles let a BBC crew make a documentary that was broadcast last year, they thought they were helping promote women's football. Instead, they got a sharp letter from Graham Kelly about the tone of the programme, and are now scared stiff about talking to the media. Last month, they felt obliged to turn down Yorkshire TV when that company wanted interviews - and a dread of publicity, when you're needing sponsorship, isn't too helpful.

Woodhall says carefully, "I think the FA are working to promote women's football. Whether they're doing it with enough gusto is another question. There are different opinions about that - but it is progressing. It's just long, hard progress, and it'll be hard for a while yet."

The Belles' opponents yesterday, Wembley Ladies, haven't got a sponsor either. It is, says their manager John Jones "a constant struggle. Players' subs have gone up, we've done scratch cards, we've had a car boot sale - but it takes pounds 15,000 a year to run this club, and that's when there's not one person getting a penny for it." He once worked out a three-year budget for a professional women's team with a playing staff of 20: pounds 1,400,000. Fantasy football indeed...

Wembley won promotion to the top flight in 1993. Like the Belles, they have three current internationals, including the sensationally gifted winger Kelly Smith; at 17, she'll win her fourth cap in Italy next Saturday. But Jones has people coming from American colleges now, offering players like Smith four-year scholarships. "The FA have got to do more, or we'll start losing people. And it rankles, all the work the girls put in to play at this level, when you see the money in the men's game," He says. "But I guess the truth is, we've survived 20 years. We know there's no help - and we don't expect any."