Football: Gunners on target as fans are won over: Once banned by the FA, the code will soon be back in the fold: Clive White watches the women of Arsenal close on the title after a 2-1 defeat of Doncaster Belles

AT LEAST one Arsenal XI is doing its stuff in the League as well as the cups. The Gunners women's team need just one point from their last game to be sure of winning the National League Championship, after inflicting only the second league defeat in 15 years on the legendary Doncaster Belles, beating them 2-1 at Highbury yesterday. In the WFA and League cups they have been keeping pace with their male counterparts, having qualified for the semi-finals of both.

A problem for women's football has been trying to keep up with its own rapid expansion, particularly at under-16 level, where the number of clubs has quadrupled in the last couple of years. About 12,000 girls and women today play the game as members of the 455 clubs in England which are affiliated to the Women's Football Association.

At present England is the only country in Europe where the women's game is not run by the national governing body recognised by Fifa and Uefa. But that is shortly to change in the biggest shake-up in 24 years of competitive women's football. Big Brother - the FA - is taking over.

While the FA's greater resources and expertise are generally welcomed, there remains a degree of suspicion about its motives among died-in-the-wool regional administrators who jealously guard the empires they have built up over the years without any help from, or indeed in spite of, the FA.

Some have not forgotten the difficult birth of the women's game, nor forgiven the FA for outlawing it from 1921 until they rescinded their decision 50 years later. And to think that women only started playing the game in the first place to raise money for the war effort.

Playing football was bad for their health, the FA decreed; it could not have done much for the health of the men's game either, as it attracted crowds of several thousands even when the war heroes returned. On one occasion, in 1920, a crowd of 52,000 watched Dick Kerr's Ladies from Preston play St Helens Ladies in a charity match at Goodison Park with 10,000 locked out. Eat your heart out, Howard Kendall.

The sudden transfer of power to county FAs, which is scheduled for June, when the WFA will cease to exist, is likely to be uneasy. Linda Whitehead, who became the first full-time paid administrator of women's football in 1980 and is now expected to carry on running the National League on a voluntary basis, warned of the problems that could come when clubs realise that the WFA office is to close.

But with grants from the Football Trust and the Sports Council rerouted through the FA, there is no turning back. Richard Faulkner, deputy chairman of the Trust and a former chairman of the WFA, and Tim Stearn, his successor at the WFA, initiated the take-over, which they believe is of paramount importance if the game is to make the most of the escalation in interest.

For Sue Lopez, a former international, the FA's involvement has not come soon enough. Internationally, England has stagnated since winning the Mundialito Trophy - 'the Little World Cup' - in 1988. England has been overtaken by Scandinavia, the United States and by Germany, where 500,000 play the women's game. England did not even qualify for the inaugural World Cup finals in China in 1991.

Lopez, who was to be the FA's new co-ordinator, made it clear last week that she would not now be taking the post, believing that her talents - she is the only woman with a full FA coaching badge - could be put to better use elsewhere.

Whatever England's standing in the world game, Doncaster and Arsenal, who paraded nine full England internationals between them for the match - part of the benefit day for the boxer Michael Watson - put on a composed, skilful display which made for a pleasant change from the man's game, and was much appreciated by the crowd of 18,196.

It is to be hoped that they will not lose that distinction as they enter the man's world.

Goals: Wylie (5) 1-0; Coultard (45) 1-1; Ball (58) 2-1.

Arsenal: Shipp; Pealling, Curley, Slee, Wylie, Barber, Williams, Bampton, Churchman (Smith, 80), Couling, Ball.

Doncaster Belles: Davidson; Chipchase, Ryde, McGuiggan, Hunt (Lisseman, 33), Jackson, Lowe, Coultard, Walker, Borman, Murray.

Referee: B Saville.

(Photograph omitted)

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