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Football: New year for Belles of the ball

Pete Davies finds the women's game in good health for today's kick-off
If a woman running a team strikes you as a curious notion, think again. In 1997, according to Julie Chipchase, it's not unique or special. "A few years ago, maybe," she explained. "I've always played under men myself, but women are getting qualified now who have played football all their lives. I have got my coaching badge myself; like any manager, my aim is to make players better, and to build a winning team."

Now 36, Chipchase sends her Doncaster Belles team out against the Millwall Lionesses at Armthorpe this afternoon at the start of what promises to be the most competitive season yet in the FA Women's Premier League. Millwall present Chipchase with a stern first test; they knocked Doncaster out of both the League Cup and the FA Cup last season, on their way to winning both trophies.

Millwall finished fifth in the league, while Doncaster were runners-up behind their old rivals Arsenal - and on paper Arsenal look strong again. Last season's leading goalscorer, Joanne Broadhurst, is joined in attack by Rachel Yankey, a promising 17-year-old who won her first cap against Scotland two weeks ago. In defence, the Gunners have signed internationals Carol Harwood and Leslie Higgs from Wembley, and are likely to be as mean at the back as they are prolific going forward.

They also start their season with a difficult game; they face an Everton side themselves strengthened by the acquisition from Liverpool of international midfielders Karen Burke and Rebecca Easton. Chipchase is fully aware of the difficulties ahead: "I want to fetch some silverware back to Doncaster, of course I do," she said. "But I'm not naive enough to think I can click my fingers and it'll just happen. It's going to take a lot of hard work."

Along with Croydon, double-winners two seasons ago, Doncaster, Everton, Millwall and Arsenal look likely to make the running in a division of two halves. Wembley and Liverpool (also now managed by a woman, Barbara Nodwell) will both sorely miss the players they have lost. Newly promoted Bradford City and Berkhamsted Town, meanwhile, will know that the top flight play on a plane as far removed from the rest of the women's game as the men's Premiership is from the Nationwide.

They can take heart from the survival last season of Tranmere Rovers, but they are still likely to find themselves fighting for scraps. Not that Chipchase would write them off. With more and more women playing, standards are rising all the time. "When I joined the Belles eight years ago, we used to win by 10-0, 12-0, ridiculous scores," she said. "Being a full-back, some games I'd barely get a kick. But the fact that the club's not won anything for three seasons just shows how much better all the other teams have become."