Relegation scandal takes toll on Doncaster Rovers Belles

Doncaster's women's team will be relegated next season – whatever happens – to make way for Manchester City. It has turned the game into a laughing stock

Next month, women's football will be under the spotlight as seldom before. England's three matches in the European Championship in Sweden will be screened live by the BBC, and it is a competition they have a fair chance of winning.

Yet the situation that Hope Powell's squad will leave behind is riven by bitterness. The Football Association have told perhaps the most iconic name in women's football, Doncaster Belles, that they will be relegated no matter where they finish in this summer's Super League. The decision has been condemned as "morally scandalous" by Arsenal, the League's leading club.

The Belles have appealed, and expect a decision in the next fortnight. If they lose the appeal, they will then decide whether to take the matter to court, with the head of the country's leading law school telling The Independent on Sunday that no judge will rule against them. How the women's game in England got into this mess seems on the surface to be a scandal of jaw-dropping proportions.

Doncaster Rovers Belles, to give them their full name, had lost their opening game of the season. Four-nil at home to Chelsea was bad, but what followed was scarcely believable. One of the most successful clubs in women's football were told they would drop out of the top flight to make way for a better-resourced franchise, Manchester City.

"How do you think I felt telling them that?" said the Belles' manager, John Buckley. "How did they react? How do you think they reacted?"

They reacted by launching the appeal against the decision. Doncaster Belles have never finished in a relegation position in their 22-year history. The team who finished bottom in last season's Super League were Liverpool. The team who finished top of the second tier, which is bizarrely called the Premier League, were Sunderland.

Liverpool were not relegated and Sunderland were not promoted, although Manchester City, who finished fourth in the Premier League, will take a place in a newly formed Women's Super League One next season. It was an invitation that was not extended to Doncaster, a club who had won the FA Cup six times.

"I cannot understand why Doncaster have not been able to throw their hat in the ring and compete for a place," said Buckley. "If we finish bottom, then we hold our hands up and we admit we are not good enough. We have never lost the right to play in this division and that is what really sticks in your throat. We may just have to take it on the chin." It will be some blow.

When inviting applications from franchises for a reorganised Women's Super League for the 2014 summer season, the FA had four criteria: financial management, commercial sustainability, facilities, plus player and youth development. Manchester City met them, the Belles did not.

Both the morality and the legality of the FA's decision are open to question. The chief executive of BPP Holdings, who run the country's largest law school, is Carl Lygo. He went to school with perhaps the Belles' greatest player, Karen Walker, who scored a hat-trick in every round to help win the FA Cup in 1992. He has offered BPP's legal services free of charge to the Belles.

"They have a case in many areas, whether it is breach of contract under English law or, in European law, the FA abusing a dominant position in the market place," said Lygo. "I have spoken to a leading QC and a retired court of appeal judge about this case and I don't think any judge in the country would find against Doncaster Belles.

"They are in the best financial position for years; they have England internationals; their stadium was used for this year's FA Cup final. How do they not meet the FA's criteria?"

Neither the FA nor Doncaster Belles are commenting on the case while it is under appeal. However, others are not so reticent. Arsenal's general manager, Vic Akers, called the FA's decision "unjust and morally scandalous". He added: "Donny have the support of all the League's current clubs. It seems it is more about money than football."

It is a warm Tuesday evening and the Belles are playing Lincoln City Ladies at Sincil Bank. Sarah Maye, her husband, Kevin, and daughter Emma have brought a banner that speaks for many in south Yorkshire: "Doncaster Belles, 22 Years in the Top Division Ended by the FA's Gr££d."

This is a meeting of the Super League's bottom two clubs. But it is a fact universally acknowledged that any sporting institution that calls itself "Super" is not, and this contest proves the rule. You wonder if Doncaster are playing like a relegated team because that is what they are. The match finishes goalless, largely thanks to the Belles' goalkeeper, Nicola Hobbs.

However, as Sarah points out, at least Doncaster will still have a team next season; Lincoln will lose theirs, because their franchise will be shifted across the Trent to become Notts County Ladies.

"Doncaster have one of the best stadiums in the WSL," she said. "Arsenal play at Boreham Wood, Birmingham in Stratford-upon-Avon, Liverpool at Widnes. We have a 15,000-seat stadium. We have eight England internationals. If the decision does not go our way, we could lose all these players.

"The support we have had from every other club has been humbling but I am not optimistic. Sometimes you have to accept tough decisions, but you can't if they are not explained to you." And on the final whistle the banner is taken down and prepared for its next journey.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Joan Rivers has reportedly been hospitalised after she stopped breathing during surgery
people81-year-old 'stopped breathing' during vocal chord surgery
Life and Style
Chen Mao recovers in BK Hospital, Seoul
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
One in six drivers cannot identify a single one of the main components found under the bonnet of an average car
motoringOne in six drivers can't carry out basic under-bonnet checks
Fungi pose the biggest threat globally and in the UK, where they threaten the country’s wheat and potato harvests
environmentCrop pests are 'grave threat to global food security'
Pupils educated at schools like Eton (pictured) are far more likely to succeed in politics and the judiciary, the report found
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash
tvSimon Cowell blasts BBC for breaking 'gentlemen's agreement' in scheduling war
Arts and Entertainment
Shady character: Jon Hamm as sports agent JB Bernstein in Million Dollar Arm
filmReview: Jon Hamm finally finds the right role on the big screen in Million Dollar Arm
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
footballAnd Liverpool are happy despite drawing European champions
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone