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

Click to follow
The Independent Football

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.