Women's Football: Doncaster Rovers Belles find pot of gold at end of the rainbow
As they prepare for expulsion from the Women's Super League, this iconic club has every reason to be cheerful
Sunday 29 September 2013
Alan Smart knows all about impacts. At the height of the Falklands war the vice-chairman of Doncaster Rovers Belles was on board HMS Invincible working in the communications hub when they were told an Exocet missile was heading straight towards them.
"We were ordered to lie flat on the deck and we counted down, five, four, three, two, one," he recalled. "And then there was nothing. We looked up and saw Atlantic Conveyor burning. It had taken the full hit."
This afternoon Doncaster Belles will count down to their own moment of impact, although what happened in the chill waters of the south Atlantic gives the big Yorkshireman a sense of perspective.
The club may be relegated, but there will be no lives lost. "People may think Donny Belles have been ripped apart by what has happened," he said. "We have taken a punch on the nose, that's all."
From a distance it looks the perfect end to a season in the Women's Super League. At the top, Liverpool will play Bristol Academy with the winner taking the title. At the bottom, the Belles, who face Birmingham at home, will have to better Lincoln's result against Chelsea to avoid last place.
However, neither Lincoln nor Doncaster will be coming back to Women's Super League One when the 2014 season kicks off. This is franchise football. Lincoln Ladies will be shifted across the Trent to become Notts County. The Belles, who have been part of top-flight women's football since it came into being, were told after the first game of the season that, whatever happened, they would be relegated and replaced by Manchester City, who finished fourth in the second tier. Today will be the day. Smart sounds unusually upbeat. In part it is because he has witnessed the truly horrific. After leaving the Royal Navy he worked for the police in victim identification and made two journeys to the Far East to identify bodies amid the carnage of the Bali bombing and the tsunami. The relegation of Doncaster Belles may be a grotesque injustice but it is not a tragedy.
Indeed, it may be a story that ends well. By its own admission, one of the reasons the FA had for reorganising the divisions was "to gain greater exposure for the women's game". The irony is that the decision to place Doncaster Belles, who are among the oldest and most iconic names of the women's game, in the second tier produced vastly more publicity than anything else.
Among those who came to the Belles' aid was Carl Lygo, the vice-chancellor of BPP University, the country's leading private business university, who signed a shirt sponsorship deal worth £30,000.
To put this into perspective, the club's budget for players is around £35,000, the second lowest of any of those who applied to join Women's Super League One and a significant reason why the Belles' application was rejected. There will be considerably more investment to come. "It is game-changing," said Smart. "John Ryan, the chairman of Doncaster Rovers [the men's club], could chuck £100,000 at his club and it would wash their kit for a year. £100,000 would transform Donny Belles.
"Money changes things. I don't know what Liverpool have spent on their squad, it could be anything from £300-500,000 and it has transformed them from a club that has finished bottom in the last two seasons to one that is on the point of winning the title.
"They have employed a high-class manager in Matt Beard and they spend four or five days a week training when, historically, you would train two nights a week."
Liverpool represent one of the two models in the game. They are a wholly owned subsidiary of a Premier League team, whose American owner, John W Henry, has invested heavily in women's football. Bristol, who are supported by Stroud and South Gloucestershire College, are the other. The college provides employment opportunities for Bristol's players and that is what BPP will do for Doncaster.
"A new club will emerge from this," said Lygo, who has joined the Belles' board. "The model will be Barcelona. There, they coach kids from under-nine level through a pyramid that eventually feeds the first team.
"But there will be more than that at Doncaster. If you want to become a lawyer or an accountant we have the facilities to support your career. If you want to become a sports journalist, we can help. We want to take a holistic approach to the players, helping them get work and their Uefa A and B coaching licences, rather than treating them like professional pieces of meat."
As a lawyer, Lygo has considered the question of whether to sue the FA. "I have talked at length to one of the country's leading sports lawyers, a QC, and he argued the club has a very good case against the FA," he said. "But the club has to decide whether it really wants a protracted legal battle or whether we just move on. There is a part of me that wants to thank the FA for what they have done because it has concentrated everyone's mind. When the final whistle goes, it won't be a signal to start crying in our beer."
It may not be a coincidence that Lincoln and Doncaster, the two teams whose fate was decided almost before the season began, occupy the bottom two places. Sometimes the Belles have performed like a team resigned to their fate, losing at home to Arsenal and Liverpool by a collective scoreline of 15-0. Yet their last two games, a 1-1 draw with Everton and an astonishing match against Bristol that saw them take a 3-0 half-time lead before losing 4-3 in the final seconds, spoke of a relative improvement.
This afternoon at the Keepmoat Stadium has been billed as a celebration of Doncaster's 22 years in the top flight. However, when the bells that their supporters take to every fixture stop chiming, there might be very few eyes that are dry.
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