Sport on TV : Women on upswing as Belles have a ball

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The Independent Online
They were, in the verdict of one of their own, "daft as brushes". They did the League and Cup double last season and partied hard afterwards. They were the Doncaster Belles, England's top women's football club, and when they'd had a few to drink, they were as vulgar as Fergie, but nippier down the wing and more likely to represent their country on a regular basis.

Astonishingly, 12,000 women play club football in Britain. This means there are more British women footballers than there are people who go and watch Wimbledon at home - in other words, an astonishingly small number of people indeed. The Belles (BBC1, Tuesday), a splendid documentary profile of the side set at the tail-end of its big-winning season, only made you wonder why. The programme took you right in close, showed you the graft and the laughs and left you longing to be a part of it. Psychologisingbriefly, one of the players said she could see the appeal of this form of togetherness "if you hadn't got a family". But even if you had, the Belles' togetherness looked more fun. When was the last time your family ended up sinking entire crates of bottled beer, or getting completely smashed at Carlo's in Doncaster after a 1-0 win over Knowsley?

The programme underscored not so much the differences between male and female soccer players as what they have in common. The mysterious tendencies developed by people who play regular competitive football are not distinguishable by gender - certainly not judging by what we saw here. Male or female, you will find yourself wanting to own at least one Abba CD. Male or female, you will develop an overwhelming urge to visit nightclubs. Thirty-eight hours before the women's FA Cup final, the team was in Myst iques - beers ordered, "Delilah" sing-along in progress, PVC-clad male stripper under the strobes, etc. Just like some of the professionals, in fact, though the Belles were less likely to trash their taxis on the way home.

Preparation for that final continued in high style. Breakfast at the hotel on the morning of the game was the full English-style Rise 'n' Shine, Wake Up 'n' Die platter - fried eggs, bacon and sausage with a side order of fried eggs, some extra bacon anda few additional sausages, atop a bed of fried eggs.

After a salt-intensive fat-feast like that, most of us would have crawled back to bed for a week or two, but the Belles were out on the hotel steps doing a team dance routine to "This is It", one of a series of exquisite musical passages in the programme, including the side's particularly tender re-working of Perry Como's "Magic Moments" and a top-notch dance routine for "Let it Swing", unless I'm much mistaken a 1985 Euro-smash for the Scandinavian singing duo Bobbysocks. Here perhaps was the single important male/female distinction: the women seemed better at enjoying themselves. Imagine Manchester United bopping in unison to "Sweets for my Sweet". Imagine Manchester United having any kind of good time at all.

The Belles took us absorbingly close to the players, but left us no further down the line with the burning question: what do football team managers actually do? This is a mystery with which television has intermittently but boldly wrestled on our behalf over the last year, without as yet producing a convincing solution or even a decent lead. Cutting Edge last January took its long hard look at Graham Taylor (rants in strangely fragmented English, says "eh?" a lot) and later in the year an edition of Inside Story followed up with an examination of Barry Fry at Birmingham (bounces up and down in an Umbro coat, sings "Simply the Best").

Paul Edmonds - "formerly at Leicester with Gary Lineker", the programme told us, slightly desperately - seemed twice as purposeful as the two of them put together, but even his idea of heartening pre-match rhetoric was to point out the number of games remaining in the season and say: "We've got to make sure we win as many as we can and certainly not lose any." A better preparation, surely, would have been to play that tape of "Let it Swing" again.

Edmonds was, as he pointed out, one of the few managers in football who stood to lose his star striker for a while to pregnancy (though, in a flash of inspiration, I've written to Glenn Hoddle at Chelsea and asked him to have Robert Fleck checked over). He was also in the unique position of feeling obliged to leave the dressing-room when the team were getting changed (in which the cameras decently joined him).

One of the players complained that patronising male referees tended "to blow for the slightest thing". But since last year's Fifa initiatives, that's been the case at all levels. Despite this, the glimpses we got of the football looked good as well - at least as fluid as most of what passes, week in week out, for Premiership "entertainment". And these were players who had jobs to do in the day.

Right now, in fact, the women's game can only gain from comparison with the male, professional version. Here's a competition uninfested by coked-out players, bunged-up managers and preposterous chairmen. Sky Sports last week went to the trouble of beaming across the United Kingdom football from the Scottish League when they showed the Rangers-Celtic game. So why not regular women's football?