The FA are really terrified that the idea might get about that women footballers are a bunch of lager-swilling laddesses

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The Independent Online
Pete Davies, the man who single-handedly revived the popularity of football literature with All Played Out, his compelling account of the 1990 World Cup campaign, has a new love in his life. Gone is his infatuation with Waddle and Lineker, Robson and Robson, 4-4-2 and Gazza's tears (although over this past month, we've all learnt there was nothing unusual in Gazza blubbing when the football didn't go his way: he is after all, just a Geordie). And in its place has come a desire so profound that Davies has moved his house to be close to its source, given up lucrative work to pursue it, spent most of his weekends in search of it. In short, Pete Davies has lost his heart to the Doncaster Belles.

That's the title of his superb new book about women's football, a fly- on-the wall picture of the country's leading female outfit, a sort of elongated love note to 15 hard-working, hard-playing, female fanatics.

"The title's not a joke," Davies said. "I did, honestly, I lost my heart to them. I knew the club existed, but I didn't know any more. Then a friend told me he was making a television film about them and suggested it would make a good article. The moment I met them I knew there was a book in it, they were so passionate, so involved. I went to write about them for a week and stayed for two years."

Davies's new tome is as intimate a chronicle of a football team as can have been written. He followed the girls to work, to training, to the pub; it's all there, the camaraderie, the petty jealousies, the battles with the blazers at the FA. And the fact it's about women - generally derided by media and public alike for the manner in which they trundle around in pursuit of the ball - makes the pleasure of it all the more unexpected.

"There's no question the quality of the women's game is very high," Davies said. "I want this book to proselytise. I passionately believe these people deserve reward, recognition, crowds."

In an attempt to make an early convert, Davies invited me to the women's FA Cup final at Millwall's New Den last Sunday. Doncaster Belles, his loves, weren't even playing. The finalists were Liverpool and Croydon, the Manchester United of women's football, not because they are any good, but because everyone else hates them. Most of the 2,110 people scattered across two of the New Den's fancy stands were women and many of them, judging by the tone of their heckling, players themselves: "that's crap that is; release it early; lay it off, girl."

The game was, in truth, a scrappy affair, the players looked tense, shots were scuffed, passes were misplaced as a matter of course. "Just like a Premiership game," Davies smiled. It seemed inevitable it would go to penalties and that Croydon would grind out a win, by dint of missing fewer. But there were enough touches - Liverpool's No 7 Karen Burke was a class act - to suggest it was the occasion rather than a lack of ability that was to blame. Davies, though, was worried by the occupants of the directors' box. Graham Kelly and Bert Millichip were in there, the men who have recently taken over the women's game, and come out of his book as the villains. Here they were actually bothering to turn up to a women's match and it wasn't exactly a feast.

"The FA say they are committed to the women's game," Davies said. "But there's very little evidence of that. I honestly feel they are uneasy with the concept of women playing football. They're certainly going to hate this book. They're obsessed with image. They're really terrified that the idea might get about that women footballers are a bunch of lager- swilling laddesses."

Are they?

"Yes," he says. "But that's the point. They're ordinary people for whom football makes something of lives that would be otherwise remorselessly bleak. That's what I'm trying to communicate with this book: it's a beautiful game that can do that."

Davies, you feel, has his work cut out acting as the game's unofficial PR man. This was how Alan Green announced the result of the match to Radio 5 listeners: "And we've just heard that Liverpool have been beaten by Croydon in the FA Cup final. But don't panic, it's only the Ladies' FA Cup final."

That kind of thing doesn't deter him, though.

"It's going to be massive this game," he says. "If some smart company gets involved now in sponsoring it, they could achieve an awful lot in the long term."

And how about his own long term, has he got a daughter?

"Yes."

Is she any good at the game?

"She's three," he smiles. "But she can't half trap a ball."

"I Lost My Heart to the Doncaster Belles" is published by Heinemann on 28 May.

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