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The appeal of Doncaster Belles

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Doncaster Belles demotion from top-flight women’s football has caused a bit of a stir. So what’s going on? FSF National Council member Tim Hillyer explains.

Decisions made by The FA are always liable to be analysed in microscopic detail by the media, grafting 24 hours a day to feed the ravenous appetite of the football public for the minutiae of their favourite sport, even during the close season. Few though anticipated that women’s football would provide the latest morsel.

The focus of the story are Doncaster Belles, who have been one of the most successful women’s teams since the Women’s Premier League was founded in 1991. They have remained in the top division ever since.

Furore surrounded the announcement of their demotion from the top division of Women’s Super League (WSL) to its new second tier next season while this year’s competition is barely under way.

Martin Cloake of New Statesman magazine viewed the decision as an abandonment of “one of the basic principles of sporting success” and Belles’ supporters have collected 8,500 signatures on a petition. They also protested loudly at the recent FA Women’s Cup Final, between Arsenal and Bristol Academy hosted, by supreme irony, at Belles’ Keepmoat Stadium.

Other proposed changes have upset clubs elsewhere. Lincoln Ladies will reform at Notts County, leading to suggestions of franchising. Leeds United, third in the FA Women’s Premier League, the current second level, feel aggrieved that Durham have been elevated to WSL2 next season whilst their own national division becomes regionalised and effectively the third tier.

How has this come about? To find out more, I went to Wembley to meet Kelly Simmons MBE, FA Director of the National Game and Women’s Football.

Back in 2011 the WSL was launched under the slogan A Time for Optimism. The reality at the time was poor facilities and lack of finances, and a perception of the national women’s team struggling to keep up with the leading nations. There was a drain of established players to foreign clubs and an exodus of talented youngsters to universities abroad. In response the FA launched the WSL.

Whilst the rest of women’s football would continue to play in the winter, WSL was launched as a summer league with a level of funding not seen before in English women’s sport provided by the FA Board, with minimum matched investments from the clubs, and television coverage to encourage sponsorship.

This came at a price. The eight clubs to join the inaugural WSL were selected according to criteria set down in an attempt to guarantee a sustainable league for at least the first three years. Ground grading, financial income, professional coaching were key factors.

For the first time in English football to my knowledge, here was a league run by The FA, not by its member clubs. The structure mirrored that used by American sports. It was to be a closed league for those first three seasons with no promotion or relegation.

A success?

Has it been successful? Indeed, it has. Television viewing figures reached 3.9 million for the Great Britain match against Brazil in the Olympics. The 2012 Olympic Final saw more than 80,000 at Wembley, the second largest attendance at a women’s match in history. The number of women coaches and officials has grown spectacularly. Vitally, 20 of the leading England players with central contracts now play for WSL teams.

Building on this development, The FA decided to expand WSL to two divisions, with up to 20 teams. In 2012, applications were invited from clubs able to demonstrate their ability to perform against key measures:

  • Financial and business management;
  • Commercial sustainability and marketing;
  • Facilities (usage, maintenance and training facilities);
  • Players, support staff and youth development.

The deadline was in March 2013. Thus the switch to playing in summer for new clubs and their players could be enabled in time for the 2014 season.

Entries in the form of a ‘Club Development Plan’ were judged by adjudication panels, including independent experts, against separate standards for the new WSL1 and WSL2 levels.

33 clubs applied, their documents were assessed and marked, and there were no geographic constraints. Nor was a connection to an established men’s team necessary.

The results were ranked and the best scores from the grading would place a club in WSL1, provided they achieved the relevant standards set for that level. Likewise those next in the list would be placed in WSL2, up to a maximum of 10, so long as the applicable criteria were met.

Naturally the existing WSL clubs had an advantage. One would expect their club structures and facilities to be in place. The only new club to join the top division is to be Manchester City (WSL1 remains as an eight team division) and the only established WSL club to be placed in WSL2 was Doncaster Belles.

Cue the anguish felt in South Yorkshire.


All is not lost though and an appeal has been lodged by Doncaster Belles.

All clubs received feedback regarding the strengths, and of course, the weaknesses of their bids. By the third week of this month, June 2013, the Belles will know their fate.

Should they not succeed, there is another way back to the top level of women’s football. Having two divisions playing elite football in the summer, WSL is bringing back promotion and relegation. Initially it will be one up, one down. Another possibility is further expansion to two divisions of 10 teams each.

Will the campaign in Doncaster change the minds of the decision makers at Wembley? We shall see.

From what I learned from Kelly Simmons, and reading much of the documentation, the best hope for the Belles lies in putting together and delivering the very best appeal.

Good luck to them.

Thanks to kev.neagle for the image reproduced under CC license.

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed on this blog are those of the author – they don’t necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn’t be attributed to the FSF. Have your say below and play nice…

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