Last summer, the arrival of the Olympic games in London meant an unprecedented spike in interest in the women’s game in this country. Although Hope Powell’s team couldn’t get any further than the quarter-finals of the competition, crowds were healthy and there was considerable optimism that the interest might lead to increased interest in the FA Women’s Super League (FAWSL) when it restarted at the end of April. With little competition from the men’s game this summer and plans for expansion into a two division league with eighteen semi-professional clubs, perhaps this was an opportunity to catch up with the women’s game in other countries, such as Germany, where women’s football is considerably more developed and is all the healthier for it.

The Football Association’s handling of the expansion of the FAWSL, however, has already attracted widespread criticism and the story of how they are managing to make such a hash of it all is now threatening to overshadow that anything that the teams themselves could achieve on the pitch, with perhaps the most famous club name in the history of women’s football in this country being on its receiving end. In a short press release issued on the twenty-sixth of April, the FA confirmed that next season’s FAWSL will not be including Doncaster Rovers Belles, who will be relegated at the end of this season regardless of what happens on the pitch and replaced by Manchester City Ladies. The club that inspired the BBC television drama Playing The Field, that was the subject of the Pete Davies book “I Lost My Heart To The Belles” and has frequently been described as the most famous and recognisable names in women’s football in England, are, it seems, no longer wanted.

The place that Doncaster Rovers Belles LFC holds in the history of women’s football in this country is one that cannot be overstated. Founded as Belle Vue Belles in 1969, Doncaster Belles are the most storied club in women’s football in England. Six times winners of the FA Women’s Cup and twice winners of the FA Women’s Premier League National Division, the Belles were merged into Doncaster Rovers FC in 2003, in time for the formation of the FAWSL – of which the club was, naturally, one of the eleven founder members – two years later and, while the club hasn’t managed to recapture its glory days of the 1980s and 1990s – the club lost just one league match in the fifteen years between 1978 and 1993 – on the pitch, it has remained a proud member of the top division since then. Other clubs – most notably Arsenal LFC – have eclipsed the Belles on the pitch over the last decade, but this is a club that should, we might have expected, have a special place at the heart of the game.

Had the club been relegated from the division, of course, there would have been little arguing with. Past glories are no guarantee of success and the meritocracy is at the heart of the entire concept of league football. The FA’s decision, however, seems to have had little to do with events on the pitch. No explanation was given in the original press release – which was issued, with no apparent sense of irony, after just one match of this season’s FAWSL had been played – and those that have subsequently raised this with the Football Association seem to have been palmed off with identikit emails which make superficial references to “Financial and business management”,  “Commercial sustainability and marketing”, “Facilities” and “Players, support staff and youth development,” without offering any specifics relating to how the decision to relegate the Belles specifically was actually reached.

The identity of the club that will replace them next season offers a hint to the FA’s reasoning behind their decision to make such a bizarre and unfair decision. Manchester City LFC was founded in 1989, but this club has never played in the top division of women’s football in England, whilst last season was its first in the current second tier, the FA Women’s Premier League National Division, which ended in a mid-table finish. There is no footballing justification for allowing this club to leapfrog into the top division at anybody’s expense, an error of judgement which is compounded by the decision to make this news public at the very start of the season. The FA might have reached this decision and then delayed making it public until the end of this season, in case Manchester City managed to win the FAWPL. If the decision had still been made for non-sporting reasons, it wouldn’t have made it any less morally reprehensible, but it might at least have been prudent. As it is, the decisions made, the rationale given for them being made and the timing of them reeks of little but administrative incompetence.

This wasn’t the only way in which the FA has managed to blot its copybook over this expansion, either, with Lincoln Ladies FC having also been franchised, this time to Nottingham where they will start next season as Notts County LFC with the current Notts County LFC becoming “Notts County Ladies Development Football Club” from next season, whilst Nottingham Forest LFC, who were only relegated from the FAWPL at the end of last season, were denied entry into the FAWSL. When the FA allowed the transplanting of Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes eleven years ago, they at least had the partial fig leaf of having palmed off responsibility for having made the decision to an “independent three man commission.” They have no such excuse this time around.

Doncaster Rovers supporters, meanwhile, have been angered to action by this decision and a poll has been set up by the fanzine Popular Stand – whose articles on this subject have been invaluable in putting this comment together – which can be signed by clicking here, and perhaps there will be something positive to come from the debacle, if Rovers supporters get behind the Belles, as it has suggested that some, perhaps many, will at this weekend’s FAWSL home match against Everton. The Football Association should not be let off the hook over this matter, after all. Their arguments, about infrastructure and finances, are predictable and they are not entirely without merit, but the traditions of a sport are important, and this club is part of the tradition of women’s football in this country. To override that in favour of another club with deeper pockets sends out a very negative message about how they may run women’s football in this country in the future, though, and, at a time when the women’s club game stands at the possibility of greater interest than it has ever seen before, image is important to women’s football in England. If the Football Association choose to run it with the worship of mammon as its guiding principle, they may well find that crowds continue to be hard to come by.

Produced with the invaluable help of Popular Stand, whose two part series on this episode can be seen here and here.

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