On 30 June, the FA announced that Doncaster Belles had been unsuccessful in their appeal to remain in the Women's Super League (WSL).
The appeal was made following the FA's decision back in April, after just one game of the current season, that Doncaster Belles would play in the second tier of the WSL when it expands to two divisions in 2014 .
The fact that 22 consecutive years in the top flight could be brought to an end by an administrative process has shocked football fans across the country. An online petition urging the FA to reconsider has attracted nearly 10,000 signatures for a club whose home attendance is rarely more than 800 people.
That the Belles lost their appeal is no great surprise. The FA is not an organisation synonymous with transparency, as such the criteria by which it allocated places in the expanded two divisions of the WSL remains unclear.
Moreover, until the appeal was lodged, Belles themselves had no idea why their application had been unsuccessful and even then the club received only a redacted disclosure. This revealed that following the first round of evaluation the club was in sixth place, but dropped to ninth after the second round. The comparative reasons for these preliminary and final positions are not known, due to legalities of making information contained in the other WSL applications available.
Understandably the other clubs were reluctant to make available the confidential information contained therein. In short, as appeal procedures go, it's fair to say that this one leaves something to be desired.
Lawyers connected with the club suggest that this lack of clarity provides grounds to lodge a legal objection. Barrister Carl Lygo, CEO of BPP University College, has pulled no punches. Questioning publicly the 'independence' of the FA's Independent Appeals Panel when it consisted of "two members of the FA sitting with the FA's usual lawyer. Case law in sport says that's not independent."
Lygo is not suggesting any impropriety, rather that the constitution of the appeal panel makes it "difficult for the public to have any faith in this judgment. It is partial and therefore displays bias."
Whether or not Lygo is correct, it does raise the question of whether the closed nature of both the bidding process and the appeal might leave the FA open to accusations of gerrymandering.
Some of the reasoning does seem strange. For example, one of the areas where Doncaster Belles' bid appears to have fallen short is relation to its use of the Keepmoat Stadium for home fixtures.
Owned by Doncaster City Council, the Keepmoat is a brand-new, 15,000 all-seater stadium. It is also the home of Championship club Doncaster Rovers and by some distance, the best ground in the League (the mighty Arsenal and Chelsea play their matches at non-league Borehamwood and Staines respectively). The Keepmoat was also the venue for the 2013Women's FA Cup Final.
The 'problem' surrounds Belles' inability to guarantee exclusive use 24 hours either side of their fixtures. Instead, the club guaranteed the availability of its 6:00pm Saturday kick-off time. This was deemed insufficient.
One can't help inferring that a move to a basic non-league stadium nearby - say Bawtry Town - would provide a solution. Yet at the same time, surely it would be no solution at all.
However, this and the FA's other main bones of contention - the low percentage of turnover spent on wages and lack of marketing spend - appear to be little more than flim-flam when one considers what would happen if Doncaster Belles were to actually win the WSL2 next season. If this not unrealistic scenario were to transpire, the FA has confirmed that Belles would definitely be promoted back to the top flight.
Whither then, the arguments about the ground availability and everything else? Why do Belles meet the criteria for membership in 2015, but not 2013? Ludicrous.
Aside from the issues with the bid itself, thereappear to be possible grounds for objection to the FA's stated rationale behind a top flight containing just eight teams. It on page 31 of 'The Decision and Reasons of the Independent Appeals Panel' and seems to run contrary to the spirit of European Employment law:
"If 10 FA WSL1 licences are offered, this may impact on quality and competitiveness of FA WSL1 and dilute the quality of FA WSL2 and reserves. It may also result in an influx of more Welsh, Scottish, Irish and other EU and non-EU players."
While the club is involved in legal discussions with the FA it is bound to silence. This has certainly had an impact on the level of publicity the case has received, which has remained modest. However, if the club were to seek restitution through the legal system - as appears likely - then the FA might find a much wider audience is drawn into the debate.
At the moment, it's difficult to find anyone outside Lancaster Gate (and one imagines, Manchester City the primary beneficiaries) who agrees with this decsion. To engage a wider audience, Belles will have to convince fans not only of the injustice, but that that there are wider reaching implications. For example, in the long-term a franchising model would offer an opportunity to increase revenue once the television money plateaus, which it inevitably will.
Were this case to achieve greater notoriety outside the niche of the women's football, the FA could well end up with the profile raising story - in scale at least - that the WSL is crying out for.
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