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Doncaster Belles Appeal - Will 22 Years at The Top Mean Sweet FA?

Posted: 01/06/2013 00:00

Doncaster Belles

During this time of year, with players and coaches enjoying their summer holidays, football writers are left with little but the wildest of wild transfer speculation to fill their pages. In that respect, one might think that the FA's decision to arbitrarily relegate Doncaster Belles from the Women's Super League (WSL) after 22 years, would provide them with manna from heaven.

Belles will be replaced by Manchester City: a club with neither history nor pedigree in the women's game, but, as we all know, one with an awful lot of money. The implications for fans of smaller clubs everywhere are clear.

Yet national media coverage has been modest so far. The interest is there, but the problem lies in the fact that both parties involved, in what is undoubtedly the biggest story in football at the moment, are refusing to talk about it.

In the circumstances Belles' silence is understandable. The club is in the middle of an appeal and presumably doesn't want to rock the boat. Less so that of the FA, which refuses to make any comment at all, because... well, your guess is as good as mine.

The story will emerge in time, by which point it may be too late for the club and its fans, but to the FA's dismay and embarrassment, it could well be one that runs and runs.

The irony is that all this could give the WSL exactly the kind of exposure it needs. Women's football, despite what you've read or seen occasionally on TV, remains very much a minority sport. The FA's strategy to date has been to focus exclusively on the elite end of the game, doing almost nothing to broaden appeal at the base. As a result, the game might be growing, but it's not growing anything like as quickly as it could or should.

What we have is not so much a pyramid, but an ivory tower. In comparison with the boys, very few girls play football at all. Moreover, those that do are most likely to drop out out of the game altogether at the age of 14. A lack of competition stymies girls' football at grassroots where there is something of a crisis. Junior leagues are struggling for numbers and even senior matches at County Level are regularly contested by less than 22 players.

Throughout the history of women's football, the FA has remained a model of circumspection. In the early part of the 20th Century women's football flourished alongside men's. People believed that such organised sporting activities would be good for the morale of women working in factories and lead to an increase in productivity. Competitive matches were encouraged and watched by thousands of fans. In 1920, Dick, Kerr's Ladies played in front of over 50,000 spectators at Goodson Park. Yet twelve months later it was all over.

Just as women's football looked like it was going to take off, the FA, worried by the game's popularity, almost killed it stone dead by banning women from playing on any FA affiliated ground. This ruling remained in place until 1969.

The 40 years since have really been about the sport's struggle to be taken seriously, which continues today. You don't have to look very hard to find jokes and mean spirited comments about the women's game online, but there are signs that things are moving in the right direction.

In May the FA introduced arguably one of the biggest rule-changes for a generation. It announced that the age limit for 'mixed football' - in which girls are able to play with boys - was going to be extended to 15 years of age.

It might not sound like much, but it's a rule change that has taken decades of lobbying and one that will have a big impact on women's football at all levels. It finally provides the equal opportunities that female footballers of the past have craved and marks a long-overdue change in the attitude of football's governing body.

We can but hope that this uncharacteristic foresight shown by the FA will be carried over into Doncaster Belles hearing.

The long and short of it is that the FA has made a mistake. It is hard to find anyone outside of Manchester City and Lancaster Gate who supports this and the seven other WSL clubs are firmly on the side of the Belles. There are simple alternatives too: either relegating the club finishing bottom, or expanding the number in the top division to nine clubs would meet with little opposition.

If it can happen to Doncaster Belles it can happen to any other small club.

Consider this. Many reports have all noted correctly that Doncaster Belles finished second to bottom for the past two seasons - as if this gives the decision a veneer of legitimacy. Yet what those same reports singularly fail to point out that picking up the wooden spoon on both occasions was Liverpool: a club with the kind of 'brand aura' that the FA seems to admire so much.

Had it been Liverpool, who were bounced from the top flight in favour of Man City, wouldn't the chorus of disapproval we are hearing at the moment have been a deafening roar instead?

You can register your support by signing their petition here. Unless of course you're one of those people who believes that sports franchises are a good thing and that places in the Premier League should be bought rather than earned.


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