Doncaster Rovers Belles honour the badge as they build for the future under Ciaran Toner and Chris Wood

By leveraging their trailblazing past, Doncaster Rovers Belles hope to build a more prosperous future.

One of the great names of women’s football, Belles were cast aside in the race to revamp the women’s game more than a decade ago, and have become a forgotten relic in the rampant, money-backed march to professionalise the women’s game in this country.

Demoted three times, twice they nearly went to the wall, but the team founded as the Belle Vue Belles are still here, still fighting.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

They were rescued under the Club Doncaster umbrella in 2019 but now have a vision and a strategy to get moving in the right direction again, using that badge of theirs as a beacon.

On the up again: Doncaster Rovers Belles players celebrate Arianne Parnham's goal in a recent game with Barnsley as they look to re-establish themselves on and off the pitch. (Picture: Howard Roe/AHPIX LTD courtesy of Doncaster Rovers Belles)On the up again: Doncaster Rovers Belles players celebrate Arianne Parnham's goal in a recent game with Barnsley as they look to re-establish themselves on and off the pitch. (Picture: Howard Roe/AHPIX LTD courtesy of Doncaster Rovers Belles)
On the up again: Doncaster Rovers Belles players celebrate Arianne Parnham's goal in a recent game with Barnsley as they look to re-establish themselves on and off the pitch. (Picture: Howard Roe/AHPIX LTD courtesy of Doncaster Rovers Belles)

Their history will be celebrated and their future signposted over the next month when they play three home games at the EcoPower Stadium; double-headers with Rovers today and on Saturday, April 20, and a standalone game on Easter Sunday, March 31, when they welcome back legends of the past in a Hall of Fame ceremony and hope to smash their attendance record in the process.

Two men have emerged as the driving force, chief executive Chris Wood and manager Ciaran Toner, the former Northern Ireland international, Grimsby and Rochdale player among other teams.

“It’s a prestigious and historic club, maybe it’s fallen from grace, but this is an opportunity to build it back up to where we want it to be and where people hope it can be,” says Toner, 42, who took over in mid-November with the club sinking into a relegation battle in the regionalised fourth tier.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“It’s been a great challenge, when I came in and spoke to Chris about the vision of where we want to go it was more than just a role of managing a first-team squad to get results on a weekend, it was a project, a longer-term vision.”

Rovers Belles Arianne Parnham  celebrates her goal agianst Barnsley. (Picture: Howard Roe/AHPIX LTD courtesy of Doncaster Rovers Belles)Rovers Belles Arianne Parnham  celebrates her goal agianst Barnsley. (Picture: Howard Roe/AHPIX LTD courtesy of Doncaster Rovers Belles)
Rovers Belles Arianne Parnham celebrates her goal agianst Barnsley. (Picture: Howard Roe/AHPIX LTD courtesy of Doncaster Rovers Belles)

That vision is one built around youth.

“We’re restructuring slightly, we’re building an elite youth pathway from post-16s,” Toner - who spent more than a decade post retirement developing young players at York City and primarily Rotherham United, tells The Yorkshire Post.

“We have a development team this year but we’re changing it slightly to promote younger players into adult football to be able to then open the door to the first team.

“That gives a real incentive to those younger girls coming through the academy that there is light at the end of that tunnel towards first-team football.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad
Doncaster Rovers Belles manager Ciaran Toner  (Picture: Howard Roe/AHPIX LTD courtesy of Doncaster Rovers Belles)Doncaster Rovers Belles manager Ciaran Toner  (Picture: Howard Roe/AHPIX LTD courtesy of Doncaster Rovers Belles)
Doncaster Rovers Belles manager Ciaran Toner (Picture: Howard Roe/AHPIX LTD courtesy of Doncaster Rovers Belles)

“We’ve already seen this season girls of 16, 17, 18 get first-team minutes.

“The big change at the top end is the elite pathway. We really want to build a really strong, elite development, performance-minded pathway that follows on nicely from the academy.

“The women’s game has transcended into a completely different level in recent times and the growth rate is exponential year on year. That creates challenges.

“We’re very much a staff and an organisation that doesn’t want to stand still, and can’t stand still. We always have to be thinking innovatively to move forward. We feel we have some great foundations here.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad
Ciaran Toner and assistant Amanda Greenslade, right, took over in November and have steadied the Rovers Belles ship (Picture: Howard Roe/AHPIX LTD courtesy of Doncaster Rovers Belles)Ciaran Toner and assistant Amanda Greenslade, right, took over in November and have steadied the Rovers Belles ship (Picture: Howard Roe/AHPIX LTD courtesy of Doncaster Rovers Belles)
Ciaran Toner and assistant Amanda Greenslade, right, took over in November and have steadied the Rovers Belles ship (Picture: Howard Roe/AHPIX LTD courtesy of Doncaster Rovers Belles)

“Players that can come in at six years of age with the Wildcats programme and progress with that love of the game that then leads into our junior teams, so we can create that conveyor belt through development and enjoyment leading into performance.

“That’s the big aspect for us. A real opportunity for progression.

“The community aspect is also very important to this club. Without the support we can’t grow, without fans coming to watch us we can’t move forward, which leads us into the games at the stadium.”

Belles traditionally play home games at Moorends Miners Welfare in Thorne, with one or two games at the Eco-Power sprinkled in every season.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

This term, having already played at Rovers’ stadium once, they are making a big push to finish the season on a high, on and off the pitch.

“We’re using it as a tentpole, a big game to focus on,” explains ceo Wood.

Jasmine Saxton shoots for Doncaster Rovers Belles against Leeds United.  (Picture: Howard Roe/AHPIX LTD courtesy of Doncaster Rovers Belles)Jasmine Saxton shoots for Doncaster Rovers Belles against Leeds United.  (Picture: Howard Roe/AHPIX LTD courtesy of Doncaster Rovers Belles)
Jasmine Saxton shoots for Doncaster Rovers Belles against Leeds United. (Picture: Howard Roe/AHPIX LTD courtesy of Doncaster Rovers Belles)

“There’s a need for this club to use both venues. Thorne is an enjoyable experience and an enjoyable vibe. We want the fans who to come to these three games to come to more after that. If we were here every week it wouldn’t make this a special occasion.”

Just as they are using the badge to give them a foothold attracting the better players in the catchment area, so the name of the Belles still resonates in the business world.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Wood explains: “We’re not a regular club going out there trying to get sponsors, we have a pull that other clubs don’t have so there is that association with the heritage and the history.

“The badge has heritage and prestige and there’s a lot of doors that get opened because of that. We’re very much aware of it and taking advantage of the advantages the badge gives you.

“A lot of what we did when we came in was embrace the past.

“Acknowledging the past and embracing it but using it as a motivation and a hook to get local people involved. We want to create an environment that makes women want to play their football here.

“It’s all very much about embracing the past but painting a picture of the future.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

As with every new regime, results are what managers are judged on, and in his four months in charge, Toner and his assistant Amanda Greenslade - who was promoted from within as Belles look to give pathways for female coaches as well - has overseen an upturn in consistency. He has steered Rovers away from trouble to the point where three points against Chester-le-Street Town on Saturday (6pm kick-off) will all but secure fourth-tier football for another year.

“Coming in and enhancing the culture externally was the big challenge,” says Toner, who quit playing as a 30-year-old to concentrate on family and his own business pursuits, before getting all his UEFA coaching licences and landing a top job with the Belles.

“I’ve always been an emotionally connected person when it comes to coaching, it’s all about the feel of the coaching, the feel of big game situation, so when I’ve talked to players about situations in the game I’ve been there, I’ve had a lot of minutes on the pitch so can understand the dynamics of what they’re going through,” he says of his coaching style.

“I have knowledge that I want to impart, we have to find ways to solve the problems together.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“It can be challenging for players to take reference from the sideline so they have to be in a position to make those decisions. Hence the game intelligence we work on.

“It’s a level playing field with me and the staff, a round-table to discuss strategy.

“One thing I’ve been clear on is everyone has a voice here and every voice is respected, but we’re all challenged to be the best we can be.”

He only has his players in for two evening sessions a week, but for Ciaran Toner, turning around the once great name of Doncaster Rovers Belles has become all-consuming.