Doncaster Rovers Belles may be a name that has fallen on hard times, an amateur operation left behind by the rampant professionalism of women’s football, but their bloodline remains strong.
That was evident last night with three of the Lionesses that dismantled Latvia in this lopsided World Cup qualifier citing Rovers Belles as instrumental in their journey to the England team.
Sheffield’s Millie Bright, captain for the night, spent five seasons at Doncaster before moving to Chelsea, while striker Bethany England, born in Barnsley, also learnt her football with the Belles.
England goalkeeper Mary Earps – who had to wait 71 minutes to touch the ball – spent a year with the Belles, playing in the same side as Bright and England during the 2011-12 season.
They were back in Doncaster last night as England players, demonstrating to the hundreds of young girls in the crowd of 10,402 what is possible if you put your mind to it, even at a club no longer mentioned at the progressive end of women’s club football like the Belles.
Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal are the dominant forces of the women’s game now, teams twinned with powerhouse men’s clubs, their players reaping the benefits of professionalism.
One such player is Ellen White, the Lionesses headline-maker from Manchester City, who required just eight minutes against part-time opposition to score the two goals she needed to pass Kelly Smith on 46 goals and become England’s all-time record goalscorer.
It was a moment of history she greeted with a knee slide in front of the jubilant crowd and a brief moment back at the halfway line with her hands clasped to her face.
That it took her another 43 minutes of action to seal her hat-trick was one of the biggest surprises of the night, a curling 20-yard shot bringing up England’s ninth goal of the evening, the 48th of her record-breaking career.
Whitby’s Beth Mead had laid claim to a match ball long before that, the diminutive Arsenal winger scoring a perfect hat-trick with her left foot in the second minute, her right foot after a burst forward by Bright in the 12th, and her head in the 18th, darting in at the back post to head home Lauren Hemp’s cross.
Hemp helped herself to a brace and Ella Ann Toone one as England scored eight in the first half, emphatically answering manager Sarina Wiegman’s call to be more ruthless in front of goal.
A foul on Mead presented an opportunity from the penalty spot for Georgia Stanway, another Manchester City product at the centre of most things in the No 10 role, to bring up double figures from the penalty spot just after the break.
There were further goals for England, Jessica Carter with a header and a long-range shot, the evergreen Jill Scott, Alessia Russo with the first three goals of her England career, Hemp with four including the 20th and Jordan Nobbs. Every goal ruthlessly exposed the 94 places between the two teams in the world rankings, every goal cheered to the Keepmoat rafters by an enthusiastic, if merciless crowd.
Mismatches are not exclusive to the women’s game, Gareth Southgate’s England men’s team put 10 past San Marino last in a World Cup qualifier of their own last month after all.
International football is beset with clashes between nations that are professional and countries that do not have the finances or the infrastructure to match.
The Lionesses are benefitting from an increased professionalism in English women’s football brought about by greater television exposure and money, and links with major men’s teams that may have left the likes of Rovers Belles behind, but has clearly strengthened the national team.
They are beating a relentless path towards the next World Cup in 2023, before which there is the women’s Euros on these shores next summer when England will be among the favourites.
Eight games will be played in South Yorkshire – four at Bramall Lane and four at the New York Stadium – when hopefully the youngsters in the crowd last night, waving their flags and cheering their heroines, will have seen enough to come back again. Or maybe even start their own journey at Rovers Belles.
England: Earps: Bright, Wubben-Moy, Greenwood (Carter 46); Mead, Stanway (Scott 59), Walsh (Zelem 72), Toone (Nobbs 46), Hemp; England, White (Russo 59). Unused substitutes: MacIver, Hampton, Charles, Kirby, Daly, Stokes.
Latvia: Sinutkina ; Voltane, Gergeleziu, Lubina, Tumane; Gornela, Gaike (Vitmore 46); Zaicikova, Baliceva, Senberga; Freidenfelde (Skribina 56). Unused substitutes: Lindermane, Skjemenova, Lodzina, Rozascenoka, Smirnova, Vingrevica, Vitmore, Gricijenko, Brahmane.
Referee: V Kovarova (Cze).