DONCASTER ROVERS BELLES – the most famous name in women’s football – are collectively rolling their sleeves up for their biggest fight. And it is nothing to do with matters on the pitch.
Their opponents are not traditional rivals Arsenal – who take on Bristol Academy in the FA Women’s Cup final at Belles’ Keepmoat Stadium home tomorrow afternoon. Or the likes of Everton or Liverpool for that matter.
It is the organisation whose cup final will be held in Doncaster, the Football Association, who handed Belles the bombshell news on April 26 that they will be demoted from the eight-strong FA Women’s Super League top division (FAWSL1) in 2014 when the WSL will be expanded into two tiers.
The news was revealed in a brief press release listing teams in the two new-look WSL leagues, with a note stating that no further comment would be made.
Belles’ name was among those in the 10-strong FAWSL2, with the timing of the decision, just one game into the Belles’ league season, leaving much to be desired as far as the club are concerned.
In case anyone forgets, this is a club who were founder members of the Women’s Premier League in 1991, the first title winners with a 100 per cent record and a team who have remained in the division even since.
For a team to be relegated after just 90 minutes, with Manchester City already confirmed as the side who will take their place next season in a top flight of eight teams, must also constitute a record.
And while Belles continue to compete in the top tier before entering the second division next term, it is a side-show to the real action to be played out behind closed doors as the club – originally formed in 1969 by female raffle ticket sellers from Doncaster Rovers’ old Belle Vue ground – appeal against the decision.
Those in the frontline left stunned by the decision include Belles’ long-serving boss John Buckley. To say he is hurt, stunned and confounded by the news is putting it mildly.
He said: “It is an absolute sham with the way they have put us out of the league. Would they do that to Wigan or Reading in the men’s league? No. You should earn the right to lose your place.
“I have a massive issue with us not getting that right. The way they (the FA) have done it is really, really poor.
“We are appealing and every one of the clubs are behind us. I must say Vic Akers (Arsenal Ladies manager and founder) has been outstanding. He got in touch and said they are behind us and say where is the justice in what they are doing?
“I think Vic and the other teams are willing to stand their corner with us and say, ‘This just isn’t right’. The likes of Arsenal have been like us and had to work their way up the league.
“Man City are going to be coming in and will be bringing in money. But is that what it is just about? We have education schemes in place and linked in with colleges and a university and we met most of the criteria. I hope they (FA) look at it seriously.
“They talk about the four-corner model and looking after players technically, physically and psychologically.
“From a psychological point of view, it has damaged both my staff and players, telling them what we have done.
“Going to the second division will also cost us an arm and a leg. Six of the clubs are in London or beyond. So straightaway, that will cost us twice as much in travel as it does in this league. We don’t think the heritage gives us the right. But we think the heritage gives us an opportunity (to stay up).
“People say might we might be better off in the second division, but I’d rather finish second bottom in the other league as the girls will get better in that league.”
The FA reached their decision via an independent panel where clubs were assessed on financial sustainability, with factors such as management, marketing and the quality of their coaching staff and facilities also considered.
Despite Belles being a well-run, if not massively cash-rich, club and having never finished bottom in the first two seasons of the Super League – Liverpool have finished in the wooden spoon position on each occasion – it has not proved enough for them to earn a place in next season’s top-tier.
If Belles finish in bottom place this season and were relegated on merit, everyone at the club would accept their fate. But from their perspective, the goalposts have been moved.
Buckley said: “If we finish bottom, fair enough. But to demote us because there is a bigger hitter there is wrong. They are just bowing to pressure where there’s more money.”
The blow may have been a grievous one, but it has not come at the cost of the team spirit among Belles players, which is stronger than ever, according to Buckley, and that resolve will be required by everyone involved at the club over the coming weeks and months if they are to win their huge battle.
He added: “To have one game of the season and be hit with that on a Thursday night and being told the story will break the following day just made me think, ‘How I am going to pick my players up?’
“Luckily, they are a good, solid bunch and have been brilliant, although they are mega disappointed with what has happened.
“Of all the years I have been at the club – and even in years when we’ve had better players – I don’t think the girls have ever had a stronger bond than they have had now. I just hope something can happen.”