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What the scandal of the Doncaster Belles tells us about modern football

FA makes an error.

Doncaster Belles. Photograph: Getty Images

Central to the popularity of sport is the notion that those taking part are judged ultimately on their sporting ability. But not, it seems, if you are the Football Association. The organisation set up to safeguard the English game seems increasingly often to be engaged on a mission to remove all elements of sporting chance from the modern business equation it eagerly promotes. Take the case of the Doncaster Belles.

The Belles are one of the most famous names in English women’s football. Originally formed as Belle Vue Belles by lottery ticket sellers at Doncaster Rovers FC in 1969, the team dominated the Nottinghamshire League between 1978 and 1993 they lost just one league match. Journalist Pete Davies wrote a book, I Lost My Heart to the Belles, about them, and Kay Mellor’s TV series Playing the Field drew its inspiration from them. They’ve won the Women’s FA Cup six times and were founder members of the Women’s Premier League in 1991.

This season, after playing just one game in the FA Women’s Super League 1, the Belles were told they would be relegated to the newly-formed FA WSL 2 next season. The announcement was made in a brief story on the FA’s website. Requests for clarification of the selection criteria were responded to by the FA’s Customer Relations department, which said that “the adjudication process will remain confidential”, but which outlined “four main criteria”. They are;

  1. Financial and business management
  2. Commercial sustainability and marketing
  3. Facilities
  4. Players, support staff and youth development.

No mention there of achievement on the filed of play. And the feeling that the FA views money, “commercial sustainability” and the like as more important than what the players do with a ball is heightened when the name of the club taking the Belles’ place in the top division is unveiled. Manchester City.

This is the first season in which City have fielded a women’s team in national women’s competition, and the team is set to finish mid-table in the second tier. It is a decision that seems explainable only by the fact that City are owned by one of the world’s richest men, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, while the Belles are not. The FA might have a very good alternative reason, but it won’t say. It has taken the stance that it can make no further comment while the Belles are appealing against the decision.

Belles fans wanted to bring this scandalous decision out of the shadows, and as part of their campaign turned up at the Women’s FA Cup final last weekend, which just happened to be staged at Doncaster Rovers’ Keepmoat Stadium. Inside the ground, they handed out flyers about the team’s ‘relegation’, passed around a petition and spread the word for the crowd to stage a minute’s applause 22 minutes into the match to publicise the campaign. The fans were approached by stewards who said they were acting on behalf of the FA. The stewards confiscated the flyers and petitions, and also took the bells the fans ring to support their team, a set of replica shirts and a banner which said ““Doncaster Belles. 22 years in the top division ended by the FA’s gr££d”. The full story is told on the Popular Stand website. The fans were then told to hand over their match tickets. By this time, a small crowd had gathered and the stewards were persuaded not to take the tickets. But they made off with everything else.

A reporter from the Doncaster Free Press, Hayley Patterson, was told by the FA that “one bell was confiscated and one banner that DRFC security deemed unsuitable”. No reason was given for the confiscation of the bells, more than one, and the explanation that it was the host club’s security directly contradicted what the stewards had said about being instructed by the FA. After the game, the items were given back to the fans, with the exception of the banner, which was being kept “as evidence”. There was no explanation of who was keeping it, or what it was evidence of.

Vic Akers, the manager of the Arsenal women’s team that won the final that day, and which currently stands as the dominant club in the English women’s game, says the FA’s decision to relegate the Belles is “morally scandalous” and “unjust”. In the Doncaster Free Press, sports writer Paul Goodwin wrote: “Decisions like this set a dangerous precedent. Bang go the concepts of competition, fair play and a level playing field to do it all on.”

The Belles are not only an iconic team, they are a community club. As the Popular Stand website says: “While the town’s other football stars, like Kevin Keegan and Graham Rix, went beyond the borough to achieve success, the Belles have done it right here.” Karen Walker, capped 83 times for England and a Belle through and through, says” “There’s a feeling here that we are representing the North”. In 2009, the Belles launched Belles for the Community, Britain’s first social enterprise that delivers social, health and educational services with women’s sport as its focal point.

You’d think the FA would be rushing to make the Belles its poster material. But instead of holding the club up as evidence of all the things the game likes to tell you it stands for, the FA has opted for another approach. It has swept aside one of the basic principles of sporting success, sentenced a club to a season of playing matches in a campaign it has already lost, refused to provide more than a cursory explanation of its decision, and attempted to marginalise and silence voices of protest.

This is the modern football business.

UPDATE: Doncaster Rovers have now told the Popular Stand website that the decision to ban the banner was theirs.