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

FA makes an error.

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.

Doncaster Belles. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.