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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.