The FA created the wrong impression over the Doncaster Belles case

Could Greg Dyke change it?

It came as little surprise to hear that the Doncaster Belles’ appeal against enforced relegation from the top flight of English women’s football was not upheld. I wrote about the case last month, and the story has been taken up elsewhere, attracting more attention than the women’s game has had for some time.

The case appears to starkly illustrate all that is wrong with modern football – a successful club with strong community roots relegated because its commercial model didn’t pass muster, in favour of a new team established by moneybags Manchester City. That’s certainly a view shared by the Doncaster fanzine site Popular Stand, which has detailed the affair with articulate rage. The full story is a little more complicated, and involves considering the wisdom and necessity of the licencing system that underpins the whole affair, and the way the Football Association operates.

It is worth reading the full appeals panel ruling, not simply for the detail of why the appeal was rejected but also for the manner of the rejection. The bottom line appears to be that all the clubs who applied for licences for the new FA Women’s Super League 1 agreed to a set of terms and conditions that included the stipulation that “The FA will be free to exercise its discretion in licensing clubs as it sees fit…” You can, I suspect, see where this is going. The appeals panel found that as there was nothing wrong with the way the FA exercised its discretion, “The appeal therefore fails at that preliminary hurdle.”

When I talked about the case with a contact who has long experience of the workings of English football this week, I was told I needed to understand that the FA approaches situations such as this “from the mindset of civil servants – they are technocrats”. I know, too, that there is considerable irritation about the bashing the FA has taken over this, particularly as the possibility of a legal challenge from the Belles means the FA cannot make further comment. The FA genuinely believes its plans for the women’s game will create a sustainable and robust model for a game that has endured too many false starts. But that is not the perception it has created.

Georgina Turner, a sports journalist and respected voice on the women’s game, told me: “I find it very difficult to shake off the feeling that the decision to accommodate Manchester City Ladies in the very top division was made before – and thus forced – the decision to relegate one of the existing top-flight clubs. That in itself, even if it is only a perception, looks bad for the FA, and they have made only a weak attempt to alter that perception.”

Dr Carrie Dunn, a sports sociologist and long-time follower of the women’s game, told me: “The FA suddenly deciding to advise Belles on commercial and marketing issues seems a bit rich. Belles have been running at the top level for twice as long as the FA have taken an active interest in women's football.

“The FA has received a lot of criticism in recent years for its failure to impose an appropriate fit and proper person test in the men's league. To start to take what amount to sanctions now against well-run and successful women's teams seems ludicrous.”

Like Turner, Dunn takes issue with one of the reasons the FA cites for not granting the Belles a licence – the fact that the team is third in line to use its Keepmoat Stadium ground, behind Doncaster Rovers men’s team and the town’s rugby league side. She calls the objection “ridiculous”, pointing out that Notts County Ladies (a club itself at the centre of controversy after Lincoln were renamed and moved out of Lincoln) would be in the same situation next season, and that “Arsenal rank behind Boreham Wood and Watford Reserves at Meadow Park”.

Part of the FA’s case rests on the fact that a licence system has operated in English women’s football, leading to a closed league with no promotion or relegation, since 2011. The Belles benefited from that, having finished second from bottom twice, and again accepted the system by agreeing to apply for a new licence for the new structure. So the ‘pure sporting’ traditions many critics hark back to have not applied for a while.

It’s also true that Bristol Academy is seen as a model club but is not awash with cash, so the new system is not all about money. And that criticising Manchester City for funding and taking an interest in its women’s team – unlike most top clubs – is a little unfair. In short, there is a very strong technocratic case to be made for the licencing system and the decisions taken to enforce it.

But the trouble with the technocratic approach is that it underplays context. As Dunn says: “My colleagues across Europe have been astonished to hear about the FA's new structure for women's football, pointing out that this kind of demotion on non-footballing grounds is entirely contrary to the spirit of sporting competition. They were also amazed to find out that the FA is now implicitly backing franchising, what with Lincoln's relocation - a structure that is historically completely alien to English football.”

And, says Turner: “Fans feel more and more remote from the machinations of football, but the women’s game had managed to preserve at least a sense of decency. Since this decision came alongside permission to move Lincoln Ladies to Nottingham… it is little wonder that some fans are starting to question the good these changes are doing to the sport.”

So is the licencing system a mistake? Dunn reckons “it's a little early to dismiss it completely as a mistake but there needs to be some flexibility to examine individual cases to ensure that the spirit as well as the letter of the law is applied.” It’s that nuance thing again.

The FA seems a little bewildered by the criticism, unaware that, as Dunn puts it “it's almost as if they're saying, ‘Well, you complained when we did nothing for women's football; now we're doing something, so you should be grateful’.” Popular Stand puts it more strongly, saying: “The FA has decided what is good for the game, and it doesn’t matter what you, or I, or thousands of people with first-hand experience of the sport think.”

No doubt the FA would strongly refute this assertion. But is it really inconceivable that wider consultation could have resulted in a system that would not lead to widespread criticism even from the Belles’ rival clubs, or one that would not reduce a team’s league campaign to an irrelevancy after just one match – the limbo the Belles currently find themselves in? At the moment it is, at best, unclear whether success in women’s football is to be defined by sporting achievement alone or by a combination of factors including robustness of business plan and ability to satisfy TV scheduling requirements. And that’s a perception the FA is responsible for creating.

The greatest danger, and I may surprise regular readers here, is of fuelling the growing belief that business is antithetical to sport. Each needs the other for it to be successful, but more and more fans see business as the enemy, rather than something which can be harnessed. And that’s because they are not being properly consulted and involved.

A visionary FA chief would make it their priority to address this disconnect. Someone more meritocratic than the average football bureaucrat, sympathetic to a range of perspectives on the game, and well-versed in the art of politics, may be able to do so successfully. As luck would have it, the chairman of the FA from 13 July is Greg Dyke.

Carly Hunt of Doncaster Belles does battle with Kristy Moore of Fulham Ladies. 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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Would you jump off a cliff if someone told you to? One time, I did

I was walking across the bridge in Matlock park, which is about 12 feet high, with a large group of other kids from my year, in the pouring rain.

Ever heard the phrase, “Would you jump off a cliff if they told you to?” It was the perpetual motif of my young teenage years: my daily escapades, all of which sprang from a need to impress a peer, were distressing and disgusting my parents.

At 13, this tomboyish streak developed further. I wrote urgent, angry poems containing lines like: “Who has desire for something higher than jumping for joy and smashing a light?” I wanted to push everything to its limits, to burst up through the ceiling of the small town I lived in and land in America, or London, or at least Derby. This was coupled with a potent and thumping appetite for attention.

At the height of these feelings, I was walking across the bridge in Matlock park, which is about 12 feet high, with a large group of other kids from my year, in the pouring rain. One of the cool girls started saying that her cousin had jumped off the bridge into the river and had just swum away – and that one of us should do it.

Then someone said that I should do it, because I always did that stuff. More people started saying I should. The group drew to a halt. Someone offered me a pound, which was the clincher. “I’m going to jump!” I yelled, and clambered on to the railing.

There wasn’t a complete hush, which annoyed me. I looked down. It was raining very hard and I couldn’t see the bottom of the riverbed. “It looks really deep because of the rain,” someone said. I told myself it would just be like jumping into a swimming pool. It would be over in a few minutes, and then everyone would know I’d done it. No one could ever take it away from me. Also, somebody would probably buy me some Embassy Filter, and maybe a Chomp.

So, surprising even myself, I jumped.

I was about three seconds in the air. I kept my eyes wide open, and saw the blur of trees, the white sky and my dyed red hair. I landed with my left foot at a 90-degree angle to my left ankle, and all I could see was red. “I’ve gone blind!” I thought, then realised it was my hair, which was plastered on to my eyes with rain.

When I pushed it out of the way and looked around, there was no one to be seen. They must have started running as I jumped. Then I heard a voice from the riverbank – a girl called Erin Condron, who I didn’t know very well. She pushed me home on someone’s skateboard, because my ankle was broken.

When we got to my house, I waited for Mum to say, “Would you jump off another cliff if they told you to?” but she was ashen. I had to lie that Dave McDonald’s brother had pushed me in the duck pond. And that’s when my ankle started to throb. I never got the pound, but I will always be grateful to Erin Condron. 

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser