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.