Doncaster Rovers Belles: The shocking demotion of a Women’s Super League founder

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Arsenal v Doncaster Belles
Doncaster Rovers Belles played in the national top division of women’s football from 1991 until 2013

“Morally scandalous… Unjust.”

When the Football Association announced it was demoting Doncaster Rovers Belles from the Women’s Super League on 26 April 2013, the decision sparked huge anger throughout women’s football.

They were not just any club, they were six-time FA Cup winners, twice champions of the league’s top division and the only club to have continuously been in the women’s top flight since a national league system was formed in 1991.

Yet they were to be replaced in the top flight by Manchester City, who had never played in the WSL previously, as part of a restructure to split the league into two tiers.

“Donny have the support of all the league’s current clubs,” said Arsenal’s general manager Vic Akers at the time.

“I’ve spoken to all seven and we all feel what the FA has done is unjust – in my opinion it’s morally scandalous.”

The FA decided which teams should play in each division through an independent panel that assessed clubs on their financial sustainability. Doncaster were placed in WSL2 and have since tumbled down the divisions.

Doncaster appealed, with the backing of other WSL teams, but were unsuccessful, with the FA saying: “The decision by the selection panel not to offer the club an FA WSL1 licence was due primarily to them being unable to satisfactorily meet minimum facility requirements, alongside further concerns on their commercial and marketing strategies.”

Former England captain Gill Coultard, who played for Doncaster for 24 years, told BBC Sport: “We had never seen that in football. I was gobsmacked, it was a total shock to women’s football.

“The mood was disbelief, just asking ‘why?’

“They wanted to attract clubs linked to Premier League sides, I think. Does Doncaster go next to Arsenal? No it doesn’t. The club didn’t have a leg to stand on financially.”

The irony was that, for years in English women’s football, Doncaster had stood alongside Arsenal as two of the strongest sides in the country.

‘There’s only one team in Doncaster’

Bethany England playing for Doncaster Belles
Euro 2022 winner Bethany England started her senior career with Doncaster

Belles enjoyed league success that male counterparts Doncaster Rovers have never experienced. But the WSL is now dominated by clubs affiliated with Premier League giants.

“People always used to say to us ‘there’s only one team in Doncaster, and that’s the Belles’,” says Coultard, who was born and raised in Thorne, a village just outside the South Yorkshire city. “No disrespect to Rovers, that was just fact.”

Belles also produced some of England’s top players, from Coultard – who scored twice in the Lionesses’ first ever World Cup match in 1995 – to Beth England, part of the Euro 2022-winning squad and reported to be the WSL’s most expensive player.

“It was really sad, given all the time and effort people put into it,” England told BBC Sport, with the now-Tottenham striker having started her career at Belles before moving to Chelsea in 2016.

“It shows sometimes money does pay because with the reshuffle, funding did come into it. At the time there were more up-and-coming clubs and it was difficult for Doncaster to match that.

“They had all these amazing plans to enhance women’s football at the time, which sadly didn’t arrive in time. It’s a shame how far they have fallen.”

England recalls joining the club at the age of 16 and being thrown into first-team training against senior players who “were not shy about putting a tackle in on a kid”. But she remembers her time at the club fondly, saying it played a huge part in developing her into the international footballer she is today.

‘They were not given a chance’

Gill Coultard playing for England
Gill Coultard, who became the first female player to reach 100 England caps, made more than 300 appearances for Belles

Two years after the decision was made, the club said the relegation actually stopped the club from folding because it encouraged local businesses to help save them.

“For women’s football before Euro 2022, not a lot of people had money to give, and those that did wanted something back,” says Coultard.

“Clubs were not getting 200 through the gate, some were living hand to mouth. People may say it was better to be demoted, but it should never have happened.

“Every club struggled for the 20-plus years I was playing, you were cap in hand for sponsorship. We have come a long way, but if Belles were still there, they could still be flying high. They were not given a chance.”

Since the demotion, Doncaster have fallen to the fourth tier – the Women’s National League Division 1 Midlands.

They have been there since 2019 and currently sit second in the table. However only one team gets promoted and, with leaders Stourbridge already securing the title, a return to higher tiers will have to wait for another season.

‘They all want to beat us because of the history’

Doncaster Belles play Arsenal at the Keepmoat Stadium
With a capacity of 15,231, Doncaster had the biggest stadium in WSL for the first three seasons of the competition

Belles, whose squad is now fully part-time, are these days a very different club to the one that played in the WSL. However, manager Nick Buxton says some sliver of the old glamour remains.

“People will say ‘I want to play for Belles’, you do get a fair bit of that,” he told BBC Sport prior to an evening training session – one of only two sessions a week he gets with his squad.

“They all want to beat us because of the history, it means a lot to people.”

Buxton joined the club in 2019 as a coach, before moving into the manager’s seat at the start of this season, however he says the events of a decade ago still linger around the club.

“People who know the club more than me, it will be a bane in their lives,” he says. “If you break it down, money talks – and that was it.”

So Buxton looks to the future with a young squad aiming to exorcise the ghosts of the past through promotion back up the women’s football pyramid – a task easier said than done.

Both Doncaster men and women play in the fourth tier of their respective pyramids. For the men, there are four possible promotion spots from League Two. For the women, there is only one.

“It’s crazy how it works,” Buxton says. “It can demoralise you. You know after a certain point you are only playing games for the sake of it.”

Despite this, Buxton says there remains a desire to “get as high as we possibly can and eventually get back where they were”.

‘The level they played at was phenomenal’

Northampton Town v Doncaster Belles
Doncaster have played in the fourth tier of women’s football since 2019

Centre-back Izzy Trevillion was part of the Belles academy 10 years ago when the demotion occurred. Now 20 and a first-team player, she says there is still an added weight which comes with the Belles name.

“There is a bit of added pressure because we came from the top of the top, literally one of the most known women’s clubs in the country,” she says.

“We are now quite a young side and everyone wants us to get back up to that top league. We have to make that happen.

“I used to watch them, being from around the area, there were always big crowds, a really good atmosphere. I was in the development squad and sometimes we linked up with them.

“The level they played at was phenomenal, it was so good to watch and it put in our head what we wanted to become.”

Team-mate Izzy Gigg says: “When we go to away games, sometimes we have more fans than the home team do. It’s not daunting but it makes you realise we have a name and a legacy.”

Gigg, an 18-year-old midfielder, says she was not fully aware of the Belles’ history when first joining but has been inspired to drive them back up the league.

“Realising they were in the WSL, and one of the biggest in there, it is frustrating to see where they were then, where they are now and how hard it is to get back up there,” she says. “It feels unfair.”

Yet for all the anguish, Belles are still going – no mean feat, given women’s football is littered with clubs who have fallen by the wayside.

“It has been unfortunately downhill, but the club has consolidated and is still there,” says Coultard. “It has done 50 years and is still close to a lot of people’s hearts.”

Now aged 59, she says she still has hope that “before I go, they will be back in the WSL”.


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