The word “sport” is defined as “competitive, physical activity”. It is certainly the case that any sport that wants to take itself to a professional level, requires some form of competition within it, both on the field of play or in terms of how participants’ success is measured. Therefore it is upto the governing body of a particular sport to ensure that not only is it competitive, but also fair. One could argue that in modern day football, there are plenty of things that go on that are far from fair, but it isn’t usually the case that such a clear example of the football authorities ignoring the basis of sport and competition, than the case of Doncaster Belles.
We will go on to describe the case below, but for a far more comprehensive coverage, we encourage you to read the blog here. You will also be able to keep up to date with any further developments from this source.
The FA Women’s Super League started life in 2011. It was set up to try and improve the standing of the Women’s game in the UK, by introducing a new higher league than the Women’s Premier League, one that would run mostly during the summer months (so when the Men’s game was in off season), with the hope that this would attract more spectators and sponsors and a better standard overall. The third season has just kicked off, and there has been positive news with the plans to extend the WSL to a second division as from next season, allowing more clubs to take on a more professional set up. However it is the announcement of the two league structure that has caused an issue, as current WSL team Doncaster Belles have been put in WSL 2 (despite having only played one game so far this season), to be replaced by Manchester City, who currently play in the Women’s Premier League. The announcement was made on the WSL website on April 26th, a brief statement, including that no further comment would be made…a kind of “this is what’s happening, end of story”.
For those of you who haven’t followed the Women’s game over time, Doncaster Belles are one of the most successful and longest running clubs. Formed in 1969, they progressed through the Sheffield and Nottingham leagues, losing just one game in fifteen years, and winning the Women’s FA Cup six times between 1983 and 1994. They were the winners of the inaugural Women’s Premier League title in 1991, with a mere 100% record. They have produced two players who sit in the Football Association’s Hall of Fame; Gillian Coulthard, the previous holder of the record number of England caps, with 119 international appearances to her name, and Karen Walker, who hit nearly a goal every other game during her 83 cap career. They play their games at Doncaster’s Keepmoat stadium, a community ground shared with Doncaster Rovers and the local Rugby League club. This and a number of other factors, formed part of the requirements for the club to gain a “licence” for inclusion in the WSL. From brief research, it seems Doncaster Belles pass most of the criteria quite comfortably, so why the decision to move them down a league?
This is where it gets all the more baffling, and unfortunately, points more to money than performance. If Manchester City were walking away with the Women’s Premier League this season, they could have an argument for what will effectively be a double promotion. However they currently lie in fourth place, some 15 points behind leaders Sunderland who also have a game in hand. Third placed Leeds United, who still have a shout of winning the title with two to play, are themselves 11 points ahead. Indeed, if results don’t go their way in the final games, City could finish as low as 6th. This is also Manchester City’s first season at this level. Interestingly, Leeds United have not managed to gain a licence for the WSL in either division. Current leaders Sunderland, and second placed Watford will both play in WSL 2 from season 2014, along with, amongst others, London Bees Women’s FC, a rebrand of Barnet, who will finish bottom of the Women’s Premier League with just 4 points and no wins all season.
As previously stated, there are some strict criteria to be met in order to gain a WSL licence. The FA outlined these in response to some initial feedback regarding Doncaster Belles’ situation, stating Financial and Business Management, Commercial sustainability and Marketing, Facilities, and finally Players, Support Staff, and Youth Development. Ok, if you want to set up a professional game, you can understand these criteria. What is worrying is the complete absence of anything regarding competitive merit. After all, to get into the Football League you have to meet certain ground requirements and the like, but in the first place, you have to finish in a promotion position in the Conference.
So perhaps Doncaster Belles have not been performing in the WSL? Well granted, they haven’t come close to emulating their success of bygone eras, and have finished second bottom in both season 2011 and 2012. On both occasions, the team finishing rock bottom were Liverpool. It won’t take a genius to work out which league they’ve been selected to play in after the restructure, yes WSL 1. In addition, Doncaster Belles themselves have been given no explanation for their relegation, with the players and staff absolutely gobsmacked by the decision. It seems it’s all down to money and having a bigger “name” in the top league.
This is our opinion, destroys not only the credibility of the WSL as a competition, also further dents the FA’s reputation as a capable governing body, and furthermore, sets a dangerous precedent. What is to stop the same thing happening in the men’s game. How many times to do we hear commentators bang on about how certain clubs “deserve to be in the Premier League”, simply because they are regarded as a big club? What is to stop them deciding that as from next season, Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United will be back in the Premier League and they will replace Norwich and Fulham (no disrespect meant to any of these clubs by the way) because they’re bigger clubs with more fans. If Manchester City Ladies are that great a club, surely they would have walked away with the WSL 2 title in their first season, and just maybe replaced Doncaster Belles in the top league? No one would have argued the case then. To make the move just because the FA feel like it redefines sport and is wrong in every sense.
You can get involved with Doncaster Belles’ case by signing the petition against the decision here.