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In a football world where promotion and relegation was determined by results gained on the field of play, Doncaster Rovers Belles would now be playing back in the top tier of women's football which this season is now the FA Women's Super League (with the former WSL 2 being rebranded as the FA Women's Championship).
However, as events gave shown the Football Association are placing greater emphasis on meeting off the field criteria to be able to be awarded a licence to compete in the top two tiers of the women's pyramid (rather than actual playing results).
Sunday 20th May. Doncaster Rovers Belles, already crowned FA Women's Super League 2 champions for 2017-18, beat Oxford United 4-0 to remain unbeaten in home league fixtures and so finish the season 10 points clear of runners up Millwall Lionesses. It was a gloriously sunny day, the proverbial "not a cloud in the sky" one. After the game Belles were presented with the trophy and also medals.
What has happened since is the footballing equivalent of a "perfect storm". That Belles had a team to play a fixture in the (re-branded) FA Women's National League last Sunday was a minor miracle in itself. Club founder and president Sheila Edmunds, a player during the club's best years of the 1980s and early 1990s, had seriously contemplated withdrawing Belles from competitive football for 2018-19 as player after player was announced as leaving.
The scenario of "disappearing" from the fixture lists was chiefly averted due to the youngsters who remained wishing to carry on. So, the Belles squad at the start of the new season is a mixture of last season's WSL Development squad along with players straight out of Regional Talent Centres.
Yes, they were beaten 9-0 at home by Blackburn Rovers, but it was far from the "Belles suffered a miserable day" as reported on the FA's website. No mention of key facts about the Belles line up. All 11 starters were playing their first competitive game for the club at first team level. There were several 16-year-olds plunged straight into the fray instead of having to bide their time to learn via Reserve/Development leagues. At least one player had yet to be born the last time Belles appeared in the FA Women's Cup final for the 13th time (back in May 2002).
Given the proposed expansion of the top two tiers, Blackburn would have been promoted automatically if actual results counted. Their line up included a good number of the players which had finished Northern Division champions in May along with lifting the League Cup.
What has become of last season's Belles players? While announcements of their moves to a new club were stretched across the close season, it is highly likely that several moves were "completed" well before being made public.
Joining WSL clubs :
Brighton & Hove Albion - Emily Simpkins (note: Chloe Peplow, who spent first half of last season on loan at Belles, joined Brighton in January after being released by parent club Birmingham City).
Liverpool - manager Neil Redfearn, along with Sophie Bradley-Auckland, Leandra Little, Razza Roberts, while former Belles players moving to Liverpool are Courtney Sweetman-Kirk (from Everton) and Christie Murray (from Glasgow City whom she joined midway through last season from Belles).
Reading FC Women - Maz Pacheco.
Joining Championship clubs:
Manchester United - Kirsty Hanson, Jess Sigsworth
Sheffield United - Sophie Barker, Sam Tierney, Jade Pennock, Bex Rayner, Nikki Davies (a further three players - Danielle Cox, Lauren Cresswell and Chloe Dixon - formerly at Belles are also among the summer signings).
Joining FAWNL clubs:
Guiseley - Bethan Davies, Sophie Walton
Moved to USA - Rachel Newborough (scholarship at Boston)
The day after Belles played Oxford, chairlady Faye Lygo announced that she was stepping down from the role, but she will remain in the post until a successor is found.
With much happening behind the scenes and news of players moving a regular occurrence, official communication from the club was minimal, partly due to the sensitive nature of things. Ongoing negotiations with the Football Association with regard to what league Belles would be playing in 2018-19 and also with Doncaster Rovers (men's) and Club Doncaster regarding Belles' use of the facilities at the Keepmoat Stadium complex where besides the main stadium, which was used for Belles' home games in their WSL days, also boasts two relatively new 3G pitches. However, the grass pitch within the running track on pitch 2 (Athletics Stadium) is currently not in use after suffering severe damage to its surface midway through last season.
If Doncaster Rovers (men) were an established Premier League or even Championship side, then backing for the Belles would most likely have been agreed some years ago. However, Rovers are nowhere near as flush as would be necessary to back the Belles.
For 2018-19, Belles will continue to use the outdoor pitches at the Keepmoat for training purposes, but their home WNL fixtures will be played at Rossington Main, a venue which the Belles coaching staff feel will be more conducive to developing the players compared to a 15,000 capacity stadium.
Blackburn was among the toughest of starts Belles could have had and a trip to Stoke City is likely to prove only slightly less arduous. True, Blackburn could have reached double figures as the woodwork came to Belles' rescue on at least three occasions, while some scorned chances and saves by Emily Batty kept the away tally in single figures. Belles did not concede in the first half of the second half, but after 5-0 had become 6-0, two further goals quickly followed. Belles have young and enthusiastic players, but they need to sign a few experienced players to provide guidance on the pitch.
Belles are due to celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2019. For many years, they have been the top ranked team in South Yorkshire and even though at the end of May they knew they would not be in the top tier, they had the prospect of local derbies against Sheffield FC Ladies and Sheffield United to look forward to along with the high profile name of Manchester United. From the introduction of a national league structure in 1991, Belles had never finished outside the top 12 placed teams in any one season.
Given all the events of the past few months, success for this season will be staying at tier 3 level.
Photo - The Doncaster Rovers Belles team which faced Blackburn on Sunday (Julian Barker).
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