Yvonne Baldeo hits winner as Lionesses stun Belles and seize Cup
Classic match report: Millwall end Belles hoodoo to win their first national Cup
Prenton Park’s first big women’s fixture: this classic Cup final in 1991 between Doncaster Belles and Millwall Lionesses. Odds-on favourites Donny lost out on a fifth win in their eighth final, as Yvonne Baldeo’s 65th-minute winner handed the spoils to first-time finalists Millwall.
The competition’s 21st final pulled in a bumper crowd of 4,010 and Channel 4 again screened an hour-long highlights programme the following day.
The Women’s Football Association had also roped in new sponsors in the shape of Mycil, a now-discontinued brand of athlete’s foot powder.
With Millwall in their traditional blue, Cup-holders Doncaster Belles took to the field in all yellow.
Match referee Bob Nixon was the local Football League whistler, who had been a linesman at the men’s FA Cup final in 1987. He was ably assisted here by his own ‘linesmen’,1 Mr J.J. Richardson and Miss V.R. Andrews of Surrey.
Also in evidence was the Football League’s wacky mascot: D.J. Bear, the self-styled “Panda of Peace”. Ursine alter ego of maverick cartoonist Paul Trevillion, D.J. Bear was a regular sight at women’s Cup finals around this time.
Division Three promotion-chasers Tranmere Rovers had a humdrum away fixture at Mansfield Town on the day of the final, leaving their Prenton Park home free for the women’s season showpiece.
At this stage Birkenhead-based Rovers were plucky minnows but looking to expand their ground as well as reach out and broaden their horizons in other ways.
A few weeks later they beat Bolton in the play-off final at Wembley then shook the football world by pulling off the signing of John “Aldo” Aldridge from Real Sociedad.
Prenton Park hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons in November 1988, when visiting Blackpool director Vicki Oyston was given the bum’s rush from the club’s male-only boardroom.
A former Miss Great Britain contestant who married into The Tangerines’ ruling clan, Oyston kicked up a stink and extracted an apology under threat of litigation.
Tranmere’s community development boss Steve Williams had since launched Tranmere Ladies FC. In their inaugural season, they were about to clinch Division Four of the North West Women’s League.
Williams’s side eventually reached the promised land of the national Premier League and churned out England stars including Sue Smith and Jodie Taylor.
Prenton Park also hosted the following year’s WFA Cup final and later the home leg of England’s hapless Euro 1997 qualification play-off defeat by Spain.
Cup-holders Doncaster Belles were gunning for a fifth Cup from their eighth final appearance. They won in 1983, lost three in a row in 1984, 1985 and 1986, roared back to win in 1987 and retained their title in 1988.
After missing out altogether in 1989 – a quarter-final upset by Leasowe Pacific blotted their copybook – they beat Friends of Fulham in the 1990 final at Derby County.
Millwall Lionesses had reached the semi-final stage twice before, only to have their hopes dashed by the Belles on both occasions.
In 1986 the Belles edged it 2–1, then in 1987 Millwall succumbed 2–0 on enemy territory at Belle Vue: home of Doncaster Rovers, the South Yorkshire town’s down-at-heel male team.
In truth, the Lionesses did well to get as far as they did, given that Italian Serie A teams had taken to spiriting away several of their better players.
These back-to-back semi-final defeats were overseen by manager Albert Bampton, Debbie’s dad, assisted by Alan May.
But by 1991 ex-pro Alan Wooler had been installed in the hotseat, ably backed by Steve McRaye who was an experienced coach on the men’s non-League circuit in London.
For his part Belles boss Paul Edmunds frequently bemoaned his inability to attract and retain a qualified assistant.
Although his backroom team did contain highly-rated physio Dean “Deano” Cadman, a local youth who at one stage was linked romantically to centre-forward Kaz Walker.
Despite the teams’ history the rivalry was never rancorous. In 1989 when Donny Belles failed to reach the Cup final for the first time in seven years, Millwall Lionesses invited them to a prestige friendly staged at The Den.
A noisy rabble of brash Londoners, the Lionesses were nevertheless serious about their football and always conducted themselves admirably – on and off the pitch.
Their formidable secretary Sue Prior would not have expected anything less.
England friendships on hold …again:
England’s televised 5–0 win over Scotland the previous week had taken place at Wycombe Wanderers’ shiny new Adams Park ground, but only 700 fans bothered to turn up.
A Marieanne Spacey hat-trick and two goals from Donny’s Karen Walker confounded the Scots and gave eccentric former schoolmaster Barrie Williams a winning start as head coach.
Walker joined fellow Belles Sherrard, Coultard and Murray in the starting 11, but was to be denied a hat-trick chance – subbed for yet another Belle; Gail Borman on 53 minutes.
Veteran Terry Wiseman of Fulham remained first choice in goal, but both Donny’s Davidson and Millwall’s Shipp (later Higgs) were jockeying for position as her long-term successor.
The reasons for Powell and Bampton’s England absence are murky but it added another interesting dynamic to the following week’s Cup final.
Road to the final:
As Cup-holders Doncaster Belles entered at the fourth round stage and, drawn away at District Line, were at their swaggering best in demolishing the Londoners 17–2.
District Line became Wembley, then Barnet, then London Bees. As Wembley they beat the Belles on penalties to secure the 1996 Premier League Cup. But here they were completely dismantled.
The rout sent an ominous message to the rest of women’s football. Quarter-finalists the previous year, District Line were no mugs and boasted one of the best managers around in John Jones.
Back at home for the next round the Belles again hit double figures, this time walloping Yorkshire rivals Bronte 10–0.
The quarter-final saw Ipswich Town handed an 11–1 thrashing to mull over on their long, annoying drive back to Suffolk – no doubt stuck behind a blimmin’ tractor most of the way.
On semi-final day at Vicarage Road, 1989 winners Leasowe Pacific were denied a Cup final outing on their Wirral home turf, being steamrollered 8–1.
Front two Walker and Borman helped themselves to another hat-trick each. England’s Walker was in scintillating form, reportedly thwacking in an incredible 67 goals in the 1990–91 North East regional league.
Millwall Lionesses had to start out in round one, with a trip to Suffolk to meet minnows Ipswich Advance. The 16–0 spanking they doled out must have made the drive more bearable.
Next up were Tottenham, then Romford, at home, swatted aside 12–0 and 6–0 respectively. Spurs (a different club to Tottenham) were due to visit in round four but cried off with injury and illness.
The fifth round saw a visit from sturdier opposition in the shape of Pat Chapman’s Red Star Southampton, eventually seen off 2–1. Back on the road in the quarter-final, another 2–1 victory did for Notts Rangers.
That set up a mouth-watering showdown with sworn rivals Arsenal in the semi-final double header at Watford.
Vic Akers’ upwardly mobile Arsenal franchise were appearing in their first semi-final. And their pre-season triple transfer swoop for Millwall stars Cope, Williams and Churchman gave the match some added needle.
But a third 2–1 victory on the trot booked Millwall their coveted place in the national Cup final.
Although their route to the final was less than spectacular, the doughty Lionesses had cast themselves as the immovable object to meet the Belles’ irresistible force.
If the Millwall Lionesses players arrived on Merseyside fearing a double-digits shoeing, it didn’t show. In high spirits they spilled off their minibus into the team hotel.
Doncaster Belles arrived for their own overnight stay in a luxury coach, after snagging a fruitful sponsorship deal with Robert Kantecki – boss of local firm Centurion Tools.
Much like the previous year’s final, spectators were treated to an absorbing rather than enthralling spectacle. Hope Powell’s 2016 autobiography recalled “a titanic struggle, a real war of attrition”.
Kiwi midfielder Mo Jacobsen was on her way back from injury and only fit enough for a place on the Lionesses bench. So sturdy club captain Raeltine Shrieves took a starting berth.
With space at a premium the breakthrough came after 65 minutes, flying winger Yvonne Baldeo meeting Jane Bartley’s cross to fire Millwall ahead.2
Prolific Baldeo had scored twice in Howbury Grange’s 4–2 win over the Belles in 1984. She had returned to Millwall from a Serie A stint at ACF Milan and like Hope Powell she was one of relatively few black players of the era.
It was sweet redemption for Jane Bartley, the club’s longest-serving player. She missed the 1987 semi-final loss to the Belles after blowing her knee out in the previous round at Solihull.
The injury cruelly robbed Bartley, the Londoner with Welsh roots, of two years right at the peak of her career.
Under a sustained barrage of Belles pressure the Lionesses threw their bodies on the line. With six minutes left, Baldeo was withdrawn having run herself into the ground.
Burly striker Karen Farley, one of the best headers of a ball in women’s football, came on to bolster the ranks.
Amidst chaotic scenes Gillian Coultard was carried off injured for a second time, while Jackie Sherrard was running about with a sponge in her hand after bursting her mouth open.
Bob Nixon played 16 minutes of injury time, while at one stage there were three separate players down with cramp.
Then, right at the death, fearless youngster Tina Mapes was poleaxed by Jackie Sherrard’s ferocious shot at goal.
It was the Belles’ last roll of the dice and the Pride of Yorkshire were beaten. Heroic Mapes missed Millwall’s celebrations, lying prone with little cartoon birdies tweeting around her head.
Her jubilant team-mates soon swigged cans of lager and lustily belted out Cup-winning staples like We Are The Champions, as well as club-specific ditties such as No-one Likes Us, We Don’t Care.
Although the Belles were dejected they lost with a dignity befitting their champion status. This famous Doncaster Belles spirit ensured universal respect and admiration, which echoes down the years to this day.
Guest of honour Marina Dalglish presented the Cup and said she almost wept for the gallant losers, but she warmly congratulated Millwall director Jeff Burnige who was also in evidence.
Throughout the day, the Prenton Park boardroom remained locked, or “inviolate” as Guardian journo Neil Robinson scoffed.
Robinson noted this was Doncaster Belles’ first defeat in two years, and Baldeo’s winner was only the eighth goal they had shipped all season.
He quoted ebullient centre-back Sue Law: “With this game you get used to the worst, expect the best and pitch yourself in the middle. It’s still male-dominated but we grin and bear that.”
In a measure of what Law was talking about, the uphill struggle still faced by English women’s football, The Times’ report comprised a measly two lines:
DONCASTER BELLES, the hot favourites, were knocked cold by Yvonne Baldeo of Millwall Lionesses in the Women’s FA Cup final at Tranmere. Baldeo scored in the 65th minute, to deny Doncaster their fifth success and take the trophy to London.
Inevitably, Doncaster Belles were back the following year to win back their Cup – easing Red Star Southampton aside 4–0 in another Prenton Park outing.
While, in the face of an abortive takeover by Crystal Palace kingpin Ron Noades, Millwall’s winning team famously disintegrated and went their separate ways.
A few weeks after the Cup final England hastily scheduled a match against the USA to be played in Hirson, a remote French town on the Belgian border.
Coach Anson Dorrance’s USA professionals were barnstorming around Europe as part of a marathon build-up to the first ever FIFA World Cup in China that November.
Vaunted Yank forward line, the ‘triple-edged sword’ of Heinrichs, Akers and Jennings-Gabarra, plundered a goal each in Hirson, while Doncaster Belles’ Gail Borman replied for plucky amateurs England.
Akers’s strike was one of 39 international goals she scored in 1991, the last two of which beat Norway to secure the World Cup in Guangzhou, China.
1. The terminology was not changed to Assistant Referee until 1996. ↩
2. Some sources say it was Player of the Match Debbie Bampton who laid on the goal, beating two players on the right wing then crossing for Baldeo. ↩