Doncaster Belles 0–9 Blackburn Rovers; Belles kids given brutal induction to FA Women’s Northern League at the hands of Blackburn Rovers
For the Belles faithful, this must have been gut-wrenching to witness. The former Queens of English women’s football, reduced to such a pitiable state just three months after carrying off the WSL2 title.
During a summer of prolonged radio silence from the Belles, their League-winning players had one-by-one hotfooted it to rival clubs.
Fans’ fears were confirmed when an 11th-hour club statement tersely renounced their place in the new-fangled second tier ‘FA Championship’ for financial reasons.
And so it was that a completely unrecognisable young Belles side trotted out for this opening third tier (North) fixture at Rossington Main FC.
They took up their positions swamped in last year’s hand-me-down kits, replete with BPP gaudily emblazoned across the shirts.
This despite BPP getting out of dodge and ripping up their sponsorship. Worthy noises about an ‘elite female pathway’ in Doncaster having been booted into touch by the FA.
Such player exoduses are fairly common in the amateur ranks, especially in the women’s game. Famously Millwall Lionesses’ 1991 Women’s FA Cup squad disintegrated in the aftermath of that victory over the Belles.
Although Lou Waller hung around and Pauline Cope came back to strengthen a young team which eventually burped forth several more England players.
Earlier this year Millwall Lionesses raised thousands by going cap in hand to fans with a crowd-funding drive, then bumped all their players and told them to whistle for their cash.
It’s a fate to have previously befallen the Belles. In the early 2000s loss of sponsorship and/or some sort of behind the scenes bust-up saw most of the squad up sticks for greener pastures.
The difference then was that a couple of wise old heads, in the shape of “Tricky” Vicky Exley and Claire “Des” Utley, stayed put to steady the ship through choppy waters.
This time around, the party line from the Belles is that fielding a youth team aligns with their 50-year commitment to developing players.
It’s a noble venture but – ultimately – a naive pipe dream. Futile, pie in the sky stuff.
Who are they trying to kid? Anyone who knows anything about the development of young footballers knows that’s not how it’s done. They need to be eased in gently. Treated responsibly and with care.
Even famous Belles youth product Kaz Walker had to bide her time on the sub’s bench until Lorraine Hanson, England centre-half but the Belles’ chief goal-getter, got pregnant.
Okay Gill Coutard got straight in but she was a Kelly Smith-style phenom, a once-in-a-generation talent too good to leave out. Even Coultard fed off experienced players around her.
As self-confessed Man Utd fans, Walker and Coultard will keenly recall Alan Hansen’s pompous declaration: “You can’t win anything with kids,” made after watching Man Utd crash 3–1 at Villa on opening day, 1995.
Alan’s never lived it down because Alex Ferguson’s resurgent United in fact scooped a League and Cup double that season, with ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ to the fore.
But United’s double-winners could call upon Schmeichel, Pallister, Bruce, Irwin, McClair, Cole and, er, David May, as well as the kids.
Later in the campaign Eric Cantona came back after his long ban for kung-fu kicking and punching a mouthy Crystal Palace fan.
The mono-browed Frenchman may have had a proverbial screw loose, but he was also a charismatic leader of men.
It’s said that before Cantona pitched up at United, the squad merely trained. Afterwards, they practised.
Contemporary female Cantonas don’t grow on trees. And if they did, they’d be nowhere near Donny, instead pulling down big bucks at a financial basket case like Lyon, PSG or Chelsea.
But the point stands: any decent team needs guidance from seasoned campaigners to help bring the youngsters along.
Even Fergie’s Fledglings. When they went it alone they were humiliatingly pumped out of the League Cup by York City.
At the Belles’ current reduced level all the players in the League get pocket money at best.
So surely there must be some decent ones knocking about at lesser clubs who’d sooner trouser their weekly pittance from a famous old name like Doncaster Belles?
There is another story doing the rounds…
In recent years the Belles were locked in a bizarre stand-off: at loggerheads with their own youth setup. At one point they were entirely separate organisations.
Pretty surreal stuff. The situation calls to mind Morrissey, the preening crooner who’s somehow embroiled in a clownish long-term feud with his own fan website.
Have the Belles’ youth faction prevailed in this dysfunctional wrangle? Are they now looking to cement their Pyrrhic victory by ‘annexing’ the first team?
If so, they must be firmly slapped down and told to get real. For the greater good of the club.
Matchday One: the ugly, unvarnished truth
Look away now, Belles fans
Lord knows the Belles have handed out enough thrashings over the years. So when the shoe’s on the other foot it’s no surprise when they react with a dignified, sporting equanimity.
But make no mistake, this was a pasting. 5–0 at half-time, it was 9–0 going on 15, 20–0. In fact, it could have been anything.
Blackburn skelped the crossbar three or four times, missed a hatful of sitters and were denied at least one stonewall penalty.
It quickly became apparent that the poor Belles youth-teamers – anonymous even to the home fans because the shirt numbers weren’t printed in the rather scanty match programme – were several fathoms out of their depth.
In a very real sense this was women against girls. The Belles resembled a school team who simply bounced off their opponents.
Blackburn were in a completely different class. Rovers players Shepherd, Flint, Makin and Holbrook all stand-outs at this level. Bigger, faster, wilier, they ran roughshod all over the beleaguered Belles.
Although Blackburn goalkeeper Alex Brooks had little to do she did it with minimum fuss, looking an able replacement for recently-retired Dani Hill.
Brooks stood tall to swat away a second-half breakaway effort from the Belles number 9, who booted the rebound over the bar.
Hulking centre-half pairing Stuart and MacDonald are probably the best seen at this level since Bannon and McFadden at Sunderland.
Blackburn had their own hard luck story earlier this summer, when they too fell foul of the capricious entry criteria to the FA’s money leagues.
But crucially, by hook or by crook they kept the core of their group together.
The Belles, as far as could be seen, went with three at the back. Bizarrely, the wing-backs were ‘going expansive’ – incessantly running into space instead of tucking in.
Girls, you’re losing 9–0!? Tuck in, get goal-side and at least try to make yourself some sort of obstacle!
In front of them it was anyone’s guess what was supposed to be happening. Calling it a disorganised rabble would be a kindness.
After the seventh or eighth goal flew in it degenerated into a swarm of players chasing the ball, like under-fives.
There was no question mark over the attitude or application of the plucky debutantes, but exposing them to that rampant Blackburn team on their first-team bow seemed cruel and unusual.
Think Jonah Lomu’s iconic trampling of poor old Mike Catt. All over the pitch. For 90 excruciating minutes.
It’s sure to be a steep learning curve, all right, for all concerned. For the new coaching staff perhaps as much as the players.
Although the continued presence of Belles grandee Julie “Chippy” Chipchase, albeit in an upstairs role, will no doubt offer some comfort to the supporters in that regard.
From here, to where?
Positives? Well they won’t have to play Blackburn every week.
Swaggering Rovers dismantled WSL outfit Liverpool 4–1 in a friendly a few days later. Belles’ tormentor-in-chief Natasha Flint got called up to England’s under-23s.
Upcoming games against Stoke City and minnows Chorley will give a truer indication of where this Belles squad stand in the scheme of things.
Rossington Main’s Oxford Street is a tidy little non-League ground and a much more suitable venue than the soulless, alienating Breeze-block Boulevard at the Keepmoat.
The number 10 (“Chloe”?) showed some nice touches before she was invariably nudged off the ball by an opponent a foot taller than her.
The little number 6 at the heart of the embattled defence showed some tigress-ish qualities reminiscent of Sophie Walton.
But there’s no shortcuts. To be able to cope against the Blackburns of this world these youngsters will need time. Time to beef up and time to learn their trade.
Leeds United’s Billy Bremner turned his protégé David Batty from boy to man by having him gulp down a daily mug of sherry containing a raw egg.
Modern sports science might consider the supposed merits of this concoction to be fictitious, if not nonsensical. A piece of demented quackery, perhaps.
But the proof of the pudding was very much in the eating for Batty: the results there for all to see in his dominant, chest-beating performances.
Admittedly, Batty’s level went up again several notches a few years later when he was played alongside classy performers like McAllister and Speed. Then Leeds sold him to fund a new stand.
Given the drop-off rate between 16 and 21, it’s statistically unlikely that many of these girls will be involved in football at ANY level in five years’ time.
Sadly, any attempt to boost their chances with an eggy sherry or two would only be made into a safeguarding issue by the game’s po-faced custodians.
In the event that any of them do turn into a player, they’ll be gone in a sudden cloud of dust. Spirited away to a WSL franchise, post-haste.
That must be perhaps the most galling thing of all for the long-suffering Belles hierarchy.
This artificial demotion presided over by the FA flies in the face of sporting integrity and is emblematic of a much wider malaise.
Even the recent arrival of Manchester United’s women’s team, expected to be much-trumpeted, elicited only the weak parp of a lone kazoo.
Of course, in two or three year’s time things will still be flat-lining. Then another influx of well-meaning do-gooders on the FA gravy train will decide to shake things up again.
Probably – yawn – back to something like it was before.
Only the names and faces change. Completely ignorant of what’s gone before but smug in their surety that they’re the ones to sort it all out. What arrogance!
Women’s football in this country will never amount amount to anything if it keeps trying to hit the reset button every couple of years. It will remain forever a snake eating its own tail.
The great Jock Stein was correct when he once opined “football is nothing without fans”. And how were all these fans recruited, engaged, energised? By “knowing the history,” of course.
If only those responsible for women’s football would stop denigrating and mocking their own heritage. In reality it’s the unique selling-point, the key to unlocking progress and ascent.
This foolish error is encapsulated in the disgusting treatment meted out to the Belles, who stand proud – a rejected cornerstone.
Laid low, yes, but their depth corresponds to a hidden height. Down but not out, in their essence they remain a fine exemplar of what women’s football might one day be.