A line often trotted out on Rovers related messageboards when attendances are down is that the town doesn’t deserve the club; that the people are under-appreciative of the football being played on their own doorstep. Whilst there may be some truth in that statement, it is a theory much more applicable to the Doncaster Rovers Belles. So whilst most Doncastrians got their football fix in their front room last night, watching Tottenham marauder through eleven men perturbing to be the Scottish side Hearts, I took an overdue trip to the Keepmoat Stadium for a first taste of the town’s only top flight sports team.
“I think it’s about time they dropped the Belles bit… I mean it’s a bit, you know, demeaning really isn’t it,” said Matt as we sat waiting for the teams to come out, which is the perfect excuse for the mini history lesson you’re about to get. The Belles name comes not simply from the historical meaning of the word, but as a nod to the team’s origin; the side having been formed in 1969 by the ladies who sold lottery tickets at Doncaster Rovers’ Belle Vue Ground. They began as the Belle Vue Belles, before becoming Doncaster Belles in 1971 as they moved into local league football.
The Belles stature grew quickly and throughout the 1980s and early 1990s they were understandably regarded as the best women’s football team in the country, contesting the FA Cup Final in eleven of the twelve seasons between 1983 and 1994, lifting the trophy on six occasions. In 1991 the Belles were invited to join the new Women’s Premier League and they swept to glory in its inaugural season, lifting the title with a 100% record, such had been the Belles dominance, that when they lost to Arsenal at Highbury in March 1993, it was their first league defeat in fifteen years. Though they have not quite repeated those highs in recent years, the Belles (who merged with Doncaster Rovers Ladies in 2005) have remained in the top flight of women’s football throughout, the only ever-presents since the Premier League’s inception and deservedly earned a contract for the newly formed FA Women’s Super League which got underway in April this year.
So that’s the past out the way, on to the present and a Belles side struggling to find their feet in the new top-tier of women’s football. Coming into this game against Lincoln Ladies, Doncaster had failed to win in seven matches, losing six and drawing one of their games since victory over Liverpool before the mid-season break. The main problem for the Belles, like their stadium co-tenants, has been finding the back of the net, scoring just seven goals in their twelve League matches. However, as this match got underway the Belles looked keen to address that as they took the game to Lincoln.
The Belles’ most experienced player Vicky Exley was first to test visiting keeper, and former team-mate, Nichola Hobbs, with a stinging thirty yard free-kick which Hobbs did well to turn behind. The resulting corner was swung dangerously into the Lincoln six yard box, but unfortunately there was no Belles player on hand to meet the delivery. At the other end Lincoln had a first sight of goal as Jodie Taylor created space for herself off a throw-in, her shot flying over the bar, but it was the Belles who remained on top in the opening quarter.
Bethany England on the Belles left was causing problems for the visitor’s right back and was unlucky not to see a better reward as she delivered a great ball into the ‘corridor of uncertainty’ behind the Lincoln defence, but the Lady Imps managed to clear. On the opposite side Precious Hamilton too was proving a threat and she came close to an opening goal after cutting in from the flank and hitting a firm shot that Hobbs turned behind from her near post. Minutes later Hamilton turned provider as her cross from the right found Exley unmarked in the area, but the midfielder glanced her header wide of the far post.
Detractors of the women’s game are quick to point out the differences between it and men’s matches, but there was something very familiar in the way the Belles promising start ended as they conceded a goal somewhat against the run of play. Having controlled the game’s opening exchanges Doncaster did indeed fall behind midway through the half as Lucy Staniforth looked up on the edge of the area and curled a fine effort into the far top corner. Staniforth celebrated by revealing a t-shirt in tribute to her brother to the travelling Lincoln supporters… and was duly cautioned for doing so by the officious match referee.
Having fallen behind the Belles confidence, as you might expect from a side struggling for form, notably fell away and Lincoln would go on to control the rest of the game. Staniforth had the opportunity to double her tally as she found herself in the clear minutes later, but her driven shot from the edge of the area flew over, and then Williams too forced a chance as she received the ball in the right channel but drove her effort wide of the near post.
At the other end the Belles’ earlier joy was petering out and save for a corner which Rhonda Jones got her head too only for Hobbs to turn the ball away they failed to really threaten an equaliser. Just before the break Lincoln had the perfect opportunity to extend their lead as Jones made a clumsy challenge in the area and the referee pointed to the penalty spot. Sue Smith took the spot kick and neatly put it away only for the match official to ask for a retake due to encroachment by Taylor. Smith stepped up again, but this time blazed her spot-kick into the North Stand seats to ensure it remained at 1-0 at the break.
The second half began notable more subdued than the first, a quiet opening fifteen minutes were only punctuated as Williams cut inside for Lincoln but fired her shot over the bar. Minutes later Lincoln came even closer to a second goal with a corner whipped in from the right, which Hamilton did well to head off the line. However, the seemingly inevitable second goal came with quarter of an hour to play; the impressive Williams turning her marker with some neat play, but as she was closed down in the penalty area the ball escaped for Jess Clarke, who turned it home via the inside of the post.
Seven minutes from time Lincoln made it 3-0 as a goalkeeper Mary Earps fumbled Clarke’s near post cross and substitute Bonnie Horwood bundled home the loose ball. The Belles has been limited to long-range efforts, a thirty yard half volley from Exley which sailed harmlessly over arguably the best of a meagre bunch. In the closing minutes Doncaster forced a couple of corners, Maria Karlsson getting a shot on goal from the second one, but both were successfully scrambled clear by the visitors as they saw out what was in the end a comprehensive victory.
The Belles sadly, after a promising opening twenty minutes, just never found their stride after going behind and failed to really hold on to the ball for any length of time. Forward Aine O’Gorman worked hard, but was forced to come increasingly deep in search of the ball, limiting the Belles attacking options when they did retain possession.
As for the Super League experience, the noticeable difference between this and a professional men’s match is the accessibility of both the club and the players; a fact reiterated at the end of the game as both sides came over to the East Stand to exchange hugs and high-fives with supporters. Yes the game is not as physical or as fast paced as the men’s, but having paid twice as much to watch Worcester City and Kidderminster hump a leather sphere back and forth in the FA Trophy a year or so ago, I can assure you that you will not see as technically adept footballers anywhere else in this country for as cheap as £6 a game.
The key discussion point for us as we retired to The Salutation afterwards was whether the Keepmoat Stadium is the best home for the Belles. Last night there was a crowd of approaching 500 in the Stadium, a sizable attendance, but any hope of an atmosphere, despite the best effort of the bell-ringing loyal following is quashed somewhat by the three sides of empty seats. Similarly the Keepmoat must be an attractive away fixture for Belles’ opponents after they’ve slugged it out at the less palatial settings of Skelmersdale United, Stratford Town or Lincoln United’s Ashby Avenue. However, as the town’s premier football side, they are of course deserving of the town’s best facilities. And of course the seats and comforts of the Keepmoat are a greater bargaining tool, than say the hard-standing at Armthorpe or Rossington, with which to attract potential fans.
The Belles have just one game remaining of their current FA Women’s Super League season, a home fixture against a Birmingham City side currently slugging it out with Arsenal for the title. The game is a 2pm kick-off at the Keepmoat Stadium on Sunday 28th August. Tickets are £6 for adults and £3 for children and we urge you all to get along and give the Belles the support they deserve.
Doncaster Belles line-up (4-3-3): Mary Earps; Maria Karlsson, Katie Holtham, Rhonda Jones, Shelly Cox (Kylla Sjoman); Abbie Prosser (Jessica Sigsworth), Naomi Chadwick, Vicky Exley; Precious Hamilton, Aine O’Gorman, Bethany England
subs not used: Helen Anderson, Victoria Williams
Lincoln Ladies line-up (4-4-2): Nicola Hobbs; Sophie Bradley, Casey Stoney, Leandra Little, Rachel Daly (Melissa Sutcliffe); Jess Clarke (Bonnie Horwood), Megan Harris, Remi Allen (Sophie Barker), Sue Smith; Lucy Staniforth, Jodie Taylor
sub not used: Emma Kete
booked: Lucy Staniforth (over-celebrating)