In one facet of football our town has stood at the forefront for more than thirty years; on the tip of everyone’s tongue, inspiring novels and television series, and yet attendances remain in three figures. A line oft repeated on Rovers messageboards when attendances dip is that the town doesn’t deserve the club; that Doncastrians are under-appreciative of the football being played on their own doorstep. A theory in which there may be some truth, but one that is much more applicable to the town’s top-ranked football side; the Doncaster Rovers Belles.
There is much for the town to be proud of in the Belles, not least in their achievements. They lifted the inaugural Premier League title in 1992 having won every game and from 1983 to 1994 featured in eleven of twelve FA Cup Finals. The side offers a clear link to our football past at Belle Vue, the team having been formed by the ladies who sold draw tickets there in the late 60s, and in an interview in 2003 long-serving Belles player Karen Walker articulated the squad’s own sense of personal pride; “The big difference between Doncaster Belles and the other successful clubs is that players don’t leave Doncaster Belles… There’s a feeling here that we are representing the north.” In every sense they are our club.
Women’s Football, like the men’s game, has changed a great deal since the introduction of the Premier League. The names of those around them may have changed – with top women’s sides of the early 90s Croydon, Knowsley United, Red Star Southampton, Leasowe Pacific giving way to more familiar football names like Chelsea, Birmingham and Everton – but the Belles have remained a constant presence at the top level. This year the women’s game made another leap forward, moving to summer football with the launch of the FA Women’s Super League, an eight team top flight of which the Belles were rightly part-of.
The Belles may no longer be the northern envoy to the women’s game of which Walker spoke so highly, but their reputation and history does precede them enabling manager John Buckley to attract a trio of players from overseas ahead of the FAWSL campaign. Arguably the most promising of the three is young Irish international forward Aine O’Gorman and Aine was kind enough to speak to Viva Rovers this week to offer her thoughts on the inaugural FAWSL season, her early acting career, and her jinx on the Rovers’ men’s team.
I asked Aine how her move to the Belles came about. “The manager John Buckley got in contact with me in September last year; I went over to Doncaster for a trial and became a Belle. I jumped at the opportunity to play football at a higher level in England. It’s been tough at times, being away from home, but I don’t regret my decision to sign for Belles in the slightest and everyone around the club has been great for me, helping to make me feel more at home. I can’t believe it’s been a year already. It’s been a good challenge, a great experience and the level of football is excellent.”
As mentioned Aine is one of three overseas players who plied their trade with the Belles this season, with Canada’s Kylla Sjoman and Sweden’s Maria Karlsson also recruited on semi-pro contracts, which involve additional community and promotional work with the club. The trio coined themselves The Ramada Crew, having been housed at the hotel by the Belles for the duration of the season.
The UK isn’t much different from Ireland so I definitely adjusted better than the other two ‘foreigners’. I think it was tough for Maria at first with the language and Kylla from Canada, being so far away from her home country. It was an experience living in a hotel for a year and not as bad as I expected it to be, but don’t know if I could do it again for another year it’s just not the same as having your home to live in”. And her thoughts on Doncaster? “Eh it’s not the most exciting place in England if I’m honest but it’s not the worst either. It has everything you need.”
Having spotted Aine at the Keepmoat for one of the Rovers games earlier in the season I asked her if there was much interaction between the men’s and women’s sides at the club? “I’ve been to a good few of the men’s games and they haven’t won once so I think I’m bad luck, perhaps I better stop going! No we don’t see the lads much, but I’ve talked to Mustapha [Dumbuya] and [Gary] Woodsy a few times and they seem to be very nice people.”
The inaugural FAWSL season proved to be a tough one for the Belles, they finished seventh in the eight team league, with just two victories from their fourteen matches. “It’s been difficult at times when we weren’t getting results, especially in the games we expected to get something from. Goals have been a big problem; we didn’t take our chances at one end of the pitch and made mistakes at the other that cost us. In the second half of the season we struggled when key players got injured and then maybe resources became a bit of an issue.”
The Belles are the only FAWSL side to play their home games in a professional stadium, with their compatriots making less palatial settings such as Skelmersdale United, Stratford Town or Lincoln United’s Ashby Avenue their home, and so I’ve long wondered whether the Keepmoat is a help or hindrance for the side. “Without doubt a hindrance. I love playing at the Keepmoat it’s a great stadium with a quality surface and so I can imagine other teams think the exact same when they travel to Donny and it gives them a boost. It doesn’t help when you play strong teams like Arsenal who love to pass the ball and play great attacking flowing football.”
I asked Aine if she felt the FAWSL would be successful in its aim of raising the profile of the women’s game. “There was good media coverage throughout the season and live matches on ESPN along with the weekly highlights show, so hopefully it’s made the English public more aware of women’s football. I’ve had a great experience playing in the FAWSL – apart from losing. It has lived up to expectations with eight good teams playing competitive matches every week.”
One of the unfortunate characteristics of the first FAWSL season was a two month gap at its centre to enable players to prepare for and compete in the World Cup. How was this received amongst the players? “Personally, I think it was a good thing because I got to go home for a while, but it wasn’t so good for teams who had been playing well and gathering momentum. It was a bit strange, just as the season got going there was a break and then all the games were crammed together in a short period of time. I think [the fixtures] could be spread out a bit better, but it will probably be the same next season with a break for the Olympics.”
With the FAWSL season now over, Aine has returned to her native Ireland and a loan-spell with her previous club Peamount United. “It’s amazing to be at home to see all my friends and family and not having to slow down when I talk so the English can understand my accent. “
Peamount recently made history as the first Irish side to reach the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League, where they unfortunately went out to Paris St Germain, with Aine very much a part of the side once more.“It was a huge lift for women’s football in Ireland and all involved with Peamount United. It was a great experience to play in the Champions league, the team worked hard and competed with PSG for large parts of both games and created chances to score. However, their superior strength and fitness came through at the end of both games, which was disappointing, as it always is to lose.”
Aine grew up in Enniskerry in County Wicklow, a small town most famous on these shores as the setting for TV drama Ballykissangel. I chanced my arm and risked mentioning the show to Aine, had she ever snuck into shot as an extra? “Ha-ha yes I did actually twice I was playing Gaelic Football at the local pitch. My best friend’s house up the road was used a lot in the filming so she was a regular. An episode of Ballykissangel couldn’t be missed!”
Aine’s experience of Gaelic Football goes much further than booting a ball about behind Stephen Tompkinson, indeed she was still playing the game up to signing for the Belles helping Bray Emmets to the 2010 Wicklow Ladies Senior Football Championship, scoring four goals and two points in the final. Was it a tough decision to choose football over Gaelic? “Yeah I love playing Gaelic but football has always been my number one, ever since I was a kid. When I was seven I use to follow my brother to training and the manager let me join in. I haven’t stopped playing since. I do really miss playing Gaelic Football now though, more than ever. “
I mentioned that I’d been impressed by Aine’s strength on the ball in the Belles’ last home game against Birmingham City, indeed the Viva match report contains the line; “O’Gorman shrugged off the challenge of Weston like a pub drunk getting shot of their jacket for a car-park brawl,” and I wondered if her experience of Gaelic Football had helped her development in football. “Ha, ha, I can’t even remember that! Maybe it does give me a more aggressive edge“.
Still just 22, Aine has already achieved a lot in the game, notching over 40 caps for her country, being named FAI Under 19 Player of the Year and scoring a hat-trick in the 2010 FAI Women’s Cup Final for Peamount being just a handful of her successes. But what did she view as her own highlight? “I always get asked this and still don’t know the answer but probably scoring that hat-trick, beating Italy with Ireland to top our qualifying group, and making my starting senior debut against Germany when I was 16.”
So that’s the past, what about the future? “My dream would be to represent Ireland in the World Cup, but first we are concentrating on qualifying for the European Championships. Personally my aims are to keep improving as a player and be successful at a high level.” And for the Belles next season? “I think our aims will to improve, learn from our mistakes, and ultimately finish higher in the table.”
When I’ve watched the Belles this season what has stood out for me has been the accessibility of both the club and the players. At the end of each game I attended the team, regardless of result, came over to the East Stand to exchange hugs and high-fives with supporters. Aine, and her team-mates, have been very communicative and outgoing in their marketing and support of the Belles, happily communicating with fans via Twitter (which is how this interview came about) and at the games too.
Perhaps women’s football suffers from unfair comparisons with the men’s game. Yes the action is not as physical or as fast paced as the men’s, but having paid twice as much to watch Worcester City and Kidderminster Harriers hump a leather sphere in and out of orbit 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. And so I full endorse these final words from Aine herself on why, next season, you should all back the Belles; I would encourage the people of Doncaster to give the girls a chance, I think they will be pleasantly surprised and it will cost them a fraction of the price it would to see the men in action.”
For more information on the Doncaster Rovers Belles, visit the club’s own website. Similarly the FAWSL also has it’s own website too, which you’ll find here. Further information on Aine’s current club Peamount United can be found here.