Doncaster Belles in a league of their own
14:11 28 December 2010
Theyre one of the most famous names in football and they will be kicking off next season in a new super league which will transform the game. After years where income has not come close to matching ambition or effort, the game is changing and the Doncaster Belles will be at the forefront of the new look for womens football.
History will already remember the Belles as one of Britains most celebrated womens football clubs, with 40 years of cup victories, league championships and international honours. But they are now writing a new chapter.
It may have started as a group of young women who met selling draw tickets on the terraces of Belle Vue the then home of Doncaster Rovers and formed the Belle Vue Belles in 1969, but it became a pioneer in what is now Englands biggest female participation sport.
As a young girl Vicky Exley used to enjoy a kick-about with the boys in the park near her Rotherham home. Now, as the Belles first team captain, she recognises that the game has brought her opportunities she could only have dreamed of. I get so emotional when I talk about football because its just so brilliant, she said.
Ive been here 15 years and Im so proud of my association with the club, everywhere you go people have heard of the Doncaster Belles.
At the age of 15 Vicky was spotted by Sheffield Wednesday and offered a shot at making her name in the sport. Now 34 and with over 50 England caps Vicky, her teammates and the 200 girls in Belles thriving junior section are among more than 1.3 million women and girls in England who play some form of football every week.
The profile of the England women team was boosted last summer as they reached the Womens European Championships final which was broadcast live on primetime BBC TV.
But in spite of the games increasing popularity, former Doncaster, Leeds and Rotherham winger John Buckley wasnt interested when he was first approached to become the Belles manager.
But having now spent six years leading the team in the FA Womens Premier League John who has also coached the mens teams at Leeds United and Hull City admits he was surprised at just what the girls had to offer.
The skill level was already a lot higher than I expected and its only improved since then, he said. The girls are now very professional in their approach to training, they want to learn. Thats a reflection of the way the game has gone across the country.
For the past two years weve trained at Balby Carr Community Sports and Science College and play our home matches at the Keepmoat Stadium complex, including two or three games a season in the main 15,000-seater stadium. Thats really helped focus everyones minds.
Vicky agrees there has been a significant shift in attitudes since her early years.
When I first joined Belles wed train on muddy cow fields with five or six balls and goals with no nets, she said. There were no junior sides or players coming through but if you look at the England team now theyre doing so well because there have been massive changes in the youth systems.
Tori Williams, 19, is just one Donny girl who has taken advantage of the opportunities at her home town club. Invited to a trial through her primary school as an eight-year-old, Tori went through the Belles junior set-up and, after spells at Leeds and Arsenal, she is now the lynchpin of the Belles defence.
She said: At school the boys told me Girls cant play football, get off the pitch! but now people arent surprised you play football, theyre surprised you play football at that level. Most people are quite interested in how it works; its not negative about us actually playing anymore.
But although the Belles are one of the biggest names in the game, the club has survived for the past two seasons with no major sponsor, relying on the goodwill of local businesses, club lotteries and supporters and by tapping into various funding pots to finance training and competition. The players havent been paid wages even though some travel from as far afield as Essex to play for Belles.
But major changes to the structure of the womens game will change all that. The Belles will be one of eight clubs invited to be founding members of the new FA Womens Super League, which is planned to kick off in March 2011.
The Super League signals the first move towards professionalism in the game and to maximise public interest the womens season will run from March to October to avoid clashes with the mens season. Broadcaster ESPN has acquired the rights to the new league.
Buckley had conceded the decision could have been make or break for Belles but is delighted all the work that went into their application, particularly in gaining permission to play their Super League games at the Keepmoat Stadium and launching the club as a Social Enterprise, meaning Belles run coaching sessions in Doncaster schools, communities and organisations, has paid off.
Tori believes it is now an even more exciting time to be a female footballer in England.
Any girl that wants to play should just find their nearest club and try it out. You dont have to worry about how good you are, theres no pressure to be the best, just enjoy it but if you do want to improve then the opportunities are there now and theyre getting better.