Soccer Pioneers, Priced Out By Progress
In 2013, when the Football Association, the sport’s governing body in Britain, expanded the Women’s Super League to two divisions, Doncaster Belles were demoted to the second tier and Manchester City’s women’s team — far younger but, crucially, aligned with a Premier League behemoth — were promoted in their stead. Vic Akers, then the manager of Arsenal Ladies, described the decision as “morally scandalous.”
Doncaster was promoted back to the top flight in 2015, but lasted only a season before being relegated again. It won the second division last year, its first trophy since 1994, but did not take up its place in the top tier: The F.A. had changed the licensing criteria, and the Belles — lacking a headline sponsor and a major men’s team to bankroll the club — could not meet the new requirements. “Financially, we could not do it,” Edmunds said.
All but two members of the championship-winning side departed, many for Manchester United’s new women’s team. Neil Redfearn, the manager, left for Liverpool. The Belles decided against using the Keepmoat Stadium, the neat, modern venue that is home to Doncaster Rovers, the men’s team with which they have a mostly symbolic alliance, and set up instead in Rossington, where the two stands are little more than a few steps covered by a roof. Smaller surroundings, Edmunds said, would not be as “daunting” for the young players that now comprised the team.
In Doncaster, the Belles’ fame endures, and so does the affection and esteem in which they are held. Edmunds, for example, is well-known enough in the town that, a few years ago, when she was awarded an honor in London for her contribution to sport, the local paper afforded her the ultimate accolade: It referred to her by only her first name.
Blackham, who coaches a local junior team, finds that while young boys dream of Premier League stardom, the girls tend to have a different ambition. “They don’t talk about playing for Manchester City or Chelsea or Arsenal,” he said. “They want to play for the Belles.”
There is some regret at the club’s diminished status — “the demise of it is very sad, because it was so unique,” said Coultard — but there is no resentment of the game’s authorities, no lingering anger at the Football Association for failing to curate the most famous women’s team of all. “That era has gone,” Edmunds said. “We do not want people to forget that history, because so many people put so much into it, but we do not dwell on it.”