Soccer Pioneers, Priced Out by Progress
ROSSINGTON, England — Over the years, Sheila Edmunds has done pretty much everything for the Doncaster Belles. Half a century ago, she was among the group of friends who founded the club. For 25 years, she wore the team’s No. 8 jersey and, for a while, its captain’s armband.
When she retired, she filled in wherever required: welfare officer, first-aid practitioner, physiotherapist. Now her official title is president and general manager. If that sounds like an executive role, an honorary sinecure, it is not.
An hour or so before a game at the windswept stadium that the Belles now call home, Edmunds can be found in the simple wooden cabin that passes for a ticket office. At her back is an electric heater, on futile full blast to stave off the bitter cold. She welcomes fans handing over the £5 entrance fee warmly, as if each one is an old friend.
In quiet moments, she might help out at the trestle table that serves as the Belles’ merchandising arm. After kickoff, she keeps one eye on the game as she totals up the day’s takings; it is easier this way, she says. She is the one, after all, who will have to enter it all into the club’s accounts later.
There is more money in women’s soccer in England than there has ever been. Last summer, the country’s highest tier — the Women’s Super League (W.S.L.) — became, for the first time, fully professional, with a broadcasting arrangement with the BBC. England’s biggest clubs, including Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal, all have invested heavily in their women’s teams in recent years, spending not just on homegrown players but for high-profile imports, too. Manchester United, even, has finally joined the fray: It launched its women’s team, in the second-tier Championship, last year, and immediately set about recruiting an all-star roster.
The effect has been seismic, not just in terms of results — Manchester City reached the Champions League semifinals the last two seasons and England’s national team finished third in the 2015 Women’s World Cup — but in terms of interest, too. More than 45,000 people attended last season’s women’s F.A. Cup final, and two million more watched it live on television.
Little or none of that growth, though, has found its way to Doncaster; or, more accurately, Rossington, a small village on the outskirts of the town, where Doncaster Rovers Belles play their home games in the third tier of English women’s soccer.
Crowds rarely number much more than a hundred here. There are no television cameras. Last summer, the club’s biggest sponsor walked away; its income now does not stretch far beyond the cash Edmunds sifts through in front of that electric heater.
And yet this is the team that has, arguably, done more for women’s soccer in England than any other, a club that was synonymous with the sport for decades. In the 1980s and early 1990s, long before the professional clubs showed any interest in women’s soccer, the Belles were its pre-eminent force.
Between 1983 and 1994, the Belles reached 11 of 12 women’s F.A. Cup finals, and won the trophy six times. The team won the first ever women’s national league title, in 1992, and regained the crown in 1994; it would finish as runners-up seven times in the following years.
Back then, its players formed the backbone of the English national team. “At one point, we had seven or eight players in the squad,” said Gillian Coultard, who spent 21 years playing for the Belles in the team’s heyday, and picked up 119 appearances for England. For a long time, she was one of five players to have made a century of appearances for her country. The others were Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Peter Shilton and Billy Wright. “It was a good quiz question,” she said.
Doncaster, of course, was proud of the Belles: A small, tight-knit town on the edge of the South Yorkshire coalfield, it is not a place that attracts much national attention, or frequently enjoys much sporting success. The Belles changed that. “We won so much,” Coultard said. “The cup finals were on television. We felt like we represented Doncaster, and South Yorkshire. We kept the town at the pinnacle.”
Edmunds remembers the club being asked to send representatives to have “afternoon tea with the Queen and Prince Philip” when they visited Doncaster. The players were guests of honor at the town’s Mansion House, the ornate Georgian home of the local authorities, on several occasions.
“We never had any sexist stuff,” she said. “South Yorkshire people aren’t like that. It’s the sort of place where they acknowledge what people can do. They get behind you. There was a real pride at what we achieved.”
There was broader, cultural recognition, too. The writer Pete Davies spent a year with the team in the early 1990s; his subsequent book, “I Lost My Heart to the Belles,” coupled with the club’s success, made the name famous. The playwright Kay Mellor used the book as source material for “Playing the Field,” a BBC drama that ran for five seasons in the 1990s.
To many, at a time when women’s soccer received scant investment and commanded little attention, the Belles were the sport’s most prominent face. “They were the epitome of women’s football,” said Mike Blackham. Like most of the people who go to watch the Belles now, Blackham and his wife, Jane, have a personal connection to the club: A friend plays for the first team.
That is testament to how the club’s horizons have retracted in recent years. As the fortunes of women’s soccer have risen, those of the Belles have ebbed. “The women’s game has changed,” Edmunds said. “It is more financially driven. We have been left behind a little bit.”
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.”
Instead, she said, she takes satisfaction in seeing all of the players who came through the club’s ranks who have gone on to play professionally, to play in Europe, to play for their country.
The golden age of the Belles may have come and gone, Edmunds said, but the club still has a role to play. “You look at those players and think we must be doing something right,” she said. “We still contribute. There is real pride in that.”
Those Belles may be wearing different jerseys now, playing for different clubs, but they still bear the stamp of the club she helped to create. They all add a little more sheen to the legacy. In Edmunds’s eyes, they are still Belles. “That’s what we have always said,” she said, turning back to the day’s takings. “Once a Belle, always a Belle.”