There is little that can be said about Doncaster’s ill-fated return to WSL 1 that hasn’t already been voiced time and again. But where did it all go wrong for the figurative Phoenix as she attempted to ascend from the ashes?
Tipped for big things
Optimism was at an all-time high as the Belles received more investment, Project Phoenix very much a thing as the team with such a glittering history in the women’s game looked to set the pace once again. On the pitch the Belles were being propelled into WSL 1 from a storming season in WSL 2 that culminated in promotion back to where many saw their rightful place in the top level of the pyramid, Christmas was coming and the Belles [noisy] fans were getting their presents early as the club periodically announced the players who’d been given full-time contracts ahead of the new season. The club was optimistic, the team was optimistic, the fans were optimistic as were the pundits, predicting a strong season from the Doncaster team.
The reality however was rather a different story. Losing Beth England to Chelsea was a blow but certainly not one the Belles couldn’t get over, Natasha Dowie, Becky Easton and Katrin Omarsdottir all made the switch from Liverpool as Jess Sigsworth resigned from Notts. The players knew what was required of them, the manager with experience (albeit fractionally dated) of the top tier.
Back-to-back 4-1 losses at the hands of Chelsea at the Keepmoat were what greeted the Belles on their return, eight goals shopped in five days. But the signs were actually rather positive, ignoring a rusty FA Cup match, their first WSL 1 game for 30 months was always going to tough going up against the reigning champions. A penalty and two poorly defended corners gave the visitors the edge at the break but with time ticking down in the second-half, it looked like the Belles had refused to give up a goal from open play. Eni Aluko’s goal six minutes from time a sign of a conditioned player used to the rigors of the league up against a tired defence. Still, the signs weren’t screaming relegation, Chelsea were the champions of England.
The fixture draw long before the start of the season hadn’t been kind to the Belles, forced to sit out the next month waiting for their second game of the season the Yorkshire team attempted to stay fit and fresh for their away trip to Birmingham at the end of April. A closed-door friendly against Durham a figurative spanner in the works as they lost prolific striker, Courtney Sweetman-Kirk for [almost all] of the season, the Belles looing their bite. The injuries took their toll on the team, Arsenal loanee Carla Humphrey recovered from an early knock but a mixture of injury and personal tragedy kept Sue Smith out of the frame for most of the year, Sigsworth’s season over prematurely in the Summer after a cruciate injury.
The game against Birmingham wasn’t one of the Belles’ brightest, up against a team that had already shaken the dust off that month, Donny looked rusty and disjointed. Their opening goal, against the run of play was duly cancelled out by a Blues team that followed where the Belles stuttered, a lack of clear shape and understanding muting their options going forward. A drubbing at the CFA was how the first half of their season ended, their last scheduled match before the break postponed as the Keepmoat became a literal moat, the pitch sodden and unplayable.
Change at the top
Firmly at the base of the table with no points people were already writing the Belles off, refusing to acknowledge that they had only played a fraction of their games and were by no means half-way through the season. The surprise departure of Glen Harris was far from music to the ears of Belles fans, Dowie and Easton departing over the break before Emma Coates was revealed as the new Belles boss. Marta Bakowska-Mathews and Christie Murray were signed up as Lauren Cresswell returned to the Keepmoat and Coates snapped up a loan deal for Liverpool defender Maz Pacheco.
Rock bottom, players in, players out, the manger who’d brought them up gone and his replacement was comparatively inexperienced, Belles fans didn’t know which way to look, but with 13 games of the season left the only way was up.
Back in league action at the end of June and the Belles had started strongly at Meadow Lane, Sigsworth’s goal cancelling out Rachel Williams’ opener. A nasty injury to Carly Telford at the end of the first-half put the end to her season as 21 year-old deputy Megan Walsh replaced her for the second-half. The visitors completely spurring a golden opportunity to put the young keeper to the test in the second-half, all their good work in the first undone as they began to look lost and off the pace once more, Ellen White’s goal after the hour enough to ensure another loss.
The start of July finally brought something for the Belles fans to cheer about as Doncaster navigated their way through ninety minutes to come away with a win, their first in front of a crowd all year. Having ridden their luck and somewhat stolen the win away from Sunderland the Belles were victorious in Dronfield, afforded a spot in the next round of the Conti Cup – rather unluckily drawing (eventual winners) Man City, the Citizens handing them their third 4-1 loss of the year the following month. Six days later the Keepmoat was hosting its’ first Belles game for four months as the hosts met the team they’d just knocked out of the Conti Cup for the first time in the league. The result a rather dismal 4-0 to the Lady Black Cats, the Belles losing by the same margin in their next game, away to Chelsea.
Two more home losses sandwiched their second [aforementioned] cup visit to the CFA, first a hopeful 1-0 against Birmingham before an embarrassing 4-0 to City just four days after the same team had put as many past them. The mood picking back up at the end of August, the Belles resolute in Widnes held out until the half, Natasha Harding’s stunning strike just after the restart the only thing that could separate the two sides come the whistle. A loss but a narrow one, the Belles by all accounts unlucky not to have picked up their first point of the season in Cheshire. One step forward and four back as the Belles (yet again) lost 4-1 at home to Sunderland, their games in hand catching up to them as they ended September on the wrong side of another 4-1 loss, this time against Reading.
The season dissolved away, the seasons continued to change but the Belles remained stuck on zero points, the same mistakes repeated game in, game out. An ingrained inability to fully defend crosses and set pieces, the tendency to let their heads drop after conceding; more than urging the opposition to strike again. Utility players not quite in their natural positions, no Sweetman-Kirk nor Sigsworth left them blunted in attack, the ball worked forward but no danger woman to seize the opportunity and fire them towards hope. Heads surely hanging low as the matches ran out and the results failed to improve.
Finally playing their postponed match against Arsenal and the fans hoped they could reschedule again, the Gunners hitting them for five before Liverpool added another defeat three days later. The Belles finally relegated in mid-October in this last home game of the season, after working hard to take the lead in a match they let it all crumble away. Two Notts goals in three minutes enough for the Lady Pies to down them, acceptance long set-in, no one surprised, the executioners axe finally making its’ decisive cut.
The Belles ending their season down south, a 2-0 at Borehamwood another match that showcased potential but with still no result, the last day of the season finally arrived, the Belles down but with their first win of the season. It had taken over seven months but the Belles finally had a win, a culmination of a season, a performance that finally bore fruity – a nervy first-half but a strong second, Donny benefiting from waves of pressure to finally best a superb Mary Earps. The visitors digging in with all their might to withstand the late bombardment from the Royals, the win richly deserved, the end of the season suddenly coming all too soon.
It would be impossible – and flatly wrong – to say Doncaster were relegated because they "were bad". The issues far more complex, the failings on multiple levels, dealt a healthy slice of bad luck with scheduling and injuries, any team would have struggled but the Belles haven’t helped themselves during this campaign. Their few games before the May break show that although the team had brought in new personnel, they didn’t have all the players they required, their defence sometimes ramshackle or inexperienced, the consistent errors not rectified.
A basic inability to defend crosses undoing them time and time again, even if they went a handful of games without conceding from a set-piece they were never far from a lapse. The longer the season went on, the more they were just waiting to officially be relegated, heads hanging low, dropping even further after conceding. Game after game, month after month without even a point to their name as the team they’d kept pace with for all the previous season, Reading, acclimatised to the league with ease.
The gap between WSL 1 and WSL 2 has never been so big but in their last game of the season the Belles showed their capabilities, yes it was only Reading but by that point Reading were on their way to being an established WSL 1 team. The win the culmination of months of hard work, Coates’ team finally playing as a team, achieving their potential, the progress has been slow, agonisingly so but this team finally gotten there.
The win worth its’ weight in gold, 2016 arguably a “failure” of a season but a huge huge learning experience and warning for other teams coming up from WSL 2. Even if they came right back up (as Bristol City just have) it wouldn’t be until the start of the 2018-19 season (August 2018) that we’d see the Belles back in league action against the countries’ best, and for when they do come up (whenever that may be) they will be prepared and will refuse to make the same mistakes again. A Phoenix ready to rise from the ashes once more.