At 2:05 pm on March 20, 2016, all looked well and rosy for Doncaster Rovers Belles. New signing Jessica Sigsworth had just torn the champions’ defense to pieces to put Glen Harris’ side 1-0 up in their FA Cup tie against Chelsea.
The signings had been eye-catching to say the least with Sigsworth herself returning to the club after a spell away at Notts County. Natasha Dowie and Becky Easton had arrived after release from Liverpool, as had Icelandic international Katrín Ómarsdóttir. Another attacking player, Carla Humphrey was confirmed on loan from Arsenal shortly before the season started and several current players had been put on full-time contracts.
But while all looked well on the surface, tensions behind the scenes had increased throughout preseason due to a disagreement in transfer strategy. The board identified the need to strengthen the defense before their 2015 FA WSL 2 campaign had even ended and with full-time contracts handed out elsewhere, only center back Rhiannon Roberts was afforded such a deal. Captain Leandra Little and No. 1 goalkeeper Nicola Hobbs remained part-time as the club went into their first year back in the top division without a recognized fullback.
As targets were identified, Belles didn’t have an endless stream of cash to tailor their squad and a large chunk of the budget went on bringing Dowie, Easton, and Ómarsdóttir to the club. On the face of things, all three appeared to be coups for a promoted club but the signings left Belles struggling elsewhere.
Although the board didn’t block moves for Dowie and Easton, they did bring up continued worries about the lack of fullbacks before signing off on the deals. After gaining promotion back to FA WSL 1, the club trusted Harris’ vision and pushed through with his wishes.
Despite identifying defensive targets that included Jade Bailey and Georgia Brougham during the winter, prior signings had a big impact on the club’s ability to attract the right defenders and meant they faced champions Chelsea with one full-time defender and midfielders Emily Simpkins and Sophie Barker playing at left back.
Schedule Woes and Exodus
The fixture schedule was cruel to the Belles; they were set to face Chelsea, Manchester City, Birmingham City, and Arsenal before the summer break and even an experienced, clinical striker in Dowie couldn’t do a huge amount to help as the Belles’ defense was torn to shreds against the reigning champions and the would-be champions. The club wanted to play the rematch against Arsenal much earlier than the scheduled October date but the visitors turned down several dates offered by the Belles.
If the fixture list had been reversed and Harris had faced Sunderland, Liverpool, Notts County, and Reading at the Keepmoat Stadium during the first half of the season, it’s unlikely the club would now sit on zero points. Dowie, Courtney Sweetman-Kirk, Sigsworth, and Humphrey was an attack capable of taking points off those teams but the season continued to unravel in every negative way possible.
After the postponement of the home game against Arsenal on May 21, Belles went from the opening day of the season to well past the summer break without a home match and in that time lost several key players to serious injuries. Sweetman-Kirk broke her leg in a behind-closed-doors friendly against Durham while Sue Smith has suffered with a knee issue all season (though the former England international hasn’t given up hope of continuing her career into 2017).
Worse was to come, with tensions at an all-time high and Belles’ defensive deficiencies coming to the fore in a painful 6-0 defeat to Manchester City, Harris was dismissed and Dowie and Easton decided to follow him, though the writing was on the wall even before the manager’s departure.
In their first home game for months against Birmingham and under the guidance of new boss Emma Coates, Belles were trailing 1-0 and well in the game when Jess Sigsworth, their last remaining striker, suffered a serious knee injury in an innocuous collision with an opponent. This left Coates with new signing Christie Murray and the relatively untested and inexperienced duo of Marta Bakowska-Mathews and Carla Humphrey to lead the attack.
While desperately trying to save themselves, Belles were so thin on the ground they had to turn to development players Rebecca Rayner and Beth O’Donnell — both of whom were ineligible earlier in the season because they hadn’t even turned 16. With a large majority of the players the club had made full-time either departed or sat in the stands, Belles were left with just Kasia Lipka, Simpkins, Roberts, Ómarsdóttir, Humphrey, Murray, and Bakowska-Mathews as full-time players. Their previous FA WSL 2 title rivals and now relegation rivals Reading put over double that amount of players on full-time deals at the start of 2016 and further strengthened their squad with the signing of Remi Allen in the summer.
With Allen and her former Birmingham team mates Jo Potter and Jade Moore all available in the summer, Belles were still reeling from their tight budget and were the only top division club not to place an offer in front of Moore before the England midfielder signed for Notts County Ladies. More bad luck continued to strike off the field as well as on it. The club was said to be interested in bringing Leah Williamson in on loan but an injury she picked up with Arsenal during an international friendly in Seattle put pay to any chance of her joining the club.
The club accepts they failed to address key issues at the back throughout the season but did manage to bring England U-19 left back Maz Pacheco to the club and the Liverpool player instantly improved the side both at the back and going forward. Despite constant defeats, performances did improve and Belles took the lead in games against Sunderland, Liverpool, and Notts County but the same demons haunted them on all three occasions.
Costly Defensive Lapses
Against Sunderland in September, there were just five minutes between the away side’s equalizer and the goal that put them ahead, eight minutes for Liverpool to do it, and just three for Notts County. Coincidence? Unlikely. Despite a further defeat to Reading, Sunderland was the hammer blow and the game in which the tears flowed post-match — they knew the game was almost up even with five matches remaining. After the match against Reading it was almost quiet resignation rather than the initial shock that hit them post-Sunderland.
Although morale and a close bond remained behind the scenes, confidence was obviously hit with the team still sitting on zero points and once all three opponents equalized, they went ahead within a matter of minutes. In the match against Birmingham and the away game at Liverpool, Ómarsdóttir missed big chances to steal a point and individual errors elsewhere laid bare the team’s inability to challenge.
In the home game against Manchester City, a sloppy pass out from the back from captain Little saw Belles fall behind within 15 seconds and the usually dependable Nicola Hobbs let a tame effort squirm under her while leading against relegation rivals Reading. Two Caroline Weir screamers allowed Liverpool to overturn their deficit and Arsenal were never challenged as they ran out 5-0 winners. If there was ever a scene which showed the gap between the leagues it was goalkeeper Hobbs signing in at reception in her work uniform — the Belles’ No. 1 had come straight from her day job to face the likes of Danielle Carter, Jordan Nobbs, and Kelly Smith.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hough there are still bold and ambitious plans to move forward off the pitch, plans for a new training facility have been delayed due to owls and bats living in the buildings but their new training pitches are well under way. Their first grass pitch is almost ready and they can still use the 3G pitches currently on offer at the Keepmoat Stadium.
Doncaster can rightly feel hard done that the schedule certainly didn’t favor them and they lost several key players to freak and cruel injuries but with the gap between FA WSL 1 and 2 increasing every year, it was naïve to believe they would be able to challenge with one full-time defender and not a single specialist fullback after promotion.
With the Spring Series introduced for 2017, how Belles will wish they were afforded a chance to face every top-tier team without consequence as Yeovil and Everton will at the start of next year.