Sport Matters: Back the Belles - it’s a different ball game

Doncaster Belles' pre-season training has involved military fitness sessions with MFT Doncaster.
Doncaster Belles' pre-season training has involved military fitness sessions with MFT Doncaster.

WHEN I was about ten I went to watch England Women play at Roker Park.

It was a freezing night stood on the Fulwell End but there was still quite a decent crowd in.

I was excited to see England on my doorstep, but I was even more intrigued at how the women’s game compared with what I was watching on a Saturday afternoon.

It couldn’t be any worse than what Sunderland were serving up under the misguided management of Terry Butcher. Or so I thought.

Well, to this day, it remains one of the worst games of football I have ever seen.

I’ve seen a few bad ones over the years. But this 0-0 draw was particularly forgettable; no goals, no goalmouth incident, not much cohesive passing.

Even Marieanne Spacey, arguably England’s greatest ever female player, hardly got a kick.

Needless to say, I wasn’t rushing back to watch the women’s version of the beautiful game. It’s true what they say, first impressions are everything.

Fast forward 20 years, however, and watching Doncaster Rovers Belles has become one of the most enjoyable parts of my job.

Placed firmly outside the crazy bubble that is the men’s game, now powered by a depressing combination of money and ego, the new FA Women’s Super League is a far more innocent concept.

With its social media interactivity and family-friendly atmosphere, the FA WSL is a product that has been created with fans firmly in mind. The only trouble is attracting them.

My first Belles game, a few years ago, was a real eye opener. The whole game felt totally different to the slow and scrappy mess I watched in Sunderland two decades previously.

The girls on show at the Keepmoat were faster, stronger, more athletic and, most notably, more technically gifted.

Women’s football has come a long way in a short period of time.

The standard of play now is unrecognizable from the early days, those days when the Belles won everything in sight.

However, punters in Doncaster still need persuading when it comes to watching the women - even when it is offered to them for free.

One of my saddest days of sports reporting in Doncaster came last season when the Belles hosted Arsenal just an hour after Rovers played Crawley Town at the Keepmoat Stadium.

Despite the offer of a free Belles ticket, Rovers fans streamed away in their thousands.

They voted with their feet. It was a real kick in the teeth for the Belles - and they deserve better.

John Buckley’s side start their new season on Sunday when Bristol Academy visit Doncaster in the FA Cup, the final of which will be played at the Keepmoat.

So I would urge you to put any prejudices or preconceptions to one side for an afternoon.

Give the Belles a try, you might be surprised. I certainly was.