• Adam Stubbings

Butler Building Brightly: Belles 0-1 Wolves

Women’s football in Doncaster has endured a turbulent time in recent years. The Belles, once the most successful club in the country, have fallen on hard times but look to be on the up again under the management of Andy Butler.

To mark International Women’s Day on Sunday, we went down to Oxford Street in Rossington to see the Belles continue their National Division One Midlands campaign against Wolves.

A New Era, Underway

Doncaster Rovers Belles are two-time National Champions and six-time FA Cup winners in the women’s game but are at their lowest ebb in decades, now plying their trade in the fourth tier of the English league pyramid. The club essentially had to start from scratch two years ago as, despite winning the WSL 2 (the second division behind the high-profile Women’s Super League) in 2017-18, Belles could not afford to take up a licence in the restructured set-up and lost their entire playing staff as a result.

Relegation from the National League’s Premier Division last season followed as a team full of young players tried to find its feet, and geographical reasons saw the Belles placed in the Division 1 Midlands for the current campaign. Andy Butler, the former Rovers men’s team captain, was appointed manager in January of this year and immediately set about working to galvanise this still very inexperienced side.

Butler had an immediate impact, steering the Belles to three straight victories to take the team clear of the relegation zone. A narrow defeat last weekend away at Sporting Khalsa left a seven-point gap to the bottom two, with Belles hosting runaway league leaders Wolves at Oxford Street on Sunday.

Showing Spirit…

The visitors came to this game with a remarkable record, winning all but one of their league matches to date and racking up over 80 league goals, more than 30 ahead of the next best team. Wolves had also won all of those 13 victories by a margin of two goals or more, hitting double figures on two occasions and destroying the Belles 7-2 in the reverse fixture back in September.

A lot has changed for the Belles since that day though, and it showed in the game. Having to deal with fluctuating conditions in the first half – with a rain storm creating a rare double rainbow over Rossington once the sun emerged – the home side stood firm in the face of near-constant pressure from Wolves, allowing the visitors to enjoy possession up to the final third but standing firm with some resolute team defending.

Ellie Sharpe had to be alert to keep out a thunderbolt of a free kick from long range by Anna Morphet, and alert she was as she held onto the effort. Belles were set-up to contain for much of the opening 45 minutes, executing that plan superbly whilst looking for counter-attacking opportunities. Filipina international winger Eva Madarang, a positive presence on the ball throughout, had the first clear-cut chance for the Belles cutting in from the right but saw her shot saved.

The pressure eventually told right on half time however, Wolves pushing for the opener and getting it courtesy of an excellent driven effort from outside the area by Sophie Bramford with virtually the last kick of the half. They also had a header disallowed for offside prior to this, but in truth found their rhythm regularly disrupted by some very committed Belles defending and Andy Butler’s charges were unlucky to go in trailing.

…And Coming Into Their Own

The leaders almost doubled their lead straight after the break through Jade Cross, a striker responsible for nearly a quarter of her team’s 83 goals this season, but she sent her volley well over the bar. That warning sign woke the Belles up somewhat and they began to get onto the ball more, working openings down the flanks on multiple occasions. Teenager Emily Burgin led the line well, regularly taking up good positions and holding possession well.

She linked superbly with Hannah McWilliams at the #10 position to fashion a chance that was blocked, before a substitution added fresh impetus to a Belles side playing with more confidence and freedom than they had in the first half. Nadia Khan, one of six teenagers to play in this game for the home side, was introduced on the left of a reshaped attack which saw right winger Jasmine Saxton push up front, and her pace caused all sorts of problems for Wolves.

Her presence as an outlet for Belles to push was no more evident than in the minutes after she was introduced, sparking a blistering run down the flank that saw her skip past several defenders before being hauled down for a free kick in a dangerous area. That set piece was dealt with and Wolves came back at the Belles looking to kill the game off, but would find themselves denied once more.

Left back Izzy Trevillion, at 17 years old the youngest player in either starting XI, made an unbelievable goal-saving block in front of goal to deny Cross, injuring herself in the process. This “at all costs” defending from the teenager exemplified the commitment of the side – playing very much in their manager’s image already – and this resilience continued to the final whistle as Belles denied two more good scoring opportunities for Wolves, who also struck the crossbar.

Fostering A Bright Future

Butler spoke of his pride in the team afterwards, rightly lauding the effort and growing belief in this young side, belief that was evident to see as the game progressed. Wolves won 1-0 in the end, but it marked the first time (outside of their solitary defeat to The New Saints) that the league leaders had been held to a single goal in victory, a marker of how far the Belles have come in a short space of time.

Only three of the fourteen players who graced the field for the Belles this weekend are over the age of 25, whilst stand-out performers Burgin, Khan and Trevillion are all teenagers. Tori Thomas, at the heart of most of the resolute defending on show, is only 21. This young side already have plenty of moxie, and with Andy Butler possess a coach with the high-level experience to instil belief and positivity within the ranks.

His touchline style mirrors his MO on the field as a player, constantly communicating instructions in a positive manner, looking to eek out every extra bit of ability from his players. The Belles’ discipline, tactical approach and level of fight were all at maximum against a formidable opponent almost certain to win the division, and whilst the game bypassed the midfield for large spells owing to Wolves’ possession dominance, there were really no real negatives other than the scoreline.

Any supporter who heeded the suggestion to bring their daughters to the game on International Women’s Day will surely have left feeling the trip was worthwhile, and in these exemplary young women the children of today have terrific female role models to look up to. This feels like the start of something special for Butler and the Belles, who will now look to end the season strongly to build a platform with which to begin climbing back to prominence starting next season.