The Belles was aired in January 1995 on BBC 1. This is perhaps one of the most unusual documentary portraits of women athletes I’ve ever seen. It covers a few weeks of the team’s season, moving back and forth between conversations with individual players, match footage, and peeks into the team’s life together off the pitch.
There are startlingly intimate moments, as players speak about their relationship to the sport while, say, lying in bed. Or celebrate a big win in the changing room and, perhaps more scandalously, at a gay bar. My favorite moment: players on the disco floor, FA cup in hand and mirrorball overhead.
The FA didn’t take kindly to the documentary: Belles captain Gillian Coultard had captained the England squad and was demoted after The Belles aired.
Writing in the wake of that grim period, Pete Davies describes the team as scarred:
When the Belles let a BBC crew make a documentary that was broadcast last year, they thought they were helping promote women’s football. Instead, they got a sharp letter from Graham Kelly about the tone of the programme, and are now scared stiff about talking to the media. Last month, they felt obliged to turn down Yorkshire TV when that company wanted interviews – and a dread of publicity, when you’re needing sponsorship, isn’t too helpful. (The Independent 11 March 1996)
The Belles – the documentary and the story of this incredible club – inspired a television series that ran for five years (Playing the Field). But in 1995, its airing left the team with a difficult burden.
This weekend the Doncaster Belles will play their last match in the Women’s Super League – the FA’s attempt at the establishment of a professional women’s league. The FA is off to a flying start in confirming at least this writer’s belief that you cannot leave the administration of the women’s game to men whose decisions are guided by sexism and greed.
The Doncaster Belles were relegated to the second division at the start of this season in order to make room for Man City’s women’s side.
I still can’t wrap my head around the FA’s behavior towards The Belles, except as a continuation of their behavior towards the team ever since the FA was forced to deal with the culture of the women’s game in the early 1990s, when the Belles were a super-dominant club and a fine expression of the independence and autonomy of women’s football in England.
Some football fans might agree that today, “professionalizing” the sport is synonymous with ruining it for fans and for young players. The story of the FA’s behavior towards this team, which hasn’t not played in the top flight since the FA began organizing such things, is fine evidence of that dismal truth.
To read an excellent overview of the FA’s treatment of the Belles, read Glen Wilson’s article on The Popular Stand.