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New optimism for Belles
 Women's Football WNL Division 1 Midlands News - 8 Feb 2020
 
While mainstream media were concentrating on the end of an era at the top of the women's game with Nick Cushing signing off at Manchester City, whose 2-1 home win over Arsenal kept City top of the FA Women's Super League, there was a game of great contrast at Doncaster Rovers Belles for whom it was Andy Butler's second league game in charge of a club whose fortunes (or lack of a fortune) have been much affected by WSL licensing criteria.
 
Belles lost their place in the top tier several years ago when usurped by City who submitted a much better bid when the WSL was expanded to two tiers. Then, more recently, finances proved the downfall of Belles who finished clear champions of WSL 2 in 2018, but were denied promotion and with much happening behind the scenes that summer, there was a mass exodus of players and Belles' continuation on the fixture list remained in great doubt for some weeks.
 
Belles "dropped" from tier two into the FA Women's National League Northern Premier Division, but their squad consisted chiefly of players who had been playing in the WSL Development League along with the intake of those players who were stepping up to that level.
 
The first part of last season was not unexpectedly tough for what could politely be termed novices at that level. A much improved second half of the season saw a marked improvement in form which offered hope of a miracle escape, but in the end it was not quite enough to avoid relegation.
 
Life in the fourth tier has been quite similar. Having been placed in Division One Midlands, Belles lost several players for whom games in Division One North would have been more friendly travel-wise due to their home location. So, summer 2019 saw another huge turnover in the playing squad. On field results before Christmas were fairly similar to that of the previous season, one major difference being that Belles entered the new year just above the relegation places due to slightly better results than those of Burton Albion and Solihull Moors.
 
By a quirk of fate caused by postponements and fixture rescheduling etc, Belles' first two league games of 2020 ended up being make or break one against the bottom pair and in some ways as kind a start as Butler could have hoped for.
 
A 2-0 home win over bottom team Burton lifted Belles seven points clear of Solihull who travelled to Doncaster knowing that an away win would have them breathing down Belles' necks, especially if they could follow it up with a victory this weekend they, themselves, played Burton.
 
Solihull made a bright start. Eboni Fowkes got in a shot which was comfortably saved by home keeper Ellie Sharpe who shortly after had to be alert to keep out an inswinging corner at her near post. Belles went ahead on 12 minutes when Hannah McWilliams fired home following an assist by Jasmine Saxton in the aftermath to an attack which saw Nadia Khan's strike rebound off the woodwork.
 
There was a right scramble just past the midway point in the first half which ended with Solihull keeper Fran Vitale eventually claiming the ball with Khan the Belles player closest to getting contact for her team. Kathryn Pagan somehow failed to level several minutes later as she was unable to force the ball home following a shot by Fowkes which was going just wide and much to the relief of Belles, Sharpe was able to claim the ball virtually on the line.
 
For game of such importance, both teams were showing great willingness to attack. Eva Madarang fetched a fine save out of Vitale who turned the ball on to her left upright. Saxton made it 2-0 ten minutes before the interval when she sidestepped Vitale to slot home. There was further joy for Belles five minutes when Chloe Starling met Kirsty Smith's right sided corner with a thumping header which hit the underside of the bar and bounced down with it being several seconds before the assistant referee signalled the ball had crossed the line. Pagan then fetched a save out of Sharpe and the interval arrived with Belles in a strong position, but mindful that they had enjoyed moments of good fortune in their own box.
 
The second half was much more one-sided in Belles' favour, the hosts extending their advantage to four with a shot from Saxton on 50 minutes. Vitale had a busy second half and played her part in restricting Belles from recording a much higher score. The game's fifth and final goal came a few minutes from time and was a deserved reward for substitute Emily Burgin who was lively after coming on and had twice forced saves before finally netting. Vitale had been rescued by the woodwork when Charlotte Gill's shot hit the bar.
 
One of Solihull's most probing moves of the second half came just past the hour when Fowkes broke and was brought down just inside the box by Tori Thomas, the referee initially pointing to the spot, but Belles' then 4-0 lead was preserved thanks to a flag for offside.
 
So, Belles go into this Sunday's game at Sporting Khalsa with both teams part of a quartet on 13 points, ten points clear of second bottom Solihull. While Belles are not yet mathematically safe from relegation, they have a welcome safety cushion and the mood in the camp is one of much optimism.
 
by Julian Barker
 

 
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