FEATURE - Belles hit their stride again at 40

THE most famous football club in the women's game celebrates its 40th anniversary this year - and it's been a real rollercoaster ride for the Doncaster Belles.

Almost unbeatable in the early days the team boasted a side packed with international players and was the inspiration for the top TV drama series Playing the Field. The Belles have since lost their invincible image and have been struggling for their very existence this season. But next week they will be aiming to bring back the glory days when they compete in their first national cup final for seven years. Free Press reporter and former Belles junior HAYLEY PATERSON charts the rise and fall...and possible revival of her old club.

NOBODY knows more about the Belles than Sheila Edmunds.

She was there at the beginning, played in the first match, worked as the club physio, and 40 years later is still serving the club as president and welfare officer.

Her husband Paul was also the Belles manager for six years.

Sheila was one of the founding members in 1969 of the then Belle Vue Belles FC - a group of footballing females who sold raffle tickets at Doncaster Rovers and decided to team up to play against local opposition.

What started out as a couple of small-sided games soon turned into a mini revolution as they began to play further afield and eventually changed their name in 1971 to Doncaster Belles.

Sheila, who played 25 years for the club, cannot believe how the women's game has snowballed during that time.

She said: "We began just selling tickets and then got a team together for some charity games and kickabouts.

"That grew and we gradually had more and more success.

"The game today is very different.

"Back then we used to rent out pitches with our own money, buy our own kit - and get changed in our cars!

"We never expected the Belles to become as famous as they are.

"I still can't believe it 40 years on."

No other club can match the trophy winning success of the Belles...except next Thursday's League Cup Final opponents Arsenal.

The Belles have won 12 out of 13 Notts League titles, two North East League championships, six FA Cups, two Premier Leagues, two League Cups and many more trophies.

But, if the Belles were the all conquering side of yesteryear, it is the lady Gunners who have now taken over that mantle as the most successful team of the modern era.

Arsenal Ladies were only founded in 1987 by current manager Vic Akers.

But the side proved a force to be reckoned with once they turned semi professional in 2002 and went on a championship winning rampage collecting over 40 top trophies.

In just over two decades they have won the FA Women's Premier League ten times, the Women's FA Cup nine times, the Women's League Cup nine times, the London County FA women's Cup seven times, the Community Shield four times (and once shared) and the UEFA cup once!

The North London side had their most successful season ever during the 2006/7 campaign when they lifted four major trophies and won all their Premier League games.

And they have not lost a league game for six years.

Sheila said: "Considering the opposition it would be a massive achievement to win the League Cup.

"But we've been unlucky on some occasions in the past and we are due some silverware again.

"This year is the first in a long time where we've felt like we have one of our strongest ever squads.

"It would mean so much to experienced players like Vicky Exley and Claire Utley because they've never won it - and also for our younger players who I'm sure will step up to the task."

Sheila enjoyed a couple of honours of her own last year when she won both the FA Achievement and the Torch Trophy Trust awards.

She added: "I love this club.

"Myself, and my family, have been part of it for so long now and to celebrate our 40th year in style with a trophy would be a dream come true."

* INTERNATIONAL players like Gill Coulthard helped put Doncaster on the women's footballing map.

Coulthard never expected to make the impact she did in the heart of midfield for the Belles when she began playing for the club as a youngster.

But after winning an extraordinary 119 England caps, and making over 300 appearances for the Belles, she earned legendary status for her service to club and country before hanging up her boots in 2001 to concentrate on coaching.

Coulthard said: "It was very hard for me to leave because the Belles were my whole life at that point in my career.

"But I knew I wanted to challenge myself on the coaching side.

"I just went for a trial for the Belles when I was about 12 or 13 and from then on I was playing against players twice my age and size!

"I just loved playing football and I loved putting on the Belles shirt - there was a certain amount of pride every time I did it."

Coulthard played in World Cups, League Cup finals, FA Cups, and is the current head coach of East Durham College's women's football academy carrying on the same winning mentality for Hartlepool United Ladies FC where the club she manages are currently unbeaten in the FA Women's County Durham FA league.

And the tough tackling midfielder, who was labelled the "Bryan Robson of women's football", believes anything can happen in the cup and expects the Belles to put up a tough fight against their Arsenal rivals.

She said: "People have to step up to the task.

"There will be plenty of expectations, they'll be in front of a big crowd and on TV and they shouldn't let that overwhelm them.

"The younger players will have to give a good account of themselves and the more experienced ones like Claire Utley and Vicky Exley will make sure they do.

"It is a credit to the manager John Buckley, and his team, that they have overcome the past few years of losing players and struggling financially to reach a big final."

"Obviously the cash situation is a worry and I just hope the Belles can get the support they need to keep a fantastic club going."

Road to the final

* Second round - Sep 21 - Tranmere Rovers (A) 6-1 Liz Hansen (2), Tanya Rich (2), Vanessa Leat, Rachel Williams.

* Third round - Oct 12 - Nottingham Forest (A) 4-0 Vicky Exley (2), Liz Hansen, Rachel Williams.

* Fourth round - Nov 2 - Watford (H) 3-0 Emily Heckler, Vicky Exley, Rachel Williams.

* Semi-final - Dec 7 - Preston North End (H) 3-1 Rachel Williams, Emily Heckler, Suzanne Davies.

* Final - Feb 26 - Arsenal at Glanford Park, Scunthorpe, (7pm).

Vicky's loyalty is a first-class trait

WHEN the Belles run out at Glanford Park next Thursday they will be led by one of the club's most loyal and talented players.

Vicky Exley has captained both her club and country but stayed loyal to the Belles following a mass exodus of top players as the money for payments began to dry up about four years ago.

Had she been born a man the 33-year-old midfield star would have earned enough to retire on several years ago.

But Vicky just loves playing the game and has a job as a postwoman outside football.

She has a round in the Rotherham area during the week, which helps to keep her fit, and then delivers every weekend for the Belles on the pitch.

The footballing postwoman has been playing the game for as long as she can remember.

She was an Owls fan as a youngster and her dreams came true when she was spotted at the age of 15 and whisked off to Sheffield Wednesday.

But three years later when a friend went to play for the Belles she decided to join her and test herself at the top level.

Vicky never looked back - although she did drop back in position, starting out as a centre forward with the Belles before switching to the midfield playmaker role that she made her own.

Greatly admired by manager John Buckley for her footballing ability Vicky is the complete midfield player in the women's game.

She has good vision, likes a tackle and is an excellent passer of the ball, as well as having the ability to push forward and relive her early days by grabbing a goal or two.

Belles' Captain Fantastic said: "It was hard to see team-mates you had played alongside for so long leave.

"But I just had to get on with it.

"I love playing here and wouldn't change anything."

And the Belles were glad she stayed when Vicky fittingly scored the goal which kept them in the Premier League on a dramatic final day of the 2004/5 season during which they had fought a nailbiting battle against relegation.

The following season the inspirational midfielder was the club's top scorer and won the manager's Player of the Year award.

And after chalking up 50 caps for her country she retired from international duty after the 2007 World Cup in China.

Although the Belles fortunes have changed from those heady early years when they were the most powerful women's football force in the land they have still had their moments in more recent years.

But Vicky has yet to play on the winning side for the Belles in a major cup final.

She said: "Myself and Claire Utley have played in FA Cup finals and League Cup finals and never won so this year will be extra special.

"We have a laugh and a joke about it but we've had a great season this year and I've every confidence we can beat Arsenal."

The Belles have left nothing to chance and have had some special practice partners to help them.

Vicky added: "In preparation we've been playing against male youth teams from Doncaster Rovers and it has really benefited us because Arsenal are a very physical side and we need to match that.

"It's up to us to step up now.

"It will be nervy for some of our players but it's my job and the other experienced players to sort that and put in a really good performance."