Sheila Edmunds interview: ‘It’ll take time and patience to get Doncaster Rovers Belles back to the top’
Sheila Edmunds is optimistic Doncaster Rovers Belles can get back to where they belong under Club Doncaster's ownership.
But she has warned it will take 'time and patience' to return to the upper echelons of the women's game.
Edmunds, a founding member of the Belles in 1969, has also revealed how the club came perilously close to going out of business again last year, six years on from when their controversial demotion from FAWSL1 left them on the brink of going bust.
The Belles were plunged into crisis when their main sponsors BPP withdrew their support at around the same time they were celebrating winning the 2018 FAWSL2 title.
They faced no option but to drop into the FA Women's National League (FAWNL), England's third tier, and could only stand back and watch their manager and entire senior squad leave for pastures new.
Since then it has been a case of rebuilding - and Edmunds has backed Club Doncaster to build on the foundations in place.
"In many ways this was inevitable," she told the Free Press.
"We've been self-sufficient for 50 years but, the way the game's going, we've started to get left behind through no fault of our own.
"To go under that Club Doncaster umbrella will open a lot more doors in terms of marketing and hopefully financing the club.
"It will enable us to continue, on the back of the rich heritage that we've got.
"After last season, and having to drop down because of the issues with BPP, we've managed to survive through this season.
"But I think the time is right to go in with Club Doncaster and they can hopefully take it to a new level."
Belles were still dining at the top table, and competing against the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea in FAWSL1, as recently as 2016.
But this season a team of youngsters with very little experience of senior football have found it tough getting to grips with life in the FAWNL.
"Last year was probably one of our lowest points as a club," said Edmunds.
"We won the league by ten points, Neil Redfearn did a fantastic job, and then we lost our sponsor which in effect means you can't continue because you haven't got the budget that you need.
"We had our licence for the FA Women's Championship but we didn't have the budget.
"It was heartbreaking to lose our manager and all the team that had just won FAWSL2.
"If they had gone into the Championship then who knows how we would've done and what could've happened?
"That was an all-time low.
"It was a case of do we continue and rebuild the foundations and start again? Or do we draw a line underneath it and call it a day?
"Well, I've never quit in 50 years at being at Belles so we took the decision to rebuild.
"That meant dropping down a league and setting up a new structure with young players and developing our youth, which has always been a policy at the club.
"It's been a really hard battle to fund this season and we were so close to going under.
"But, along with Julie Chipchase [director of football] and Sally Needham [head of coaching], we've put a structure in place which will hopefully bring through the next wave of Gill Coultards [ex England international]."
Edmunds will step down from her role as general manager when the takeover is officially completed in May but will remain involved with the club in an informal capacity.
"Hopefully under Club Doncaster we can continue to develop what we've just set up this year and also get back to where we rightfully belong," she said.
"Doncaster Belles have always been in the top leagues and that's where we need to be.
"The people of Doncaster have always supported us.
"I've never heard a negative comment, during all my time with the Belles, about women playing football. We don't get that in Doncaster. The people of Doncaster are fantastic and I hope that will continue and help get us back to where we need to be, with the help and guidance of Club Doncaster.
"There's obviously the marketing side of things where they can help.
"We also want to work with them with our RTC (Regional Talent Club).
"Together we're obviously a much stronger force than being on your own.
"They like the structure of what we're doing and they like our philosophy. It ties in well with what they're trying to do at Rovers."
Belles currently sit second bottom of the FAWNL Northern Premier Division and, Edmunds admits, face a 'steep mountain' if they are to return to the second tier.
"It'll be a big challenge," she said.
"But if I look at the youngsters who are playing at the moment, they got thrashed by Blackburn 9-0 in the first game.
"They're undefeated in the last six games.
"The progression has been immense.
"With all the input from Zoey Shaw [head coach], Amy Buxton [assistant manager] and Julie, it's all progressing in the right way.
"But everything off the field is going at such a pace that sometimes the youngsters don't get enough time to develop.
"Ideally, we need to pad it out perhaps with a few experienced players to go with them.
"It's looking good and the progress is great.
"It's just a very steep mountain that we're climbing.
"But I've still got confidence in them. I'm optimistic.
"For me, stepping away from the running of the thing, I can hopefully now sit back and watch the fruits of the labour that has gone in come to fruition over the next few years.
"We're sticking to our beliefs of developing young players to get to where we want to be. It'll take time and patience."