WSL1 Preview: Newly-promoted Doncaster Rovers Belles will be back with a bang

Ahead of the start of the WSL, Neil Evans looks at newly-promoted Doncaster Rovers Belles and their chances for the upcoming season.

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Team: Doncaster Rovers Belles

Home: The Keepmoat Stadium, Doncaster

Manager: Glen Harris

2015: 2nd WSL 2 (Promoted)

Doncaster Rovers Belles are back in the big time, and the good news for fans of this venerable institution of the women’s game is that they intend to stay there. Two seasons ago, Donny were demoted to WSL2 without kicking a ball after the FA deemed they didn’t meet the criteria of the brave new world of the rebranded Women’s Super League; they were elbowed to one side to make room for the ‘prima donnas’ of Manchester City Women. It’s fair to say that fans, players, and the local area were far from happy. And, whatever the rights and wrongs of the decisions made, the news that the team was being relegated regardless of performance had a detrimental effect on the integrity of the 2013 WSL. Arsenal Ladies’ much respected former boss, Vic Akers, described the process as ‘scandalous’.

Last term, Donny took their frustrations out on their WSL2 opponents, losing just once and narrowly missing out on the title to Reading on goal difference (both ending on 45 points from 18 games). Their two-year exile from the big time is now over, and the job for Glen Harris’ team is to consolidate that hard-won status. Much progress has been made off-field, with ‘Project Phoenix’ geared towards a multi-million pound training facility and going completely full-time as a professional club. Exciting times off the pitch then, but what about the 2016 squad?

Appropriately, Donny have set about building on a squad that tore through the second tier by adding extra quality for the challenges ahead. Up top, Natasha Dowie has joined from Liverpool, and she will complement an already potent attack alongside Jess Siggsworth and the much talked about Courtney Sweetman-Kirk, who scored 20 of the Belles’ 57 league goals last season. CSK is an exciting talent with the potential to have the kind of impact that Beth Mead made for Sunderland in 2015.

Icelandic international Katrin Ómarsdóttir is another Liverpool recruit who knows what this league is about. They will miss Bethany England, another terrific young striker, who has been snapped up by Chelsea, but they can also rely on the inspirational figure of Sue Smith – a true legend of the women’s game and the media – whose character, experience, and dead-ball deliveries are all major positives in driving Doncaster forward. She also weighed in with 11 goals last term; not too shabby for a 36-year old whose latter career has been blighted by injury.

Defensively, they are bound to be tested far more in the top flight than they were by the opposition they faced last season. However, they have a fine young keeper in Nicola Hobbs, and have added the ageless Becky Easton (again from Liverpool) to partner Sam Tierney and Sophie Barker (who can also play in midfield) in defence. In the engine room, Harris has added Arsenal’s Carla Humphrey on loan, who should form an effective partnership with Kasia Lipka. With captain Leandra Little’s tremendous will to win, the Belles have an on-field leader; the artisan to compliment some of the artistry that undoubtedly exists up-top.

The whole of the female game will miss Ashleigh Mills, who, at just 20 years old, has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and has been forced to retire from the game she loves. All of us at The Offside Rule would like to take the opportunity to send our very best wishes to Ashleigh as she begins a battle greater than anything faced on the pitch. The England Under-19 international has already stated that despite ‘my dreams being taken from me, I will be in the stands cheering the girls on’.

With that kind of spirit, along with plenty of ability, I cannot see any problems for Doncaster remaining in WSL1. They may lack a little depth in their squad, but their striking options alone will guarantee points. Harris has strengthened the squad well; they may not quite ‘do a Sunderland’ and top the league, but they will be well clear of danger, and they could well be an outside bet for a cup competition. The re-modelled Continental Cup, with fewer games and a knockout format, will suit clubs with smaller squads like The Belles, and if they can re-adjust to life in the top tier, I can see them remaining there for a long time to come.

Prediction: 7th

Key Player: Courtney Sweetman-Kirk

Likely Line-up: Hobbs – Easton, Little, Roberts, Tierney – Omarsdottir, Simpkins, Lipka, Humphrey – Dowie, Sweetman-Kirk

Read more from Neil here
Follow Neil at @swinfan69

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