Match: Arsenal 2–1 Doncaster Belles, 28 March 1993, Highbury Stadium

Belles beaten as Arsenal move to brink of first title

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Wheelchair-bound boxer Michael Watson on the Highbury turf, surrounded by chart-toppers Aswad

Classic match report: nouveau riche Gunners edge out Belles before record Highbury crowd

December’s bumper 3,256 crowd at Brighton’s AMEX Stadium left women’s soccer stattos scratching their noggins. Was it a record? Well yes… and no. It was a record for the newly-reconstituted WPL, but definitely not an English women’s league record. That particular honour went to this epochal Arsenal–Belles clash at Highbury, which topped 18,000 way back in 1993. Arsenal’s Wylie and Ball scored either side of Coultard’s equaliser. Although beaten Donny roared back with a league and cup double the following season, this match arguably cast the die for Arsenal’s unhealthy long-term suffocation of domestic competition…

Background


The match was staged as part of a benefit day for stricken boxer Michael Watson. Islington pugilist Watson had graced a golden era of British middleweights alongside sworn rivals Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank.

The fearless trio wrote their names in boxing lore by going at it hammer and tongs in their frequent TV bouts with each other. At White Hart Lane in September 1991 Watson was ahead of Eubank on the judges’ scorecards before being decked by a fateful uppercut at the end of the 11th round.

Incredibly the lone ringside doc was unequipped and the ambulance which trundled through the dispersing crowd initially took Watson to the wrong hospital. It was well beyond the ‘golden hour’ for treating head injuries when Watson finally arrived at St Bart’s.

Top surgeon Peter Hamlyn battled all night to save Watson’s life but he remained in a coma and brain damaged. A slow and gutsy partial recovery took place over the following years at the family home in Chingford, under the watchful eye of mum Joan.

The fund raiser scooped around £86,000 towards Watson’s rehabilitation and he later clobbered the boxing authorities with a £1million lawsuit for their breathtaking negligence.

Schedule


Admission to the “extravaganza” was a fiver, and it was pay on the gate. The day began at 12:30 with an 11-a-side celebrity match between Arsenal fans and a team of sportsmen put together by Daley Thompson.

The Arsenal supporters’ team played semi-regularly for charity and featured the likes of ‘Lofty’, from TV’s Eastenders. Prior to his injury Watson had turned out for the side.

The women took to the field at 13:30, followed by a musical interlude at 15:00 courtesy of reggae legends Aswad. Once the widespread bogle dancing had subsided, it was time for the main event: Ex-Arsenal XI v Ex-Tottenham XI at 15:30.

The veterans’ match appeared imbalanced with Spurs fielding a string of soccer wrinklies including 1961 double hero Cliff Jones. On the other hand Arsenal had some younger legs in alongside their own golden oldies like squeaky-voiced World Cup winner Alan Ball.

John Lukic, Chris Whyte and David Rocastle were all coming off a terrible season with Leeds United, while “Champagne” Charlie Nicholas was still playing for Celtic. He was 31 but inhabiting the body of a much older man.

The finale at 17:30 saw spirited Watson wheeled onto the pitch to meet his public. At 19:00 there was an invitation-only gala dinner in Highbury’s glitzy Mezzanine Suite.

Arsenal


For the previous decade, the best players in the south of England had been hopping around together from team to team – desperately trying to knock Doncaster Belles off their perch.

Usually constellated around Debbie Bampton, these teams would battle the Belles in the WFA Cup before the formation of the inaugural National League in 1991.

On the cusp of the FA takeover of women’s football in 1993, Bampton’s Arsenal were the latest pretenders to Donny’s crown and perhaps the most dangerous, given their comparatively vast resources.

ARSENAL
1. Lesley Shipp
2. Kirsty Pealling
3. Michelle Curley
4. Vicki Slee
5. Gill Wylie
6. Sharon Barber
7. Sian Williams
8. Debbie Bampton
9. Jo Churchman (out 80)
10.Chris Couling
11.Naz Ball

Substitutes:
12.Sarah Mulligan
14.Michelle Sneddon
15.Kelley Few
??.Debbie Smith (in 80)

Coach:
Vic Akers

After casting envious glances at Millwall’s groundbreaking girls’ youth academy, Arsenal had built one of their own, which soon hoovered up all the best kids. Some came from as far afield as Scotland – in the case of Michelle Sneddon.

This had already started to bear fruit for the first-team in the shape of cultured full-backs Curley and Pealling. An infusion of talent from local rivals supplemented the youngsters. North London foes Tottenham were ruthlessly denuded of star players Gill Wylie and Sharon Barber.

England keeper Shipp (later Higgs), midfield duo Bampton and Williams, sweeper Slee and frontrunner Churchman were all ex-Millwall Lionesses. As was full-back Maria Luckhurst, who began the season with Arsenal but was not getting much of a look in.

In the week leading up to the match Arsenal had nicked yet another Millwall player – Keeley Salvage – who was a no nonsense centre-half bearing the sobriquet “Well Hard”.

Arsenal had won the previous season’s League Cup, beating Millwall Lionesses in the final at Alt Park, Knowsley. But Doncaster Belles were not one of the 18 entrants when it was hastily convened in January 1992 – apparently as an afterthought.

Since being promoted from the 1991–92 National League Division One South, Arsenal had made a mockery of their 12–1 ante-post odds for the top title. In fairness, manager Vic Akers had built a truly formidable outfit.

Prolific strikers Naldra “Naz” Ball and Jo Churchman cut a swathe through the opposition, while a miserly defence shipped only 10 goals in 22 league and cup outings going into this game.

Akers’ team boasted a powerful spine in the shape of Gill Wylie the big Irish centre-half, Debbie Bampton and Welsh goal-machine Naz Ball. Each carried a potent aerial threat from set-pieces, at a time when heading was a sorely-underdeveloped skill in women’s soccer.

When Arsenal visited Doncaster’s Armthorpe Welfare FC Ground on 21 February 1993, a thumping 2–0 defeat brought an abrupt end to their season-long winning streak.

But just when it seemed that the Belles had slapped down the latest bunch of mouthy upstarts, as they had hundreds of times before, they came unstuck themselves in a shock 3–2 defeat at Wimbledon.

That meant Arsenal would require only a point from their last game at Red Star Southampton for the title: IF they could pull off their Belles revenge mission on this big day out at Highbury…

Doncaster Belles


Doncaster Belles were reigning double winners but entered the match beset by problems. Ex-Leicester City pro Paul Edmunds had returned to the managerial hot-seat, after Jo Broadhurst’s dad Brian (ex-Chesterfield) filled in the season before.

BELLES
1. Tracey Davidson
2. Julie Chipchase
3. Louise Ryde
4. Joy McQuiggan
5. Loraine Hunt (out 33)
6. Michelle Jackson
7. Mandy Lowe
8. Gillian Coultard
9. Karen Walker
10.Gail Borman
11.Jan Murray

Substitutes:
12.Lorraine Young
14.Sheila Edmunds
15.Ann Lisseman (in 33)

Coach:
Paul Edmunds

Edmunds was still without Karen “Skiller” Skillcorn as an ACL rupture sustained in Spring 1991 was misdiagnosed and then the repeatedly-delayed treatment botched. At the time, crocked players were at the mercy of the NHS waiting lists.

Similarly, key midfielder Jackie Sherrard had hurt her knee in England’s Euro defeat in Italy the previous November. She had tried to play through the pain but eventually got a diagnosis of cartilage trouble and had to go under the knife.

Matters reached a head on 14 March 1993 when the Belles sensationally crashed 3–2 at Wimbledon. Legend has it, their first league defeat in 15 years.

Playmaker Jo Broadhurst must have been feeling sheepish, having served the first of a three-match ban at Wimbledon. The team bounced back to thrash Stanton Rangers 8–0, but were staring down the barrel of two defeats in three games without their creative lynchpin.

Philosophically, the rivalry with Arsenal cast into relief a clash of cultures. Belles players and staff simply could not get their heads around Arsenal’s gamesmanship and the po-faced, win-at-all-costs mentality underpinning it.

In Pete Davies’s I Lost My Heart To The Belles (1996) Broadhurst recalled the aftermath of the match:

“Us Belles were all singing, messing around – we were disappointed obviously, but it’s a game, we’ll have another chance – and them, they were just stood there. If that had been us we’d have been out partying, we always stay together when we’ve won something – but them, they went home.”

Broadhurst may have revised her opinion, as by the time Davies’s book came out she had herself been tempted south by Arsenal – who dangled the carrot of a paid gig in the club shop. Reborn as a striker she promptly hit the goal trail and breathed new life into her England career.

Joy McQuiggan, who hit the WFA Cup final winner for Leasowe Pacific in 1989, was one of the players drafted in as cover. Aptly, she bore a boxing-related nickname: being dubbed “Barry” after near namesake Barry McGuigan.

Mandy “Flo” Lowe and Ann Lisseman – later a big cheese in the police – were also adjusting to the demands of Belle-hood, although both would prove their mettle in the following 1993–94 season.

Match


Disaster struck for Doncaster Belles when Gill Wylie gave Arsenal the lead after just five minutes, heading in Curley’s corner. Then the bad luck continued when elegant centre-half Loraine Hunt tore her hamstring and had to be substituted after half an hour.

Undeterred, the depleted Belles kept scrapping and skipper Gill Coultard tore up the script by nodding in an equaliser on the stroke of half-time.

Just before the hour mark Naz Ball delighted organisers and the 18,196 crowd by scoring what proved to be the winner. She connected with Jo Churchman’s cross for the third headed goal of the match.

Akers unleashed livewire youngster Debbie Smith (not among the substitutes listed in the programme) for the last 10 minutes.

When local ref Bill Saville blew his whistle for full-time it left the Belles needing snookers to retain their National League title.

Epistemology


David Mills’ interesting article in She Kicks recently highlighted the poor record keeping which continues to blight women’s football. Mills is RIGHT that older records are “sketchy”, but WRONG when he then suggests an arbitrary ‘year zero’ cut-off point. Sketchy records can – and must – be made unsketchy!

Having said that, this article only considers matches from the formation of the first National League in 1991. Barnstorming Dick, Kerr’s Ladies famously brought 53,000 to Goodison Park, with at least another 10,000 locked outside.

Players: Clare Wheatley

Clare Wheatley: Buccaneering left-back who overcame injury to become an Arsenal icon

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Born: 4 February 1971, Kingston upon Thames

Position: Left-back

Debut: Croatia (A) 18 April 1996

Occupation: PE teacher (1996)

Ten years as a player and ten more as an off-field exec have made Clare Wheatley part of the furniture at Arsenal Ladies. Women’s Football Archive looks back at the once-capped England international’s career, part of an ongoing quest to profile EVERY woman to have played for England…

Londoner Wheatley got her start in five-a-side football before being taken on at locally-based giants of the day Friends of Fulham. But an enforced hiatus arrived when her prissy grammar school slapped its pupils with a football-ban.

Undeterred, she re-emerged with Sheffield Wednesday, while in South Yorkshire for her PE Teacher training course at Sheffield City Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University).

Back in the Big Smoke after graduation, Wheatley signed for Chelsea WFC in summer 1993. Chelsea boss Tony Farmer discerned leadership qualities and immediately handed her the team captaincy.

While Sheffield Wednesday had been jockeying for promotion to the National Premier League, Chelsea were in only their second year of existence and languishing in the lower echelons of the regional Greater London League.

Billed as Clare Stevens, Wheatley scored on her league debut in a 2–0 win at Leyton Orient on 26 September 1993. She became a fixture in Chelsea’s number 8 shirt and won over fans with her high energy and consistent goal threat from midfield.

More eye-catching displays for Chelsea saw Wheatley and prolific Julie Newell spirited away to national champions Arsenal Ladies’ pre-season training camp in 1995.

Crocked left-back Michelle Curley had been with Arsenal since their 1987 inception and rose from being one of the first ever female YTS players to playing for England. But an extended spell on the sidelines left her spot in the team open for Wheatley.

Manager Vic Akers famously warned his charges that “Arsenal Ladies is not a social club”. Wheatley soon bought into this ethos and became a trusted on-field lieutenant. She could “only stomach one episode” of bawdy 90s TV show Playing The Field.

In Arsenal’s German-style 3–5–2 there was an onus on the wing-backs to get forward. So Wheatley and Kirsty Pealling on the other flank conducted most of their business in the opposition half.

Wheatley’s Gunners league debut came in the rarefied environs of Anfield on 2 September 1995. The team rattled six unanswered goals past hapless 15-year-old debutante Rachel Brown in the Liverpool goal.

England manager Ted Copeland was casting about for a left-back and wasted no time in drafting Wheatley into the setup for the Euro 1997 qualifying campaign.

She entered the honoured ranks of England internationals as a substitute in England’s tricky away tie in Osijek, Croatia on 18 April 1996.

England won 2–0 thanks to strikes from Wheatley’s former Owls team-mate Vicky Exley, her first for England, and Kelly Smith. The match was notable for the debut of Mary Phillip and – shamefully – a pre-pubescent boy aiming a Nazi salute at black England star Hope Powell.

Disaster struck for Wheatley in April 1997 during a 6–0 win over understrength Millwall Lionesses. After tapping up Wembley’s Kelly Smith at Christmas time – already the best player in the country – Arsenal had romped to the league title.

Meanwhile Millwall were ploughing through a monster fixture pile-up in preparation for the Cup final on 4 May. It was a dead rubber fixture with a terrible outcome for Wheatley: the universally dreaded ACL knee injury.

She sat out the entire 1997–98 campaign and could not do her day job teaching PE. But better news arrived when Vic Akers got the gig as the men’s team’s kitman. This left a vacancy for a club development officer role which Wheatley delightedly snaffled.

After knee reconstruction surgery, Wheatley was back for 1998–99. She crowned her return with the killer second goal in Arsenal’s Cup final win over Southampton Saints at The Valley.

By admission, Wheatley had always battled fragile confidence – especially after her injury. She was destined never to win a second cap.

Mentally she held back the extra 2–3% needed to be a top international player. She remained a functional part of the Arsenal juggernaut without ever putting the hammer down and going hell for leather.

Wheatley was briefly forced into playing retirement in August 2001, after being wiped out by Doncaster Belles keeper Leanne Hall in the Charity Shield match at Kingsmeadow.

Hall presented Wheatley with a bouquet of flowers at the teams’ next meeting – a touch of class typical of the Belles.

Irrepressible Wheatley battled back again to represent the Gunners in the new-fangled UEFA Women’s Cup. She scooped a third FA Women’s Cup winner’s medal in 2004 and finally hung up her boots after bringing up a decade at the club in 2005.

“I’m now a team-mate of Lianne Sanderson and I can remember her in nappies – she calls me ‘Mum’ and when that happens it’s time to hang the boots up.”

When Arsenal Ladies godfather Vic Akers quit his General Manager role with the team in 2014, Wheatley was promoted into his shoes.

Arsenal Ladies FC are a franchise

Vic Akers

Franchisee: Vic Akers

Arsenal Ladies are an MK Dons–style franchise formed in Islington, 1987.

In the 1980s Arsenal’s Vic Akers had copied Millwall’s successful community project and wanted to reproduce the Lionesses’ pioneering youth structure for girls too.

In 1987 Akers took a big shortcut and effectively bought his way into the upper echelons of the domestic women’s game by “amalgamating” Aylesbury Ladies.

Aylesbury were an established club and no mugs. The previous season they had knocked Friends of Fulham, the holders, out of the Women’s FA Cup.

Arsenal Ladies inherited Welsh goal–machine Naldra ‘Naz’ Ball from Aylesbury and her goals bagged the new franchise’s first few titles.

Akers became a modern day Alfred Frankland, thinking nothing of inviting players from rival teams along to training.

No rules were broken – after all, there were no contracts to break.

But inducements were offered and the franchise’s “shamateur” ethos quickly led them to Dick, Kerr’s-style dominance over their strictly amateur rivals.

An unhealthy stranglehold was only broken in recent years, other teams could offer inducements of their own and the playing field levelled out.

These days the Arsenal franchise have been dragged back into a pack of WSL mid–table battlers.