Former Wolves and Doncaster Belles player Jody Handley would love to see Sunday’s game between the two clubs being played in the Super League rather than in the fourth tier of the women’s football pyramid.
When Handley was in the early stages of a career that brought her domestic successes with Donny, Liverpool and Everton, as well as 38 England caps, Wolves did in fact face the then mighty Belles in the top flight.
In what was in those days titled the Women’s Premier League, a teenage Handley was in the Wolves line-up that was on the receiving end of some real trouncings from the iconic pioneers of the modern women’s game.
“It would be great to see Wolves and Donny working their way back towards the top league,” says striker Handley. “But if they both do so then hopefully on the way Wolves won’t get hammered by them like we did back in the day.
“I remember one game at their place when their captain (also England captain) Gill Coultard was playing sweeper and absolutely ran the show – we got nowhere near their goal but they kept scoring at our end.”
In the two seasons that Wolves had in the top flight, 1994/95 and 1995/96, defeats suffered away to the Belles were 6-0 and 8-0, while at home, the scorelines were more respectable but nevertheless losses of 5-1 and 3-1.
Midway through the 1995/96 campaign, Handley, still only 16, moved to Liverpool after playing just 35 times for Wolves – but her performances had been so impressive that she had earned a stand-by call-up to the senior England team.
“I didn’t want to leave my mates at Wolves,” recalls Stafford born Handley, “but my dad persuaded me I’d have a better chance of getting into the England squad if I was playing for a stronger team and that’s what led to the move.
“I really loved my time at Wolves though. I was only 14 when I joined the club and they catapulted me into the women’s football world – before I joined I didn’t even know there was an England team, let alone have ambitions to play for them.
“I was playing open age football at a very good level and at a very young age, and that certainly helped me develop my game. It was a formative time for me and without doubt it kick-started my career, for which I’ll always be grateful.”
Handley had two spells at Liverpool, sandwiching a stint playing college soccer in America, then she had a year with Everton before switching to Donny in 2001 and becoming an England regular in her three years at the club.
“I was enjoying playing for Everton so it wasn’t an easy decision to leave,” says Handley, “but Donny was a club I’d always admired and it meant I would be playing up front with Karen Walker, one of my heroes.
“There were also a couple of England internationals there who I’d played alongside at Liverpool, so it seemed like a good fit – and it turned out well for me because within 12 months I was in the England squad.”
Handley was destined to end her career while in a brief second spell with the Belles, but this came after a 2004 return to Everton and a career-topping moment in the 2010 FA Women’s Cup final.
She had been on the losing side in finals with Liverpool, Donny and Everton before a dramatic stoppage time 3-2 victory over Arsenal at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground, whereas the Toffees captain she proudly lifted the trophy.
“That cup final day is the best memory of my playing career,” says Handley. “After losing three finals it was so sweet to at last win one. Lifting the trophy with all my family watching from the stands was so, so special.”
Not so special was relegation for Everton four years later, leading to Handley’s return to Donny and a sad end to her playing days as she was forced into an injury-induced retirement before having the chance to play a competitive match.
“I’d had ankle, calf and Achilles problems,” says the now 40-year-old physiotherapist, “but I still felt I had a bit to give. But as pre-season got more intensive my body was telling me I wasn’t cut out for this anymore.
“It was a shame because I wanted to give it my best shot for a club that I’ve got the greatest respect for. The Belles were always family orientated, everybody chipped in and that was one of the main reasons they were so successful.
“They epitomised what women’s football was all about in the 1980’s and 90’s and it’s sad to see them down the leagues now after all the hard work that people have put into the club over many years.
“Hopefully they’ll bounce back and likewise Wolves, who I know are now receiving really good backing from the men’s club and who I see have made a good start to the season – long may it continue.”
By Tony Leighton
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