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Thursday, 15 August, 2002, 10:13 GMT 11:13 UK
To pay or not to pay
Fulham celebrate victory over Doncaster Belles in the AXA Women's FA Cup final
Fulham are England's only professional women's team

As the women's Premier League enters a mould-breaking campaign, the debate centres not on who will win the big titles, but whether the women's game should be going professional or semi-pro.

Two years ago the FA announced that the league would become professional at the start of the 2003-04 season.

But that target will not be met, with the FA now stating no more than: "What will be in place is the infrastructure for a professional women's league."

We are cash-rich at the moment and feel the time is right to go semi-professional
Mick Abrahams
Doncaster Belles' commercial manager

With that as a background, clubs are reluctant to follow the lead set by Fulham, who turned professional two years ago and remain the country's only full-time pro women's club.

After gaining promotion to the top flight and lifting both the FA and Premier League Cups last season, the Cottagers will be favourites to win all three major competitions in the campaign ahead.

Despite seeing the success that professionalism has brought to the London team however, the other big women's clubs feel that an intermediate step should be taken on the road to the FA's dream of a pro league.

League champions Arsenal, Leeds United and Doncaster Belles will all become semi-professional this season but will not in the near future contemplate going full-time.

Arsenal manager Vic Akers, whose prompting led to Arsene Wenger's Premiership team sponsoring their female counterparts, has been a long-time advocate of the game moving gradually towards professionalism.

Leeds have made no big announcement of going semi-pro, but their close season activities in the transfer market have said it for them.

They have signed three England internationals - Sue Smith, who was also chased by Arsenal and Doncaster, plus Karen Burke and Leanne Hall from a Donny team who themselves are about to follow the money route.

Doncaster Belles' Karen Burke
Doncaster Belles will turn semi-pro this season

The Belles will announce on Friday that they are to become a semi-professional outfit, backed by a big new sponsorship deal with a well-known national company.

With funding also coming in from their own successful lottery and other commercial activities, Donny could now be looking at an annual income of around 80,000.

They still have no short term thoughts of professionalism, however.

Commercial manager Mick Abrahams said: "We are cash-rich at the moment and with our new sponsorship deal we feel the time is right to go semi-professional.

"But we also feel that before the game goes fully professional the right infrastructure has to be firmly in place - and that's not the case at the moment."

Interestingly, Doncaster entertain Fulham - their FA Cup final conquerors - on Sunday as the Premier League kicks off with a much amended opening day schedule.

Four National Division games have been postponed due to international call-ups as England are in Canada for the first women's Under-19 World Cup finals.

Only one original fixture remains, Leeds visiting Everton.

As well as the Doncaster-Fulham clash there will also be a re-arranged game in the capital, where Charlton Athletic entertain Brighton.

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