Solidarity Soccer Participant Spotlight: Corinne Heritage

Solidarity Soccer is our innovative community based football training initiative for women which has empowerment, skill sharing and a personalised approach shaping it. We have a session running at Hillsborough College and another session based at Concord Sports Centre, running weekly – we have plans to expand the initiative into more areas and engage more women in the sport in a unique way.

We spoke to regular Solidarity Soccer attendee Corinne Heritage about her experiences of Solidarity Soccer, and what kind of impact it has had on and off the pitch – Corinne has won the Solidarity Soccer Tech and Tekkers Digital Award for how quickly she learnt the Cruyff Turn and applied it into game situations, the Personalised Aims Digital Award for making considerable progress and development with the aims she set herself when joining the initiative and also the Teamwork award with her now a player/coach for the AFC Unity Jets!

AFC Unity: In a few words, how would you describe Solidarity Soccer to someone who hasn’t been?
Corinne: Primarily it is football skills training for women of ANY level in a friendly, 100% positive and fun atmosphere that empowers women of all abilities. Love football? You’ll love this. Hate football? You’ll probably still love this!

AFC Unity: What would you say to someone who hasn’t been to Solidarity Soccer if you wanted them to come along?
Corinne: Do it. You will be welcomed. I guarantee you won’t regret it!

AFC Unity: Do you have any stories that stand out from your time of being involved in Solidarity Soccer?
Corinne: A personal one for me happened as I was leaving after one Solidarity Soccer session. Some of the women who were staying for the first team and Jets training started calling me back to join them. I never felt I’d be good enough to be in any 11 a side team and that I’d only be wasting mine and everyone else’s time by trying. But, here they were encouraging me – all smiles – and the coaches too. So, I went over to the training and here too, I was made welcome and felt I was accepted and could contribute. I haven’t looked back. I definitely made the right choice that evening. I’m sure others who do Solidarity Soccer will have a similar story about overcoming a barrier.

Corinne skill sharing the Cruyff Turn with others

Corinne skill sharing the Cruyff Turn with fellow participants at Solidarity Soccer!

AFC Unity: Has Solidarity Soccer had an impact on your outside football life?
Corinne: Okay, how long have you got?! YES, a massive impact. Aside from the obvious stuff like improved fitness, making new friends etc. I would say that I’m just way more confident and positive in all areas of my life – job, relationships, family and so on. As my confidence and skills have improved on the pitch, so have they in my life outside football. The club’s positive ethos in the sessions rubs off and contributes to my life outside.

AFC Unity: Has Solidarity Soccer helped you with 11-a-side football at all?
Corinne: Definitely. The skills and small sided games we practise every week are essential to improve ability and prepare for the 11 a side game. Learning a new skill in depth each month in Tech and Tekkers really gives you time to consolidate and practice it so you gain the confidence to use it in an 11 a side game. The value and time the coaches place on these skills gives us permission to use them in matches and, even if we make mistakes doing so, we are still applauded by coaches and teammates. This way we learn and improve. The mix of ability and experience amongst participants also means we can share skills and learn from each other.

AFC Unity: If you could pick one word to describe Solidarity Soccer what would it be?
Corinne: JOY, or, INCLUSIVE (you choose – the first word came to me straight away, but it is, importantly, the second word also – and many more, in fact!)

AFC Unity: What has been your favourite skill to learn and why?
Corinne: Cruyff Turn because it was hard, but I got it! And it is absolutely gorgeous.

AFC Unity: Anything else to add?
Corinne: Loads, but I’ll save that for the book🙂

The AFC Unity Jets Journey Begins

by co-founders Jay Baker and Jane Watkinson

From our years of experience in the community sector, one of the most important principles of running a social enterprise is ensuring you meet a demand; evidencing this is key to all grant funding applications for this reason: there has to be a demand.

When we founded AFC Unity early in 2014, we didn’t anticipate needing a second team quite so soon. But by our second season it became particularly apparent that, with our unique ethos, we were attracting so many players that we had to advance on this concept.

Yes, we run community projects like Football for Food. Yes, we are about much more than what happens on the pitch. But as we tell Carrie Dunn in her brand-new book Roar of the Lionesses: Women’s Football in England, the success of AFC Unity in the league, long-term, is important for the profile of our indie women’s football club so that we can do even more social good.

With that in mind, just as AFC Unity had in its first season progressed from Division 3 to Division 2, where it consolidated nicely in its second season, this time we had to take one step back in order to take two steps forward: two teams, leaner at the start of the season, with a clear set of criteria, slowly building up as 2016/17 progresses.

We wanted to make sure that AFC Unity could continue to get better and move up the league over time, but there were players who were coming through our Solidarity Soccer initiative, and others who needed more game time to develop and couldn’t in the first team, so a second team became a necessity.

And so, the AFC Unity Jets came to be.

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With a young, dynamic Head Coach, Emily Salvin, who personifies our Football Philosophy, the AFC Unity Jets are comprised of players who want more game time, aren’t ready to commit to the pressures of the first team, or just want a little experience of competitive league football – some are even more than capable of being first team players but are important characters to have in the AFC Unity Jets at this time.

When you’re a Jet, you might be for any one of the above reasons.

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This has meant that not one, but two teams have essentially started from scratch. Incredibly, with each passing week, more players are added to the rosters of each of them. The ever-important “demand” is high. The AFC Unity Jets project is already a success.

One thing is for sure. Given their David-and-Goliath status as the quintessential underdogs with a “no quit” spirit of positivity befitting the “Integrity” badge itself, their journey – which everyone in AFC Unity is watching, and documenting – will see them go onwards and upwards. Emily Salvin is assembling a squad that has a contagious vibe to it, and one that can’t be kept down. After all, you don’t keep Jets in the hangar.

Why We Won the Respect Award

As you will know, AFC Unity have won the FA’s national Respect Award for the women’s pyramid. The decision was announced on the 19th of July, 2016 and co-founders Jay Baker and Jane Watkinson were invited to Wembley Stadium on the 7th of August, 2016 for the Community Shield so that they could accept the award from the FA’s acting chair David Gill before dignitaries from Bobby Charlton to Alex Ferguson, and from Geoff Hurst to Sam Allardyce. There, the FA premiered the video explaining the work we do and the reasons for the award:

Despite the co-founders long since resigning themselves to the possibility that the establishment would not recognise an indie women’s football club for their commitment to fairness on and off the pitch, including tackling food poverty in local communities, Director of Football Sarah Richards proposed a nomination for AFC Unity with its genuine dedication to practicing what many clubs preach in terms of the Respect Code.

As a player in the first season, the following year Sarah Richards was joined in her second and final run as a player by Sophie Hirst in Unity’s defence – and it was the latter’s write-up to the Football Association that ultimately convinced the governing body, supported by local figures like Nick Waterfield from Parson Cross Initiative (one of the food banks served by AFC Unity’s Football for Food campaign).

Interestingly, the FA themselves expressed appreciation for AFC Unity’s brand-new Solidarity Soccer initiative that superseded its previous development system, unique Football Philosophy with its trail-blazing “100% positivity” approach, and passion for treating players and people with dignity and respect – and how this links directly to the act of collecting food donations for local food banks at first team home games, which the FA were also supportive of.

AFC Unity are proud to be the Respect Award winners for 2015/16 and will continue such commitment to greater fairness in football, and a fairer society.

CFM Ltd Become Official Sponsors of AFC Unity

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AFC Unity have finally found a sponsor for the 2016/17 season – and ahead – with what is fully expected to be a long-term relationship with CFM Ltd.

CFM Ltd are a Facilities Management and Building maintenance company based in Sheffield who pride themselves on working within local communities. Everything CFM do is underpinned by their strong values of commitment, honesty and to excel in everything they do.

CFM want to use their own values, ethos, professional experiences and knowledge to work with AFC Unity long-term to promote and expand the club to assist with our own objectives of empowering women, tackling misconceptions, promoting social justice and opposing oppression.

Representatives from both AFC Unity and CFM Ltd met at the former’s registered offices today to sign the paperwork and hand over the cheque.

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‘We held out this year because as most people know we only want AFC Unity to be associated with good companies,’ explained AFC Unity manager Jay Baker. ‘CFM are a fantastic business, one we are proud to be associated with, and which open up a plethora of collaborative opportunities as well in accordance with our Business & Development Plan.’

Mel of CFM said: ‘We are really excited about what the future may bring. We can’t wait to get started to support and get involved with such a great club.’

You can find out more about CFM Ltd at www.cfm-ltd.co.uk

Up the Left Wing

UpTheLeftWingby Jay Baker

I’m sometimes in awe of how AFC Unity as an organisation – with help from everyone from the Board of Directors to volunteers – has hit pretty much every target set for itself when it was founded in 2014, despite being a progressive, independent women’s football club with a completely different approach.

In fact, we’ve exceeded expectations.

We became a Charter Standard Club. We got promoted in our first season. In our second season, we extended an unbeaten home record in the league to a year. We more than held our own in the Second Division and took top teams to the limit. We created an innovative Solidarity Soccer initiative unlike anything any other clubs provide. We formed a second team for more options for women wanting to play in league football. We spearheaded a “100% positivity” approach at the forefront of modern sports psychology and coaching methods. We gathered and donated 771kg of food to local food banks, extending that positivity and ensuring it runs through all we do, on and off the pitch. And now we’ve been given official recognition – not by our league but by the national governing body itself, the FA, winning the national Respect Award for our entire approach just mentioned. I had the privilege of accepting the award on behalf of AFC Unity from David Gill at Wembley Stadium for the Community Shield. It’s pretty funny as that fat kid from Donny taking a leak next to Sir Bobby Charlton in the gents.

during The FA Community Shield match between Leicester City and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on August 7, 2016 in London, England.

But it’s easy to forget the achievements, and fail to realise just how far we’ve come.

When we started up, we were ridiculed for valuing women’s grassroots football by having match reports by volunteers; since then, others have followed suit and it’s suddenly accepted. We put videos online. We had players’ names on the backs of their shirts. We developed a strong brand. All things scoffed at when we started but now, again, being done by other clubs more and more because we came along with our own unique vision of valuing and empowering women.

Men’s clubs will from time to time give women options with the greater resources of their men’s teams – but we only focused on women’s football from day one. It’s so sad how women’s teams you’d have put money on suddenly collapse and fold. We are determined to keep going, and keep growing, bit by bit, despite the challenges of independence and integrity that comes from our passion for positive social change. Seen as “radicals,” there are those with prejudices who hate us. They love the idea of beating down a progressive football club that does things like tackle food poverty. Teams love beating us. Many watch our every move. But it’s flattering, and we’re still busy keeping grounded and helping people, year after year, whether we lose a match or not. We don’t stop. We feel like we win all the time because we’re about much more than just football. Losing a match isn’t as big a deal for us because of that. I really feel for clubs that are just about football; just about beating someone else, and that’s it. It’s so sad. Because, again, when they lose, they come off the pitch and have nothing else left.

There’s the argument that we’re a big strong club. Here’s a reality check: we constantly battle against an old guard resisting the principles of Respect and Fair Play and the social good we do through football. With all of this, and with no attachment to a men’s club, we are, by definition, underdogs. We are not a big strong club. No, we are the smallest of them all.

For goodness sake, we are in the lowest levels of women’s football in this country, albeit in the birthplace of the sport itself. Players pay to play, and to contribute to an incorporated not-for-profit company and be part of a grassroots football club actually linked into the community. Regardless of the awards we give out at the end of our season, every single player that doesn’t appreciate our vision and values, only cares about football results, doesn’t like our Football Philosophy, and clearly missed a memo about all of these things, will not enjoy it at AFC Unity, should not join AFC Unity, will not last at AFC Unity, and will not be appreciated by the collective unity of AFC Unity.

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Let’s face it: clubs that are just about winning football matches are ten a penny; they’re not hard to find – they’re usually located above us in the league! We chose this hardest path but it’s the right path. I’m lucky I’ve got broad shoulders and thick skin: I’ve been abused, harassed, and received so many negative comments and so much hate mail you wouldn’t believe, incredibly, for my belief in nurturing not just good players but good people and simply because I protect and stand by the principles of our Football Philosophy – but for every negative individual there are dozens and dozens of women who have told me they wouldn’t even be playing football without this environment. I do it for them. We have an incredibly high retention rate of women who enjoy positivity, and want more positivity in their lives. After all, if you wanted to be in an organisation where you give them money for them to tell you that you’re worthless, you’d become a Labour Party member!

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For every bit of malicious abuse, I also see women being a part of AFC Unity to this day because of our Football Philosophy. Because women are not stupid, and don’t need a man telling them that they are. They know when they’ve made a mistake, they know when they haven’t been good enough, and sometimes opponents are simply going to beat you by their merits, by cheating, or by luck, and those are uncontrollable factors no amount of criticism from me would change. My work is on the training ground; to work on and improve things.

But ultimately it’s about keeping a positive environment for the many. I’m so saddened by women who don’t think they’re worthy of such positivity; that only negativity can make them the best. Because that’s the culture women are faced with every day: through media and advertising, told constantly that they’re not good enough, and not good enough for men – whatever the heck that means. As a feminist, I reject that and I can sleep at night knowing I adhere to the ethos of AFC Unity, and no individuals who thrive on negative energy will ever change that. Even if it means more hate mail. Some things are simply not for compromise because they’re the right things, and if we’re such a challenge to the status quo, if we shake things up so much – if we call out negativity and abuse – then keep that hate mail coming in, because we’re clearly doing something right. Doing what’s right is the most important thing you can do. It means you’ve succeeded. And I never read negative things anyway, or anything from outside of AFC Unity. I like to focus on what we’re doing. Even in matches, I don’t like adapting for other teams. You have to stick to your principles.

This season is going to be a great challenge in taking us to the next level, with our new home ground in a community with a clear identity and a food bank just around the corner! We’ve also created a second team, the AFC Unity Jets, offering more options for the women who come into the club and with a spirit that’s utterly inspirational, and contagious.

But again, let’s have a reality check: because the way we do things make us underdogs, we are playing the long game here. Of course we want to do well and grow and go up the leagues and raise our profile and do greater good in the community. But as underdogs without a famous badge or a longer history or a men’s club dragging us along, we have to be patient and we have to find different ways of recruiting and creating our own players. That may mean a junior team, our own mini league, or a wider network of progressive clubs.

In the meantime, we will lose games, and keep going; we will draw games, and keep smiling; we will win games, and impress you. We’re still Unity when we leave the pitch. So come and support these women. They are the ones who represent the club on the pitch, who play for our badge, who play for our ethos, who play for our way of doing things. It’s a way I’m very proud of.

I hope you will be too.

AFC Unity Move Home to “Pitch Perfect”

After our first two seasons at Hillsborough College sports complex which was even home to a record year unbeaten there in the league, AFC Unity are moving home games east, to Fir Vale Community Sports Centre.

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‘We’ve talked so long about the importance of our grassroots in communities with things such as our Football for Food campaign,’ said AFC Unity Manager Jay Baker. ‘Now this is a fantastic opportunity to work with our friends at Active8 by utilising their brand-new 3G and excellent facilities at Fir Vale Community Sports Centre, right around the corner from one of the food banks we serve and in a diverse and thriving community, right in the thick of it.’

Although currently AFC Unity’s 11-a-side teams still train at Hillsborough College sports complex, co-founder and first team captain Jane Watkinson cites the shift of home ground as a key part of AFC Unity’s passion to connect with more areas and people in the city. ‘There is a real sense of community here in Fir Vale, one we want to work with even more to build on our momentum as a socially-minded club about far more than just football,’ said Watkinson.

Baker added: ‘We are all about positivity and social good, and that’s one of the reasons we want to be here in Fir Vale – we want to be a part of the community and offer a positive contribution to it, and the pitch is perfect for us and our playing style!’

There Is An Alternative

TIAA2You may have noticed the launch of AFC Unity’s social media campaign, “There Is An Alternative,” as we look to raise awareness of our indie “alternative football club” for women in a grassroots sport dominated by men’s clubs and famous badges.

A slightly cheeky reference to Margaret Thatcher’s claim that ‘there is no alternative’ to the neoliberal economic approach that has, in fact, been an absolute disaster for society, this campaign specifically draws on our Football Philosophy to demonstrate that, through that, there is an alternative to traditional, more mainstream football where training sessions are run like an army camp in a culture of “survival of the fittest.”

We believe that in women’s football exists a desire for a more empowering approach to football that is warm, friendly, and thoughtful.

But as a stand-alone women’s club, it’s harder for AFC Unity to reach out to players with this ethos. We aren’t an add-on to an established men’s club, and we are not a famous brand. We’ve only been going for two and a half years, and even though in that time we have become a Charter Standard Club, enjoyed some good results, introduced a second team, raised an incredible amount of donations for local food banks, and even been given the FA’s Respect Award, we remain underdogs in grassroots football.

This is where we ask you to spread the word and share our “There Is An Alternative” imagery on your social media networks. The more we reach out to women who are tired of the same old football, the more we can engage more players and expand the club, and in turn do more good work.