Revelations on a Women’s Football Revolution: AFC Unity Manager’s Review

by Jay Baker

AFC Unity is unique in so much as it’s one of the few of its kind that was only ever specifically set up for women. We’re not a major men’s club with women as an afterthought, nor do we adopt a system like a military camp; our primary focus is engaging women in the sport and making sure it is an experience that is, first and foremost, enjoyable.

But what makes it an “alternative football club”?

Many terms are thrown around liberally these days, but I think what makes us different is our ethos; our commitment to social justice and particularly by focusing on engaging women in the game whether they’re experienced players or have never kicked a ball before – we can offer something for everyone.

We’ve also adopted a collaborative approach, where we enjoy networking and working with other clubs, and we try to set a positive example at our level, because we see value in women’s football at grassroots – at first, when we established our rather unique brand, and used logos, match reports, and social media promotion, others scoffed at it…before long, many of them were doing it themselves, and that makes us very proud. We feel there is merit in all football, regardless of level, and we should be proud of our players, our teams, and our league, and do our best to work together to promote what we do, and build an audience for it.

On the subject of networking and inspiration, I’d advise people to check out the teams in Bristol, Leeds and Glasgow – Easton Cowgirls, Republica Internationale, and United Glasgow, respectively – to get an idea of other clubs out there with a similar ethos to ours. These could very easily be considered “alternative football clubs.”

Where we want to expand, though, is into community projects to meet our aims, by tackling misconceptions and opposing oppression, and this is why we just incorporated as a non-profit limited company; we want to do good away from the field, as well, so we’re far more than just about playing football.

Of course, the football is important to us, too.

We had our first season where on the field, we absolutely exceeded expectations. We started off hurriedly putting a team together to start the season, and admittedly that involved signing players that wouldn’t have been given a chance with other clubs – and, as we found out, for good reason, because one or two characters gave us headaches and actively disrupted the positive ethos we valued, and we paid the price for that, and won’t let it happen again.

It’s interesting, because as you look through the results and the match reports, you can see where after the opening result, we stabilised, and had a good run, before we let people play alongside their friends in certain positions more and more, and sacrificed results for it, and in turn lost some collective morale – so this exemplified why it’s important to play for the good of the team as a whole, and once I made that point, you can see how the holiday period marked a turning point of getting results, until the end of the season demonstrated the effects of the negative influences I mentioned.

That’s not how it ought to be – it’s not supposed to feel like a job, for anyone involved; it’s supposed to feel like fun, and as manager and co-founder I definitely reserve the right to make sure it’s fun for me, too, and not just a playground for egos or cliques often found in teams, and I certainly won’t tolerate bullies in my squad, and that’s what makes us a positive environment that’s safe for different types of people to enjoy.

We had a good season on the pitch, but that’s not the be-all, end-all for me. I’ve been reminded I ought to be more actively involved in training sessions, and beyond my team selections and formations and choice of themes for training, while I’ve wanted more of my fingerprints on the technical aspects, I’ve wanted to wait to feel qualified to do so, and now I feel like I am. I always say, you can’t have rights without responsibilities, or responsibilities without rights, and I’ll happily take the flak again in future, so long as I have final say as well.

I’ve had some fantastic and enthusiastic coaches putting hundreds of voluntary hours in – at risk of too many voices jazzing players with science! – and I relish the opportunity to take sole responsibility of the team’s finer points going forward from this point. Jonny Hodgson provided infectious enthusiasm and incredible commitment, while Olivia Murray transitioned from injured player to coach phenomenally fast. Both helped me to no end and for their time I am very grateful. I have no doubt about wanting to keep them involved in the club, in varied, dynamic and rewarding roles to put them in prominent positions as thanks for their hard work. Rosh, our resident sports psychologist, has also been an invaluable influence on the club, from the players, to the coaches and myself, in what has been at times a challenging first season.

I’ve also had some great players, though, regardless of whether they return to the club or not, and they deserve mention. I can’t cite everyone as it diminishes the significance of the outstanding contributions made by certain players, but here are a few:

My co-founder and captain Jane Watkinson grew into her role and became more comfortable leading the team on the pitch while moving from central midfield into a lethal goalscoring position, and helped keep me strong when I was given numerous headaches!

Lucy Strutt was uncomplicated, all business, and surged her way to 19 goals for us with her endurance, speed, and power unmatched at this level.

Shanie Griffith was the unsung hero of the season with her consistency, incredible ball control and passing ability putting her in the lead for assists while putting her head down and getting on with it all.

Before her injury, veteran defender Sarah Richards provided the well-timed tough tackling I enjoy and was a positive influence on the team by carrying herself in an exemplary fashion.

Sophie Thomas was a revelation in developing from a modest full-back to a determined central defender sweeping up any mess at the back, and absolutely on fire by the end of the season.

Sophie Mills has been at her best when we’ve played our passing game, while also being a sneaky poacher of goals, with a maturity beyond her years.

But there are others who deserve mention, too, despite not being on the pitch all season.

Young Chloe Burditt demonstrated the kind of patience and camaraderie most managers can only wish for in a player, not necessarily getting a great deal of game time at first but stuck at it and is now on the verge of developing into a really good player with years ahead of her.

Kim Best came in as goalkeeper and was just a breath of fresh air with her ability to get our ethos and put in so much effort while keeping a smile on her face.

It goes without saying that Chloe Rodgers, who played at a high level, provided top quality play on the pitch after joining us later in the season.

Jodie Spillings stole the spot for most improved player by the end of the season when she transitioned from right-back to right midfield, and is an example of what can happen when someone who’s never played competitive football before starts at an intermediate training session, bides their time, keeps training, trials with the first team, breaks in, and eventually earns a regular place in the team simply by doing all the right things – from positivity, to determination, patience and improvement.

Last but not least, Charlotte Marshall volunteered for us, before signing with us from Second Division Socrates, and aside from her amazing playing ability, has set an example for what Jane and myself want to see from players, in her pro-active support and passion for our values, her respect, and her dedication to the organisation, having been set to join the Board of Directors at the age of 20.

There were other players we had, yet left the team due to travel or other endeavours, like Chessy Hollingdale, Lena Reitzle, and Sandy Yere, who were an absolute pleasure to have in the team with their grasping of the ethos and their positive contributions, not just as excellent players, but as personalities as well.

Of course I’ll have my own opinions, and I have my own ideas about what I want to see from players, but I happen to be the manager at the moment, so there you go! There will be others I’ve forgotten too, I’m sure, but generally, this first season has been an opportunity to meet people who have set an example and acted as positive role models for young women with their performances on the field and their upholding of our “integrity” motto. That’s what matters to me.

Who knows if any of the aforementioned players will opt to re-trial for us – after June 1st, they’re all free agents I believe, and I wouldn’t be surprised if several are even approached by other clubs. I’d be proud to say they were once my players.

AFCUnityManagerJayBakerSo going forward, what are we looking for?

Firstly, you have to want to be a “red star” – to pull on that shirt with pride.

It’s really important to have players who want to play for an alternative football club and “buy into” its values – which means we not only play a positive part of the community, and value the Respect code, and fair play, but also offer an environment of structure and discipline that when followed ensures a safe, enjoyable experience for all involved; it’s about the collective good rather than individuals. Teams play together and win and lose together, rather than a missed shot or a goal scored or a tackle failed or a shot fumbled – the only sole responsibility of any individual is with me, not my players; I’ll take the flak, and maybe even sometimes some praise, but you can always count on the criticism! And that’s just fine with me if I’m getting the rights alongside the responsibility.

As a team, you have to be clear about your values. For us, this is about playing with positivity so that the results take care of themselves, rather than “winning at any cost,” setting a good example with the way we rise above negativity – in the way we treat officials, opponents, and our own teammates, and it means trusting the directors and leaders in the club to steer the ship as part of a Business and Development Plan we now have in place. I am convinced that – though we might not be so lucky with the results in 2015/16 – we will have a more enjoyable environment for players, and we have systems in place, with qualified personnel, where we can do our best to ensure that.

As we prepare for tryouts, we will mostly be judging applicants by four key criteria, in priority order:

1. Attitude and commitment to the ethos of AFC Unity – empowering women, tackling misconceptions, promoting social justice, and opposing oppression; interest in current affairs and local community, positivity, friendliness, respect, fair play, honesty, “integrity”

2. Track record – from AFC Unity or other clubs; evidence of a dedication to fair play and the Respect code, respect for others, and an active rejection of unsporting behaviour

3. Willingness to develop – passion for learning; eagerness to train and enhance skills, availability to train regularly

4. Ability – on the ball; dribbling, passing, shooting, tackling, heading, throwing, blocking, etc.

In turn, we can promise players an environment where a safe, friendly, fun experience is paramount, where they will improve fitness and confidence, develop, and see their commitment to AFC Unity is returned to them, because we want to be dedicated to ensuring our players – and everyone involved with the organisation, from volunteers to directors – all have positive stories to tell about us.

We have ambitions, as an alternative football club for women, to grow as a team and as an organisation, and we are seeking people who are excited to be a part of that. We want AFC Unity to set a positive example for women, by women, as women and as players. We want to encourage sporting behaviour, fair play, and integrity on and off the playing field, where sport doesn’t have to be just about competition, but can bring people together, and help influence positive change in the community, too. Actively opposing sexism, homophobia, racism, Islamophobia, disableism and so forth is a nice public relations stunt for many to jump through hoops, but for us, it’s in the very culture of our club.

If you’re interested in joining our women’s football revolution, get in touch.

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Mission: Impossible (part two)

STRUUT SHOT

by Julian Barker

(Click here for part one)

So just what is the more than just a routine storyline that links 2014 Barclays Premier League champions Manchester City and one of the just-ending season’s newest women’s teams in AFC Unity?

The link is being involved in an abandoned match. However, before anyone dismisses the link as tenuous, some abandoned matches have a much more interesting history/background than others.

In both instances we have a match which was abandoned with the away team leading and when the game was “replayed” it was the home team who came out on top and just for good measure, there is more than a “just for the record” story regarding the away goals in the abandoned games.

Where matches are abandoned (and then have to be replayed in their entirety) the statistics from the abandoned game are expunged from the records (note: I am not 100% sure on disciplinary matters should a player have been booked or sent off).

Here, it is the goals which were “scored”, but subsequently expunged from the records which provide the “hard luck” story for the respective scorers.

In the case of AFC Unity, their abandoned match was away to Beighton Magpies at the lowest level of open age women’s football in South Yorkshire, Division Three of the Sheffield & Hallam Women’s County Football League.

With all three divisions being small in size, teams were scheduled to play each other three times, the usual home and away, plus a third meeting, either home or away with all the teams having an equal number of home and away “third” pairings.

The fixture on Sunday 15th February was the third encounter between the teams. Unity, on their competitive debut, had been beaten 7-0 at home by Beighton Magpies in September and it was 8-1 to Beighton when the teams met for a second time at Unity on 8th February.

Lucy Strutt, who scored Unity’s consolation goal a week earlier, gave Unity an early lead at Beighton, but shortly afterwards an injury to Unity’s Sarah Richards caused the game to be abandoned.

As is becoming increasingly common in “Grass Roots” football, players diagnosed as having suffered cruciate injuries (or similarly long term injuries) are advised not to move until qualified medical aid arrives and so with Unity still 1-0 ahead the game was abandoned midway through the first half.

Beighton went on to finish champions, something which became increasingly more likely with each of their victories. Apart from a 2-2 draw in their second game of the season, Beighton scored at least 5 in each of their victories apart from against Rotherham United Development (4-2 away and 4-0 away). While Beighton were awarded walkovers in two instances with a third awaiting confirmation, it is reasonable to assume that they would have enjoyed comfortable victories had the games actually been played.

STRUTT CELEBS

So, back to Strutt’s goal, the one which was legitimately scored and was valid for around 10-15 minutes. It was the only one conceded in a home league game by Beighton. The final table shows them with an unblemished home defensive record.

Had the game against Unity not been abandoned, the outcome may well have been a home win, but Strutt’s goal would have counted. Searching through records for the League (two seasons for which comprehensive data is not readily available), it is almost certain that Beighton were the first to complete a season without conceding a goal at home.

So the goal that never counted allowed the team which ‘conceded” (it) to set a notable first.

So what about the abandoned game involving Manchester City? Over the years City will have been involved in several abandoned games, but arguably none as famous their FA Cup tie at Luton Town which is among the most notable abandonments in the history of the competition.

Back in 1960-61 City were also in the top tier, the then “old” Division One, but they were not pulling up any trees. True, they had won the FA Cup in 1956 a year after finishing runners up, but otherwise they were not what would be termed a major force.

Drawn away to Luton Town of Division Two, the fourth round tie had the potential to be a banana skin, but City looked well on course for a place in the last 16 when leading 6-2 only for the game to be abandoned because of a waterlogged pitch after 69 minutes.

So, with just under a quarter of the game to go, City had victory snatched from their grasp and to rub salt into their wounds, Luton made the most of their reprieve and won the replay 3-1.

Back to the abandoned 6-2. All six City goals were scored by Denis Law who, at the time of the game, was 20 years old, (turning 21 on 24th February) and had the award existed then, among those who would be shortlisted for the Young Footballer of the Year.

Imagine scoring 6 goals in a cup tie and still not finishing on the winning side? That was Law’s fate. Had the 6-2 game been completed and had those 6 or possibly even more goals by Law counted, then he would be the FA Cup’s all time leading scorer. His record, without those abandoned goals, was 41, a total surpassed by Ian Rush (44) in the 1990s.

Law departed City for Torino later in 1961 for £110,000, but his spell in Italy was relatively shortlived. After just one season, he returned to Manchester, but to United (not City) for a slightly higher fee of £115,000 which was a British record fee (paid).

Law ended the season with an FA Cup winners medal, Manchester United beating Leicester City 3-1 in the final at Wembley, but 1962-63 was a season which saw both Manchester teams finish in the bottom four of the Division One table. City were relegated with United just two places and three points clear of the drop themselves.

At the time of the Luton abandonment Law was the then British transfer record holder at £55,000. How many players in City’s match day starters and substitutes are paid less than that per week now?

The maximum wage for footballers was abolished in January 1961. That maximum was £20 per week. Yes, twenty pounds. The average manual weekly wage was £14. Fulham’s England international Johnny Haynes became the first £100 per week player.

So, as can be seen, prior to the abolition, many other players, even in the top tier, were paid wages not dis-similar to their neighbours, may be even used public transport because they did not drive and those who did own cars, did not have flash motors.

Law’s career was illustrious. At Old Trafford he formed part of the Manchester United “holy trinity” of George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law.

He was European Footballer of the Year in 1964, made 55 appearances for Scotland, scoring 30 goals and played in the 1974 World Cup when Scotland went out at the group stage despite not losing.

Law’s last league game was, ironically, also a game which was abandoned, but the result subsequently allowed to stand. Having moving back to City in summer 1973, Law scored to break the deadlock at Old Trafford on the last day of the 1973-74 season. That goal in the last 10 minutes of the game was followed a few minutes later by a pitch invasion which caused the abandonment.

United were battling against relegation and to this day references to Law’s goal relegating United abound, but relegation would have ensued regardless of the result at Old Trafford that day as the teams above them all gained the points to ensure their own safety with no need for any favours from Old Trafford where City’s 1-0 lead was confirmed as a “final score”.

 

All images courtesy of Julian Barker