by Jay Baker
With the 2015/16 season underway in the Second Division of the Sheffield & Hallamshire Women’s County Football League, I felt it was time to add another entry into the manager’s column here.
Before we get to the actual football, it’s worth acknowledging all the foundations of AFC Unity that enable it to function as well as it does – from my co-founder Jane Watkinson and the Board of Directors, to Director of Development Olivia Murray, to Head Coach of Development Jonny Hodgson, the Development programme itself with its ‘stars of tomorrow’ and 5 Stars Powerleague 5-a-side team, as well as the fantastic volunteers we have in Sports Journalism, Sports Psychology, and Events Coordination, all of whom have been of a high standard of work ethic and contribution.
As mentioned in my first entry here, the club’s been expanding faster and healthier this year, and we’ve really hit our stride to the point where we’re having to accelerate some of our long-term plans so we can keep up with demand. We’ve also kicked off the Football for Food campaign to tackle food poverty in our city, and it’s started extremely well, with interest from local media and even the One Show, and we’ll be back home on November 1st to pick up where we left off after several weeks of away games through October.
The fact AFC Unity is about community – firmly rooted in the grassroots from which football originally grew despite since losing its way – is what makes our actual results on the pitch less significant. When you walk off the field, you still feel you can hold your head high, because the entire club is about community benefit and not just who scores more goals than who, and even though some people really want to beat us, we see that as a major compliment, as well!
Having said that, it’s natural that we want AFC Unity to slowly and painstakingly climb up the league, because with a greater profile comes greater opportunities to do good in the community. We have long-term plans, as mentioned, and we’re passionate about our ability to utilise football as a uniting force for positive change. So the way we even do this has to be the right way, and the ethical way.
Positivity is what drives pretty much all of our decisions, and our approaches to coaching – we compliment players, magnify their strengths and always stay focused on that, with training sessions aimed at lots of action and time on the ball. We reject the ‘drills’ of the army camp and ensure players are, first and foremost, having fun; at the end of the day, they’re paying to be playing, not spoiled multi-millionaire men that require extra discipline. Of course we have rules, we have our vision and values and ask players to adhere to that for the good of the many over the few – a simple principle that helped form the foundations of the club itself.
Division 2 is going to be tough. We knew that. We also knew we wanted to consolidate this season and prove that we belong here, and we do, because on our worst day we can be beaten by anyone, but on our best day are capable of beating any other team in this division, too. We sometimes forget that.
Because of our ethos, we tend to attract players who are modest, and sometimes that comes with a lack of confidence, but each and every one of them is an absolute star – we were particularly picky this year about having players with the right commitment to the ethos, as well as an emphasis on attitude, ability, and attendance. This is a team that will comprise the nucleus to take us forward, too.
We have a rather unique Development programme that not only provides opportunities for women of all abilities to get into the game, but also helps us bring in players ourselves if need be. I have been so impressed by the work Jonny has done in Development lately, and I know Olivia is watching closely for the next players to make the progression to 11-a-side. Next year, we’ll have even more progression routes, but for now, we have to be patient and be careful not to bring players up before they’re ready, as this can have a detrimental effect on confidence rather than boost it. There are some players I’ve seen that I wish I could have in the first team now, but again, we have to get the timing right. Patience is a virtue, and it’s again also a great way to make sure players are in AFC Unity for its ethos and are prepared to wait it out for the reason that it’s us they want to play for.
On that note, thanks to everyone involved in this alternative football club, and thank you for reading and valuing the grassroots game and its connection to community that we hold on to, and nurture. This sport can still mean something to ordinary people, and we’ll always do our best to make sure it does.
Hope Over Fear.