Original “Red Star” to Hang Up the Boots

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As the second anniversary of AFC Unity’s formation came to pass this month, vice-captain Sarah Richards revealed her intention to finish her playing days at the end of this current 2015/16 season in the Second Division of the Sheffield & Hallamshire Women’s County Football League.

But the tough-tackling, no-nonsense centre-back has already enjoyed a bonus year playing, due to a reversal of fortunes and – above all – her own grit and determination.

A year ago, the AFC Unity underdogs were leading one-nil at Beighton Magpies when she dislocated her knee and, while waiting for the ambulance to arrive, the referee abandoned the game, forcing a replay that Unity lost.

Told she may not play again, Sarah dedicated herself to rehab, physio, and a great deal of time in the gym in the little spare time she had.

She returned to action in a little over four months, setting an example to other players of what can be overcome with a commitment to recovery after an injury.

‘I can count on one hand the number of players in the squad who were there right at the very beginning,’ said AFC Unity’s manager Jay Baker. ‘Sarah Richards is one of those very few.’

Having previously played for Sheffield FC Ladies, Steel City Wanderers, New Bohemians, and Norton Ladies, she signed up as one of the first “Red Stars” and quickly established herself in Unity’s first season run in 2014/15, soon taking on the vice-captain role; she has led the team on several occasions and, as an ambassador for the organisation, strengthened AFC Unity’s links in the community, through such things as her involvement with Parson Cross Initiative.sarah hh

To honour this, co-founder and captain Jane Watkinson is giving her the armband to lead the team one more time for the last game of the season at New Bohemians on March 20th.

‘Sarah’s been a real leader on and off the pitch, furthering – and acting on – the alternative ethos and values of the club,’ Jane said. ‘We will miss our rock at the back! But I’m glad I got the chance to play alongside her. We look forward to keeping Sarah engaged in the club after she hangs up her boots, in whatever way she feels best.’

AFC Unity will also be retiring her number four shirt, and holding a testimonial match later in the spring.

‘We were little more than an idea when Sarah joined us, struggling to get off the ground,’ said Baker. ‘Her faith in what we were trying to do and her commitment to the club is all something we really value, and that is why it is important to demonstrate this gratitude to a player such as herself.’

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Following the Pioneers: A Brief History of Women’s Football

by Libby Comyn

Football has a long and rich history which has seen it develop into the global game it is today. However, the turbulent history of women’s football often remains untold.

Women’s football has long since been the subject of many inequality and sexism debates due to it receiving a much lower profile, profit and support compared to its male counterpart. However, this hasn’t always been the case, and once upon a time women’s football pulled in bigger crowds than many male premier league teams receive today.

Women’s football had been established for a long time but it only really started to flourish in the 1920’s. During the First World War the football league suspended all its matches at the end of the 1914/15 season and so women filling in for male factory jobs also found themselves filling in for them on the pitch. Women working in the factories started informal ‘kick abouts’ during their breaks, which were then encouraged by their bosses as they saw it as a health benefit. As the war progressed, women’s football started to become more formalised and over 150 teams were formed from munition factories.

Initially the novelty of women playing football was used to raise money for war charities but the skill and commitment these women possessed quickly became apparent and so the matches started to become exciting and enjoyable events due to the ability of the women players.

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Big teams like the Dick Kerr’s started to establish themselves as a highly respectable team, with their star player Lily Parr becoming a household name. Lily was the first female professional football player and racked in an incredible 1,000 goals during her 31 year career. In which time she was also a part of the first recognised international women’s football match against France, which England won 4-0. She was finally recognised for her footballing achievements in 2002 when she became the first women to be inducted into the National Football Museum’s hall of fame.

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Women’s football went from strength to strength during the war. On Christmas Day of 1917 the Dick Kerr’s team held their first official match which brought in a crowd of over 10,000; the Munition Etters cup was then established the August of 1917. Just three years later the Dick Kerr’s played St. Helens ladies on Boxing Day 1920 to an incredible crowd of 53,000 with a further 14,000 locked outside at Everton’s Goodison Park ground. Currently in today’s 2015/6 male Premier League fixtures Everton’s highest attendance to a game is 39,951, which just goes to show the scale and popularity of women’s football at the time.

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However their golden era was to be short lived as once the war was over, women found themselves quietly shunned back into domestic life while their game became overshadowed by the return and growth of the male game. The major blow to women’s football came on 5th December 1921 when the Football Association banned women from playing on FA affiliated pitched on the feeble grounds that “The game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.”

Incredibly this ban was not lifted until 1971 after the formation of the Women’s Football Association in 1969 fought for the equal right to play. However it was years until women’s football got back on its feet and the ban is a large reason why women’s football lags behind the men’s game today.

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The first TV coverage of women’s football was at the 1971 women’s FA Cup final, which was played at Crystal Palace national sports centre. Now just 44 years on, the most recent women’s FA Cup final was played at Wembley Stadium in front of a 30,719 crowd, which just goes to show the progression, resilience and passion of women’s football.

In recent years women’s football has made incredible progression. Sports England pledged to spend £30 million on developing women’s grassroots football with a focus on getting and keeping girls and women on the pitch. By 2014 football had the highest female participation of any sport in the UK with 2.6 million women and girls getting involved. This growth has then had a direct impact on the coverage of women’s football, which has always been lacking behind that of male football coverage. The 2012 women’s Olympic football final at Wembley saw a crowd of over 83,000 and the recent 2015 women’s World Cup was bigger and better than ever before, with the England vs Germany match attracting a crowd of 55,00. While the overall TV ratings of the women’s World Cup was an incredible 1,278,682.

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Of course there is still a long way to go to match that of the male’s game but things are moving quickly in the right direction. Finally nearly 100 years later women are attracting the crowds and attention experienced by their predecessors. Those pioneering women achieved phenomenal success in a time it would have seemed impossible to do so, whilst they also changed the mind-set of a nation. It’s that determination, fire and passion that has been carried through years of women’s football that makes it such a special game and one that should most definitely not be undermined.

Up the Left Wing

UpTheLeftWingby Jay Baker

Everyone ought to find something in life that they can feel proud of, and take pride in. It’s really important that the choices we make as people are ones we can be proud of. Granted, most of us don’t have the luxury of making whatever choices we’d like – due to things like class, gender, race, and such – but when we get the chance to make a choice, we have to make it one we can be proud of; one that makes us feel good about ourselves.

The best players on and off the pitch are ones who can take pride in the club they play for, from enjoying the experience of involvement with that club, and feeling proud to pull on that team’s shirt.

In an age where so many players at a professional level are shipped about, and bought and sold like cattle, the disconnection between players and the club and its community is greater than ever. But even at grassroots level, where so many women’s teams are an afterthought or a tag-on to an established men’s team, too many women find themselves wondering what makes them play for that team, other than having friends there, or it suiting them in terms of time or location, which in itself fine – but ideally, it should be about much more than that. It should be a team, a club, that you can be proud of; that you want to play for above all others.

I take pride in AFC Unity, and there is no other team on earth I’d rather coach for, or manage, because it’s about football with an ethos I believe in. Ideally, I expect others involved to share similar passion for it.

AFC Unity exists and thrives because it’s about the results off the pitch as well as on it. Aside from keeping things in perspective – and keeping players level-headed – this all takes place because it reflects our vision, and values – of being part of the local community, and helping that local community.

The football philosophy we have – which will have its own special section on this website soon – means that the approach to games and training sessions actually makes the soccer reflect the ethos, whether it means rejecting cheating and dishonesty, or standing up for what’s right no matter how hard it is. This is called “integrity.” That’s our motto. That’s on our badge. And these things are what that badge represents.20150821_182018

It’s no secret we have attracted an incredible amount of women to AFC Unity partly because of this ethos and the “brand,” and at the moment we are devising more and more ways for women of different ages and abilities and backgrounds to get involved in playing football to keep up with the demand we’ve provoked.

But as we create more training sessions, and more teams, it’s also important to remind players that an “alternative football club” isn’t just about the positive ethos meaning it’s a safe, friendly environment where you’re not going to be doing army camp “drills” or get shouted at for making a mistake. It’s also about seeing that this can only exist in the spirit of solidarity that AFC Unity represents: sticking together, and helping the community.

So, as we approach the end of our second-ever season and move closer to the break, I’ll be asking myself what players want to represent that the most, what players represent us the best, and who believes in and buys into what we’re all about. Because there are plenty of other clubs out there – huge, professional, profit-driven companies that too often treat women as money-making tokens – and I want people around me who reject all that, prove they believe in a better world, and players who take pride in pulling on that red shirt, and wearing our badge, as one of our “Red Stars.” Because we’re about so much more than the beautiful game we play. And as so often in life – based on the choices we get to make – what you give is what you get.