Written by Jane Watkinson, Co-Founder and Co-Captain of AFC Unity
When I was 16 years old, I walked off in the middle of a game when I was playing for Sheffield United Community Girls football team. It wasn’t the best way of dealing with how I felt, but I was fed up of feeling taken for granted, I was fed up of the negativity and lack of enjoyment I felt every Saturday morning with a manager that would tell us all how badly we played, and struggle to ever find anything positive to say. I walked off and didn’t play football again until I was 22 years old.
This was really strange, because football defined my life when growing up. I lived and breathed football. In career interviews at school I would be asked what I wanted to be and I would say a footballer, obviously to laughter and a follow-up question of “yes, but seriously” – but my dream was to get a scholarship to play football in the United States as a living, as you can see in my interview with the BBC when I was 16 as my school team, Meadowhead, became the best girls team (14-16 year olds) in the UK.
I didn’t fit in at the Centre of Excellence though. Being subbed off as soon as you made a mistake and being surrounded by a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality does nothing for confidence – well not mine, anyway. I never played how I knew I could play when I was there, I was a shell of a football player and there was no wonder they kicked me out. I had dreaded Centre of Excellence like that feeling I got every Sunday evening before school restarted on the Monday.
There is something really wrong about this. Football, which was my biggest passion when I was younger, caused me some really stressful and upsetting times. Reflecting on this though, it wasn’t football, it was the environment and as a product of this I did some stupid things like walk off in the middle of a game and I didn’t play the football I knew I could. I was so scared of making mistakes. Mistakes were there to be feared. I don’t remember any positive encouragement or feedback, I just remember a very cliquey and negative environment. I myself became negative and adapted to be part of this environment.
Playing for Meadowhead School was different, the coach was absolutely fantastic and would always talk positively about us all as a team and individuals. It’s not a surprise that we became the best girls football team in the UK, playing and winning the final at West Bromwich Albion’s Hawthorns stadium. The coach trusted me with the captain armband as well, even though I didn’t believe in myself – he believed in me. Before the final, he wrote personalised letters to all players telling us why we are so key to the team and what strengths we bring. It was so positive, hopeful and he never shouted and always spoke about how “it’s not what happens to you in life, it’s how you deal with it.” He never put any pressure or sense of expectation on us as a team and that was a big reason for why we won that competition – in fact, that year we won the treble, picking up the South Yorkshire Cup and the League trophy as well.
It’s when I look back at these experiences – which aren’t unique, they are typical of so many women’s experiences of football, so many women that gave up and quit the sport, often at 16 years old – that I am so proud of what we are achieving and doing at AFC Unity. We provide a safe, positive, welcoming and inclusive space for women to enjoy and love the sport like so many of us did when we were growing up, kicking a ball in the back garden or with our friends in the park, in the streets or in the school field. When we were younger, how many of us really cared about the score? We just loved the experience, we built friendships, we felt a sense of pride and achievement and we encouraged as many of our friends to take part as we could. It’s only when we grew older, and we start to be socialised into a more negative, survival of the fittest competition ethos and culture does things go south for many of us.
That passion and love I have for the game when I was a kid, in my back garden spending hours and hours making up stories with the ball has been reignited by AFC Unity and by the management and coaching ethos at the club led by Jay Baker and carried out throughout the club by Head Coach of the AFC Unity Jets Emily Salvin and player-coach of the Jets Corinne Heritage with both teams having key leadership figures helping ensure this alternative ethos is encouraged and maintained. The encouragement of creativity, freedom, enjoyment, learning, positivity, belief and making mistakes as part of growth and development has set me free as a footballer, and has also had an impact on me as a person. Many women we have involved in the club have told us about the impact the club has on them on the pitch but also off the pitch. Many have told us they wouldn’t be playing if it wasn’t for the club. Because that’s the thing, football is a lot more than about turning up on a Sunday afternoon and the sole focus being about winning 3 points. It can be a way of life.
This alternative coaching and management style is therefore so important for us to harness and develop as a club going forward. We have some big plans and I can’t wait to help us achieve these whilst also enjoying playing the game I love.
Yes, there are women that want to play at clubs where the emphasis is on winning at all costs, some women do thrive in a ‘survival of the fittest’ environment, and some women are okay with being shouted at from the sidelines and by their own players and can cope with negative, high-pressured environments. That’s up to all of us women to all individually decide what we want and prefer. We have had players within this club that get frustrated with and critical of the positivity and alternative ethos, often because they aren’t used to that environment and because we pull up behaviour or negativity that other clubs would accept as a normal part of the game – it was part and parcel of the sport when I grew up and then I couldn’t imagine anything else. What we offer is so different to traditional football environments, it has to be protected for the benefit of the whole rather than an individual and also for people that want an option different to what traditional football environments provide.
I know there are a lot of women out there who grew up loving the sport and might have felt a bit disenchanted with the sport along the way whilst growing up, and maybe left the sport like me when they were young and are wondering if there is anything out there for them that can reconnect them with that fun and love they had for the game. My message to you is give AFC Unity a try, it really is a club that has an alternative, counter-cultural positive environment that offers something so different to any other club.