AFC Unity vs Barnsley Development – match report

by Tom Menzies

This week’s fixture ended 2-9 to the away side, as unbeaten Barnsley Development’s fast and physical football style was one to be too much for AFC Unity. The match’s scoreline does show one of class and optimism for Barnsley Development who are climbing their way to the top of the league table, but also of injustice for AFC Unity who showed grit and determination until the end of the match.

 

The opening 45 minutes of the match showed a massive contrast between each of the two teams’ footballing styles, as each side managed to find the other’s vulnerability and pounce at the opportunity. Barnsley Development were the first to seize the lead in the match, in which they showed intuition to take advantage of the home’s side absences at the back from a set piece. A good amount of pressure from Unity did win them a corner early on in the first half, but their failure to put the ball in the net meant a counter-attack would break away for the away side. Barnsley’s number 11 managed to run down the wing and pull the ball back across goal for the striker to tap it in. No heads were hung from AFC Unity following their disadvantage early on, as they had a few chances to get back into the game. One of these involved Mills, who took a shot on goal following a clearance from a defender but unfortunately only managed to hit the woodwork. The other chance did manage to bring the home team level on goals, as Cusack pulled away an exquisite shot on goal, forcing the goalkeeper to parry the ball into her own net. The end of the first half did call on Unity goalkeeper Sargent to keep the home side still in the game; Sargent’s recent return from injury didn’t show to phase her through this period of the match as she did manage to make some heroic saves from the threat of Barnsley Development’s strike force. However, the ongoing pressure did result in two away goals as their number 9 and number 11 were sent through the middle of Unity’s defence, each finding the bottom corner of the net in the dying minutes of the first half. This meant that the away team had the upper-hand before the break, being 1-3 up after 45 minutes.

The second half of the match deemed more attacking minded for each of the two teams as the intensified midfield clash meant players ruthlessly challenged for an opportunity to get the ball forward. Barnsley Development showed no signs of complacency in their lead, as they started the second half strong as again, number 9 and number 11 managed to score 5 away goals between them by putting fine finishes into the net sending their the team 1-8 ahead. Despite the skill of their opponents, AFC Unity managed to display their class and composure on the ball as they fought hard to get the ball forward to their front players and give the away side a hard time at the back. Donohue for Unity showed one of the highlights of the match with an exquisite shot from outside the box, putting the ball past the goalkeeper, making the scoreline 2-8. The match ended on an away goal for the away side, as Barnsley Development’s number 14 drove into the Unity area and finished the match 2-9 to the away visitors.

After the match AFC Unity manager, Jay Baker, spoke about his views on the scoreline and how he thought it reflected his own side’s performance: ‘The result seems way over the top and unfair for how the game went today. We have nothing to be ashamed of. We played against a fine footballing unbeaten side today but to their own admission they struggled with our system at first’. The manager also went on talk about his decision to stick with Unity’s style of play and how he thinks it will prove to be a success for his side in the future. ‘It’s a work in progress. Once we embrace positive brave attacking football rather than being negative and defensive, we’ll get there’.

Despite the unjustified scoreline, today Unity showed great battle against an undefeated team who are fighting at the top of the league table. A change in mentality as opposed to physicality may deem AFC Unity an improved team in the near future as they have the capability to beat the best but they need to believe they can do so.

Moving the topic aside from football, today showed another great achievement for Unity as they managed to collect a huge amount of food donations for the local food banks in Sheffield. Food poverty is a massive problem within the local area and the UK in general, with approximately 4,000,000 people currently living in food poverty across the country. Together, we can help tackle this problem as a force of unity and do our part to reduce these numbers. I’d like to give you a big well done today girls, on and off the pitch.

Up the Left Wing

by Jay Baker

UpTheLeftWingOpinions are like behinds, and everyone has one in football – be it at the top level or even at grassroots, and we all make judgements from our own perspectives, often with little insight into the inner workings of a particular team, and lacking context.

The phrase I’ve heard most often this season has been, ‘I don’t understand what’s wrong’ – even by my own players baffled that such a positive, alternative football club playing so well could be subjected to such a string of bad results. They’re the last to deserve such outcomes given the effort put in by the majority of them, and the football they’ve played. Only once or twice have I seen opponents play purer football than we have, because we’re dedicated to playing soccer that reflects our ethos: fearless, pro-active and positive.

We just enjoyed our third birthday. This is our third season in existence. In our first season we were promoted from Division 3 to Division 2, where we then more than held our own in our second season – stopping in their tracks teams that went on to dominate the division. It was then we decided that, as we improved at a faster pace than we’d initially imagined, we still wanted to give an option to players lacking game time or experience in competitive 11-a-side football – so we set up a second team, the AFC Unity Jets, an audacious decision largely met with more resentment and condescension than admiration or support from the footballing establishment. We went ahead anyway, to great enthusiasm from the players with a promise of more minutes in league matches than they’d anticipated.

So, pre-season became more about which players were going to be in which team, rather than any focus on one squad itself being a cohesive unit. With weeks – even days – remaining until start of the season (which came sooner this time), we rushed to finalise two teams, which started with just over a dozen players each, and stretching the club’s resources to the limit, fueled by our passion for engagement and empowerment of female footballers; the AFC Unity Jets in fact actually began with a bigger roster than the first team at the beginning (and look like ending with one too; we have to understand that expectations, pressure, and commitment are different than in the first team). We were blessed to have Emily Salvin step in as Head Coach of the AFC Unity Jets when lesser coaches would have spelled disaster for team spirit right from the start.

And then the first team was struck with the now-infamous “injury curse” perhaps related to having a squad spread thin and subjected to greater wear-and-tear. Having arguably the best goalkeeper in the league injured early on was also a massive blow to a first team destined to face constant pressure given our attacking style reflecting our unique football philosophy. By this time I was reluctant to make call-ups from the AFC Unity Jets, since we’d already made several – good ones, too, albeit meaning these absolute stars (good players as well as good people) took time to mesh with the existing players, by which time injured players began returning. Simone Fenton-Jarvis made the great point the other day that, ‘We’ve almost had three different first teams throughout the course of this entire season,’ and that’s true!

Having said that, in a recent match against Rovers Foundation, I was astonished by the first-half performance of a team dscf3799finally starting to look settled – it was only 1-2 at half-time, at which point I tried reverting to last season’s old formation, leaving us with just two forwards unable to apply their pressing style, and under bombardment; conceding six more goals in the 45 minutes that followed, an incredible example of football evolution meaning you can’t go back in time and unlearn something so much harder yet better: it’s hard, even wrong, for us to go back to old styles that don’t suit us anymore. Being defensive means being on the back-foot, and surrendering initiative, and that just doesn’t fit us, as evidenced by that 1-8 loss.

You also have to have the “4 Keys to Winning” unlocked in every single one of your eleven players who are on the pitch at one time in order to succeed – if even one single player doesn’t believe in themselves, their teammates, the system or their coach, you can’t do well. While we’ve finally created a first team that reflects our positive ethos, packed with players capable of unlocking those four keys, there have been occasions where I’ve heard odd players not just lacking belief in themselves, but knocking their teammates, or questioning the system and their coach, and you can give them numerous chances but ultimately their fate is in their own hands.

There are plenty of conventional clubs with vanilla formations out there, so I’ll never feel bad for eventually letting those players go, as they have plenty of other options. In fairness to some, when AFC Unity began as an independent women’s football club with next to no resources, I wasn’t as heavily involved with coaching and we hadn’t yet built our footballing identity – now we play with a sense of ourselves, and not all players caught up with that, aren’t willing to, and will be better suited to traditional football elsewhere.

The team I’ve begun to build is one of – yes – unity, as well as camaraderie, warmth, positivity, passion, intelligence and belief in the AFC Unity project, and it’s made me so proud. I’m going to nurture that, and add more of the same to it – from the AFC Unity Jets, eventually, too, because they still have some fantastic players. Great players who want to be “Red Stars” and play for our badge can even be found in the Solidarity Soccer initiative. Some of the finest players we’ve got have been the ones to come up through our own system.

So of course, there’s always context to results or poor form that people don’t at first realise; when you point it out to them, they exclaim, ‘Oh yeah!’ and don’t feel so bad about it. Understanding this context is why I’ve been able to not just remain positive, but become even more positive as the season goes on. If the vast majority of players are playing their hearts out now, what are they going to be like in the future? If we’re about more than just winning – the hundreds of kilograms of food we’ve raised for local food banks, for example – and feel good now, wait until we’re winning matches more often.

And we will be, I can promise that.

If promotions, multiple awards, and doing good for the community seems impressive in just three years, wait until you see what we have in store just around the corner.

 

Photo credit: Steph Sargent