AFC Unity Win Another Award at South Yorkshire LGBT+ Awards!

AFC Unity won another award to add to their growing collection, one week ago at South Yorkshire’s LGBT+ Awards at Sheffield’s Library Theatre.

AFC Unity were nominated for “Sports Personality” alongside fellow nominees Jessica Ennis, Rotherham United, Sheffield Hallam University Rugby, Sheffield Steel Rollergirls, Sheffield Varsity, University of Sheffield Hockey, and Yorkshire Terriers FC. But it was AFC Unity that were chosen for the award ‘because (the) team’s actions have promoted positive representation of the LGBT+ community within sports and have inspired LGBT+ individuals to take pride, break down barriers and tackle stigma within the sporting community.’

‘It’s a fantastic achievement for the club and ties into our ethos as a club that football is so much more than just a game,’ said AFC Unity co-founder Jane Watkinson. ‘Football can be a powerful and positive force for social good and something we all want to keep building on.’

‘This award means a lot to us because it reflects our intentions as an independent women’s football club to not just be inclusive but pro-actively influence the wider culture as a whole,’ added co-founder and manager Jay Baker. ‘We’re proud to go to great lengths and great pains to protect our ethos and to shout out for the rights of the LGBT community as per the vision and values of AFC Unity, and we’re very grateful for this recognition.’

Coming off of Unity’s own end-of-season Awards Night where Baker spoke of greater empowerment of players in representing the club going forward, 2016/17 first team players Claire Cusack and winner of the CFM Award on that night, Steph Sargent, both attended the event to represent AFC Unity. They didn’t assume they’d be going up on stage to collect the award as winners!

‘The LGBT+ Awards ceremony was a fantastic evening, where members and allies of the community came together to celebrate those who have contributed to improving equality to those who identify as LGBT,’ said Claire. ‘Representing my team AFC Unity, and celebrating our achievements at such a prestigious event was a great honour, and a moment I will never forget.’

Added Steph: ‘I was so pleased to be asked to represent my club going to such a brilliant event – thank you, and here’s to the next!’

Despite AFC Unity being just over three years old, this latest award adds to the increasing collection in an extraordinary 12 month period for the club, having picked up the FA’s national Respect Award for the women’s pyramid, taking Bronze in Sport England’s Satellite Club of the Year awards, and runners-up as Most Innovative Organisation at the VAS Awards.

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Solidarity Soccer Participant Spotlight: Stacey Leigh

Solidarity Soccer is our innovative community based football training initiative for women which has empowerment, skill sharing and a personalised approach shaping it.

We spoke to regular Solidarity Soccer attendee Stacey Leigh about her experiences of Solidarity Soccer, and what kind of impact it has had on and off the pitch – Stacey has won the Personalised Aims Digital Award and has been a key part of our Wednesday Solidarity Soccer session.

Stacey does the Rivaldo!

AFC Unity: In a few words, how would you describe Solidarity Soccer to someone who hasn’t been?
Stacey: If you like football and want to start playing or in my case get back into it, it’s a great way to get started. The sessions are fun, relaxed and non-competitive and cater for all levels of ability and experience.

AFC Unity: What would you say to someone who hasn’t been to Solidarity Soccer if you wanted them to come along?
Stacey: Come down and try it – you’ll enjoy it.

AFC Unity: Do you have any stories that stand out from your time of being involved in Solidarity Soccer?
Stacey: This is a tough one….it’s good fun every week. However, I did trip over my feet once when attempting the step-over – that was quite amusing.

AFC Unity: Has Solidarity Soccer had an impact on your outside football life?
Stacey: Yes – it certainly has. My fitness has improved, I am more active and have loads more confidence and I am making new friends.

AFC Unity: If you could pick one word to describe Solidarity Soccer what would it be?
Stacey: Enjoyable!

AFC Unity: What has been your favourite skill to learn and why?
Stacey: I would have to say the Rivaldo triangle as it was the first one I learnt. I was sure I’d have no chance of doing it but within a couple of sessions I had cracked it – I think everyone had for that matter.

AFC Unity: Anything else to add?
Stacey: I never thought I’d play football again, now as well as Solidarity Soccer, I play in a weekly 5-a-side league. It’s given me a massive confidence boost and I want to pursue 11-a-side football again!

Fairtrade and Unity – How this Alternative Football Club is Trumping Sexism and Exploitation

by Matthew Hamilton

Increasing hostility, the Brexit bombshell, and the election of Donald Trump inciting hatred and division; concepts such as women’s football club AFC Unity are a welcome change for many.

Negative stories seem to always top the search bar when it comes to football, however AFC Unity seek to combat this unsavoury attitude surrounding the sport of football to create an inclusive environment and a “unifying force”. These are powerful messages from Jay Baker, co-founder and manager of the club. AFC Unity have adopted a revolutionary outlook which other co-founder, Jane Watkinson, emphasised as “more than just a football club, it’s a way to achieve social change”, and their powerful message is at the core of everything they do as consistency is key to their success.

An example of their consistency is their quick adoption of Bala Sport footballs, which are more expensive than other providers. Bala Sport are a Scotland based company who make Fairtrade footballs, meaning the workers in Pakistan are paid a fair wage for their labour. This epitomizes the commitment to change which the women’s football club love to display, with players being described as ‘proud to use the balls as they recognize the impact Fairtrade has on workers.’

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The charismatic duo that founded the club explained their participants are from a multitude of backgrounds, with some coming from the food banks that AFC Unity work with. The club’s first team collects food donations from home matches to then distribute these to local food banks, with ‘some of the players offering to talk to recipients’ who would struggle without the compassion shown by the club. This experience served to educate players of the issue of food poverty which Ms. Watkinson said reduced the stigma and dramatically humanised the otherwise invisible pandemic.

Humanity and Equality. These words resound in the mind after discovering the beautiful rebellion of AFC Unity. Their ethos goes against that of the global norms created by fear and an undeniable confusion with difference. Although they may not seem to be a group of people fighting for change in same way Emmeline Pankhurst of the 1903 Suffragettes did, their use of modern tactics start to chip away at misconceptions typically found in our regressive culture.

A catalyst for this time travel to the dark ages can be found in the aforementioned election of Donald Trump, with his frequent displays of sexism, it’s now the time for us as the Human Race to fight these atrocities. Fighting against the conventional idea of football has not been easy for the alternative football club, with both founders expressing their discontent with the help received from the National Governing Body of the sport, the FA (Football Association).

The struggles that the club (and specifically Ms. Watkinson as secretary) go through is a key indication that although society may need change, the idealistic approach of the club is difficult for long-standing organisations to understand and support.

Why choose football when there are all of these barriers? Mr Baker replied that “it’s the only sport we’ve really tried. And it’s a game that can unite people more than others”. It would be easy for AFC Unity to lower their expectations. Instead they passively prove their point by taking an inherently masculine sport and turning it upside down by showing compassion, treating people like humans rather than competitors, and making a real impact in the community.

Community projects are a huge part of the work AFC Unity do, and speaking to both founders of the concept they have no plans to slow down. Procedures to improve the success of the first team are in motion. The team bonds during group skill sessions, and with experienced players coming from all over Yorkshire it’s easy for the club to access individual strengths to hold sessions that are beneficial to all.

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Success normally comes at a price, often meaning sacrifice and pressure. Ms. Watkinson completely rejects this strategy, with the avoidance of ‘pressure or fear, or anything like that’ which would put mental health and the club’s ethos in danger. This seems to be a winning formula too. The team wanted to be successful this season, and after coming into one of their final games after losing every one prior, the players realised this year was all about learning and fun. A pre-match talk by manager Jay Baker relayed the no-pressure message and seemed to be magical, producing a 3–7 win which was put down to the no pressure policy.

“There’s no mistakes, only lessons so don’t worry, messing up is a part of the learning process”. This quote by Mr Baker should be heard by every female, whether an athlete or not. The club shows unbelievable dedication to the feminist movement in a world where women are reduced to objects by figureheads such as Donald Trump who denied sexual allegations due to the victim being ‘too unattractive’. AFC Unity ‘likes to help create an inclusive environment’ which is necessary for personal development, and is why the club has gathered success from those previously marginalised.

The main use for the clubs’ money is to educate more communities around the UK. Mr Baker fantasised about having a stadium made for the club, he said: “We’ve heard about Forrest Green Rovers and it would be great to follow a similar path!” Although Fairtrade produce would create a financial barrier, Mr Baker reiterated the previously mentioned consistency which players strongly hold onto.

“Fearless, pro-active, positivity.” Three words which sum up the club for Jay Baker, and ones that certainly promote a healthy way of living for women across Yorkshire. Progress is inevitable and at half time, it seems the club may be onto another shock win against society, courtesy of the growing number of supporters that keep the dream alive and trump opposing ideologies.

Solidarity Soccer Participant Spotlight: Amy Brown

Solidarity Soccer is our innovative community based football training initiative for women which has empowerment, skill sharing and a personalised approach shaping it.

We spoke to regular Solidarity Soccer attendee Amy Brown about her experiences of Solidarity Soccer, and what kind of impact it has had on and off the pitch – Amy has won the Teamwork Digital Award and Tech and Tekkers Digital Award (which was for her use of the Zidane Turn, which you can see Amy demonstrate below!) and has been a key part of our Wednesday Solidarity Soccer session.

AFC Unity: In a few words, how would you describe Solidarity Soccer to someone who hasn’t been?
Amy: Inclusive, fun, relaxed.

AFC Unity: What would you say to someone who hasn’t been to Solidarity Soccer if you wanted them to come along?
Amy: Come and take part in a relaxed environment, learn new skills and improve on simple aspects of everyday football, and have fun whilst doing it.

AFC Unity: Do you have any stories that stand out from your time of being involved in Solidarity Soccer?
Amy: My stand out story is through Solidarity Soccer I’ve made some new friends and we’ve started playing 5-a-side together, to improve fitness.

AFC Unity: Has Solidarity Soccer had an impact on your outside football life?
Amy: Massively, it’s pushed me to go back to the gym, get fitter and change the way I eat to help improve my fitness and health, it’s also helped me get over an injury.

AFC Unity: If you could pick one word to describe Solidarity Soccer what would it be?
Amy: Fun.

AFC Unity: What has been your favourite skill to learn?
Amy: Zidane turn.

AFC Unity: Anything else to add?
Amy: Just for ladies to come and see what it’s all about, and help spread the word 

Up the Left Wing

by Jay Baker

Much has already been said about the challenging season AFC Unity just had, so now I’d like to focus more on the future. However, it is worth acknowledging the adversity we experienced, because tough times always reveal true character in people, and in football players.

Let’s borrow an anecdote from men’s mainstream professional football. Love him or loathe him, Neil Warnock made no secret of the difficulties he had with Neil Redfearn at Leeds United, when Warnock was in charge of the first team and Redfearn was responsible for overseeing the youth academy, where resentment towards the first team set in.

We saw some of that in our second season when we had a Development system (since replaced by an overwhelmingly successful and award-winning Solidarity Soccer initiative). Thankfully, such resentment was rare in our newly-created second team, the AFC Unity Jets, even when players from there were called up into the injury-ravaged first team. After all, it’s totally the wrong attitude to resent your teammates an opportunity to progress! In addition, it’d have been wrong for any of us to be negative when the Jets then still had 18 players in the squad, and it’d have been wrong to focus on those who stopped showing up as the heavy defeats continued, rather than those who kept going: those who kept playing till the end are heroes.

Meanwhile, the constant changes in the first team presented its own difficulties, as mentioned before. Now as we revert back to one team and one squad, looking ahead I’ll be using about three different formations while we rebuild the football at AFC Unity on the foundation of a newfound footballing identity and playing style. Last season, we couldn’t even get the whole team to grasp one formation, let alone three, but that depends on having a squad who as a collective hold the four keys to winning. American college sports coach Davey Whitney once said, “If it’s important to you, you’ll find a way; if it’s not, you’ll find an excuse.”

Last season, I stuck with one formation until there was belief. The majority of the team has been absolutely fantastic, and a dream to coach. Rather than disrupt an already injury-hit team by removing any odd negative players, I kept them in – and the more they got negative, the more the rest of us went positive; the more they wanted to play defensive, the more we went on the attack; the more they wanted to park the bus, the higher our defensive line got. It cost us of course, leading to its logical conclusion in the last match of the season and our record defeat of 17-1. But now we can wipe the slate clean.

Some players will just never believe, and are better suited to the old vanilla 4-4-2 – which of course is fine for them, because pretty much every other grassroots club does that, so there’s no shortage of other options out there for them. One coaching phrase is: One player can’t beat an opposing team by themselves, but they can destroy your own team with a bad attitude. Yes, there are some players who just always seem to associate with the negativity and bad apples and players we removed for poor behaviour; you can’t have them in your club, or else you’re asking for the same mistakes to be repeated over and over without learning from them – and when we preach learning from mistakes, we have to do so ourselves, and act on it! And we will. We have to now.

So what we’ll have going forward is a series of game plans we can spend pre-season embracing, learning, and enacting whenever they’re needed. It kills the season if you can’t even commit to one formation, but now we will have a squad that does, I can promise that. I’ll only have positive vibes in my squad, and complete faith in a team of players who in turn have faith in me. Any doubt, and they’re out! AFC Unity is a lovely club, everyone, even opponents, agree on that. But that doesn’t mean players don’t want and need solid, strong leadership to keep it positive. If you’re too soft, it crumbles.

We’re looking to build a single squad as a cohesive unit based on commitment, dedication, and talent, full of problem-solving players who are keen to listen, and learn, and trust in their coaches – again, it comes back to the keys to winning.

We’ll be signing players who completely understand the football philosophy, and believe in everything we’re trying to do at the club, and – beyond enjoying the environment – trust in our approach so that this environment can be sustained long-term. We can’t do that with players who might cause problems, who are oppositional, yet continue to enjoy everything we offer. That won’t work. ‘People who are in it for their own good are individualists,’ said another American college coach, Paul William “Bear” Bryant: ‘They don’t share the same heartbeat that makes a team so great.’

As manager of the first team, I’ve been so lucky in this past very unlucky season to have filled the majority of the squad with the best personalities and people I’ve genuinely been fond of and friendly with, and trusted – because despite how cynics may scoff at the idea, you simply can’t have good players who aren’t good people; the two go hand-in-hand. Gordon Strachan once said, ‘Believe me, you need good people if you want to make good players.’ So first and foremost, AFC Unity has to be full of good people who believe in the badge and everything it represents, who want to play for the badge, and who want to enact our ethos and football philosophy on that pitch. We want great ambassadors for this club.

I intend to build a strong squad of 25 players who might not be 25 of the best, but definitely the best 25 – those who are just happy to be part of AFC Unity, enjoy the environment, believe in it, and also enact it to further our ethos and prove it can work. And it can. It will.

While other teams might be an add-on to a men’s team, or be run like an army camp, or have cliques, or play re-active “man-marking” football, or play the long ball, waste time, run down the clock and complain – and they can and do win games like that, because the flawed rules of the game enable them to do so, sadly – instead we will choose the road less travelled, the longest and hardest path to success, because it’s important to succeed the right way. The journey is as important as the destination, if not more important; it’s like life itself.

I’m excited because I have so many players to choose from. The downside is, some players will no longer get the opportunities they once had to play 11-a-side football, but trust is key; players have to trust me, and I have to trust them, and if there was any shred of doubt either way, this wouldn’t work. It’s no secret we at AFC Unity admire the “Barçajax” football philosophy, but more because it’s ethos-first, and the victories have to come along later.

We need a solid 25 and definitely need 16 every single Sunday because our playing style – what I affectionately call “hard rock football” – can be intense, and rigorous, and demanding, but it definitely develops players. Yet it isn’t for everyone; we have to have defenders who play a proactive role in build-up play and attack, and we have to have forwards who are more than just poachers but press and get the ball. I truly believe that at this level, players can go no place better than AFC Unity to learn intelligent, exciting, attractive football that’s a real challenge to learn and grasp.

One player, who’s played for some top clubs, once even asked me if our style of play was too advanced for our team. But the thing is, I have never stopped learning since taking on this role, and I enjoy developing as a coach too, yet I have no football ambitions except for this club – it’s important that, instead, we raise the standards of football that we play. We’ve already seen some beautiful football even without a consistent, coherent unit! Wait till we finally settle into being one team with one vision, long-term!

We also have to present opportunity to Solidarity Soccer players as well as those coming to us from other clubs who show the trust, passion, and belief in what we’re doing – as well as high levels of attitude, ability, and attendance.

Sports mogul Robert Kraft once said he wanted the kinds of players to have an impact both on the field and in the locker room, and I agree that’s really important for building a strong team. With the newly-introduced shared, or rotating, captaincy we will keep developing, nurturing, and encouraging those leadership qualities right throughout the team so that it’s not just my voice reinforcing the ethos, or even one captain’s voice. It has to be a collective voice. That’s why we’re called “Unity.”

Not just because we’re going to be one team with one vision, but because we’ll finally have a large solid squad and a long pre-season, this finally feels like the AFC Unity we always wanted it to be. The building process won’t be easy – it might take the entire season to bond the team how we’d like – but it’ll be worth it in the long run.

And besides, yet again, the journey is just as valuable and exciting as the destination – and, after all, often more important.