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.

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