Up the Left Wing

by Jay Baker

I made a lot of promises in the last entry to this column and I’m proud to have kept them. But I’m more proud to say that now, AFC Unity’s current squad is the best I’ve ever managed.

What’s the secret? Well, I’ve mentioned in this column before about the keys to winning, and belief, but it goes beyond that. We’ve got such really good people and personalities in the squad right now – a mixture of pre-existing players who craved an even more positive environment, players who were in the second team, players coming through our Solidarity Soccer initiative, and also players coming to us from elsewhere (yet who seem like they’ve played for us forever).

One thing managers and coaches must be, first of all, is decent, and respectful, and see themselves as teachers or facilitators, not drill sergeants. You have to conduct yourself in a way where you can practice what you preach. My background in youth work and community coaching helped me a lot with this, and last season reached a point where I’d worked hard, learned as much as I possibly could, and was being positive, but still wasn’t afforded the same positivity in return by some players, because at some point all coaches have to put their ego aside and admit that they have to give up trying to change some players, because those types of players will never change anything except your own environment, which is fatal for a football team.

We were really clear about the kinds of people we wanted involved this year because the club had reached a point where it wasn’t a start-up any more, struggling to recruit players. It’s not even September yet and the fixtures aren’t announced and yet I now have the maximum of 25 players on the roster, and each and every one of them met the right criteria when we decided on registrations, with top quality players knocking on the door still wanting to join the club since.

But because we went into this preseason with the right people, there was a mutual trust where we were not only all working together to develop our philosophy and style of play which are a very strong part of Unity’s identity, but we were also able to empower more and more of the women in the team to step up and really help drive the club forward. When the players trust you, and you trust them, you can do that, as evidenced by the shared captaincy – each of our five preseason games was captained by a different player, and none of them had captained our team before. That not only exemplifies our emphasis on empowerment and doing things in a dynamic way that reflect collectivism, but also demonstrates the strength of character and belief we possess in the squad now.

There’s also been an emphasis on process before results (which have developed nicely over the preseason as well, a far cry from the constant heavy defeats we suffered last season). Players have bought into the style of play in a way where we can employ different systems to fit it, ask them their thoughts on it, and again empower them to be pro-active and positive, questioning not ‘Why are we doing this?’ but ‘How can we make this work better for the greater good?’

This solid identity of our style of play and work ethic means it’s a good thing our squad is full of players who want to play for our badge and everything different it represents about grassroots football. Because coming into our environment of positive football can be a culture-shock for a player used to “drills,” authoritarian coaching, the huffing and puffing of frustrated teammates, and negative, defensive 4-4-2 stuff that doesn’t even challenge a coach never mind the players. I am really proud that we’ve taken players from the calibre of several divisions above and we’ve still shown them a kind of football they’ve not encountered for years or even decades, and challenged them so that they’ve developed into better players, and better people with stronger character and mental toughness (something we talk about a lot and a cause for amazement from onlookers at how focused and positive our players remain in challenging circumstances).

So things like Solidarity Soccer are now more crucial than ever as a way of introducing women to our different way of doing things, and our positive playing philosophy. And it’s something we’ll have to find ways to fund more as time goes on because it’s an important potential stepping stone to the sought-after standard four-week first team trial that avoids that culture shock for incoming players.

We all believe more than ever in our positive culture on and off the pitch, and that’s all part of the process that in the longer term also has a positive effect on results, especially as this squad settles in and gels even more than it has in preseason. We’ve learned a lot but are still figuring things out. We’re just getting started.

Support has been great this preseason, and I’m sure will continue to grow after the start of what, incredibly, will be our fourth season in a league where even women’s teams who rely on a men’s club collapse, let alone an openly progressive, independent women’s team that runs as a legally incorporated not-for-profit organisation facing the inevitable but welcome high levels of scrutiny that brings with it.

I rather facetiously said at last season’s Awards Night, ‘What is past is prologue,’ but actually it was probably the least daft thing I said all night. The past is prologue; everything we’ve done was building up to this point, where finally our culture and identity is strong and unshakeable, and we all believe in it, and stand up for it. You can tell the players fight for it.

If you want to see physically and mentally tough, talented and strong women who have big hearts, come along and support this team. You won’t meet a better bunch of people and I’m proud to even know them; coaching them is an honour and a privilege – because they’re empowered anyway and capable enough to know many of the solutions to problems; I just facilitate it.

They play for a badge that represents a different way of doing things; a better way of doing things. These “Red Stars” wear that red star badge with pride – and win, lose, or draw, that will remain. We won’t stop doing things the way we do them because of any single one result, be it on the pitch or out in the community. That makes this team winners anyway.

Now you’re seeing a real, true Unity.

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