Up the Left Wing

by Jay Baker

As we enter the pre-season for 2018/19, it’s worth reflecting on the remarkable season just gone, culminating with our amazing Awards Night.

Let’s face it, as we’ve said numerous times, last season was about taking Unity to the next level, as a principle and not just a name. Having gone from two teams to just one, we aimed for a creation of squad harmony, with an emphasis on developing a team alongside individual players – we talked about the process, not the results; we knew all along that the results would take care of themselves later if we focused on the process now.

And, funnily enough, they did already – even sooner than I’d expected! Going forward I’ll be aiming to win games, now we’ve achieved harmony in the team and developed everyone, but here’s an honest admission: last season I never once tried to win a single match; at numerous games I made last-minute decisions that were about testing out elements of the team or a player, even if it meant the risk of throwing away a result (and yes, several results were thrown away because of that). It was tough to do at times, but I had to resist the temptation of getting caught up in the pursuit of victories and reminded myself that if I did that, I’d put at risk the development of the players, the team, and – as a result – the long-term plan.

With that in mind, it’s quite astonishing: without trying to win a single game, we still took 17 points from the season, compared to a measly 6 points the season before. Because results are a by-product of the process, and truly will be in the future.

Last season, aside from giants like Worksop Town and the big development squads, we held our own against teams hell-bent on winning – and often, in particular, hell-bent on beating AFC Unity. Why? Well given the season before, many put pressure on themselves based on the expectation to have an easy win over us. Calm in the knowledge we weren’t focusing on results, but instead the process, we came away from many matches looking pretty good anyway.

In the opening match of the season at Dearne & District, we had our only goalkeeper pull out in the warm-up, which was rotten luck, yet despite losing 4-1 at half-time, we mounted a comeback and only lost 7-5.

Again, some poor luck continued, losing 2-0 to Mexborough Athletic in a really close game, and then losing just 2-1 at Shaw Lane. We were winning 2-0 against Sheffield Wednesday Development at half-time, only to lose 3-2. But then we were losing 2-1 to Wickersley Youth, and came back to beat them 4-2. All exciting stuff.

Again though in some bad luck we lost a lot of players to absence, illness, and injury for the Socrates game, including our goalkeeper again, and got hammered 12-0 – at full strength in the return fixture we were winning 1-0 at half-time, only to lose 3-2 when they snatched a last-second winner. (We also got ourselves an excellent second goalkeeper!)

We beat Worksop Town Juniors 5-3 and then again, 3-1, but then gave Worsbrough Bridge Athletic their first big win of the season when we lost 8-4 at theirs, and sacrificed results against Millmoor Juniors Second and Oughtibridge War Memorial Development, and against Mexborough Athletic, losing 2-1, and were battered, not just in the scoreline but physically and psychologically, as intended, by Shaw Lane, in one of the worst games I’ve ever experienced.

But there were still better days ahead: both Oughtibridge and Wickersley held on to draw with us, the latter beating us 2-1 to knock us out of the Krukowski Cup, provoking a secret sigh of relief in me as I was apprehensive about progressing in the cup to face teams from higher up the league and distracting us from our process this season. We had bad defeats against Dearne & District, Millmoor Juniors Second, and Sheffield Wednesday Development, only to give the best footballing performance in Unity’s history in the final game, a win over Worsbrough.

It’s interesting to note that Rovers Foundation Development beat us heavily at the start of the season, only to forfeit the return fixture because they couldn’t field a squad – such is the chaos of developmental teams that are a stepping-stone for players with ambitions of playing at a high level. Some want to be the next Lucy Bronze or Steph Houghton. Recent weeks have seen news stories of big clubs buying their way into the top divisions of women’s football – which is delivering on its promise of emulating the men’s game and being money-dominated.

As a result, we may see more and more “development” teams with good coaches scratching their heads at the inconsistency they’re faced with because their players get called up to the first teams, and this inconsistency is felt in our division too: one minute a development team is beating everyone, the next they can’t even field a side. Who knows what the upcoming season will throw our way? We can try to win going forward, but ultimately we may also be at the mercy of top players being tried out in development teams ready to be plucked back up into the big leagues – and this can impact on our division and its results. There is a lot more context than people often realise.

There is definitely a clash of culture in non-league football: between individualism, and collectivism. Some players are out to do the best they can for themselves, and don’t necessarily care which team they play for; while others, such as those who continue to play for us, are passionate about wearing the shirt, and playing for our badge.

This grassroots league is essentially recreational – so many of our players say to me that they have challenging occupations or stressful lives at times and training and games at AFC Unity are a haven, a refuge; they don’t want negativity. As a result, we’ve just retained 16 players from that season just gone, into this pre-season, which is staggering considering many teams during the season can’t even put together a maximum squad of 16 for match-day!

We’ve built a foundation, and every player we have believes: We’ve said before, a player can either have team harmony, or can have everything go their own way just for themselves, but they can’t have both. You’re either an individualist or a collectivist; selfish, or a selfless team player prepared to sacrifice for the greater good.

The foundation we’ve built is strong, because it’s a squad of collectivists; we long since tested the integrity of players in the past who were found to be individualists, who were happy in any team or with any result as long as they were getting the lion’s share of game time. But this is a team sport and that’s not what football at its core is about, especially here at Unity – we thought when we set up the club that the clue might be in the name but it seemed to be lost on some people, or we were seen as easy pickings being a relatively recent start-up, perhaps desperate for players. We never have been desperate for players. We’re desperate for good people, first and foremost. Those are the ones who enjoy the environment – in particular, the players not with junior football fresh in their minds but more experienced players who are disenchanted with teams run like army camps, with “drills,” with a “survival of the fittest” mentality, and with “route one” football. They just want to enjoy their football and feel part of a team they can be proud of.

We are the team for them: a team where every player is valued, every player is seen as unique while working for a collective cause, every player from back to front needs to play a passing game, and attack together, and defend together. We’ve worked painstakingly over four seasons to get get to a point where the social and psychological environment in Unity is second to none: friendly, positive, hopeful, fearless, ambitious. I’ve said it before, some teams have beaten us yet walked away from the match looking depressed and dejected due to their negative team environment, while we’ve looked like winners. And although we’re building for the future, and we now aim to win games, that’s how you win no matter what: by being happy. Not such a wild idea.

Players come to us because they want that environment. Some are already pretty much part of that environment by taking part in Solidarity Soccer – and we’re looking there for players, too; that’s worked really well in the last year. But it’s up to players to choose us; to really want to be part of the Unity ethos and the Unity project. I’m proud to be picking those kinds of people as I seek a goalkeeper willing to develop, a full-back, and a central midfielder. Those are my priorities in terms of adding to this fantastic squad we have now, where the overall quality has increased even more to a level never before reached: we’re now fully a passing, pressing team. But the football is going to be even better. It’s already a great squad, and – given our criteria – that will only get better too.

Pre-season is going to be awesome.

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