by Jay Baker
In the last entry to this column, I said pre-season was going to be awesome. I was wrong. The season is going to be awesome.
Last season, it’s been said countless times, was all about building a solid foundation after merging two of our teams into just the one. But then afterwards, we realised there were still yet more players coming through wanting to play for us – quality players; quality people, mostly through the Solidarity Soccer programme as a conduit to re-engage these amazing players back into football, which they wanted to play for an ethos, not just in any team.
With the 16 we carried forward from last season (in itself enough to fill a squad on a Sunday), we were already quality, but those coming in have been a seamless fit for what we wanted. As I’ve said, there was always a long-term plan. For a whole year before, I suspected that the 2018/19 AFC Unity squad might be the best yet. Now I know for certain.
That’s not to say this build-up to the season has not had its challenges. Players relishing the friendly competition for places ahead wanted to make sure they took their trips away in the summer, spreading the squad a little thin for friendlies, which have not been as high in quantity as we’d have liked, though the quality has certainly been there – with no expectations, a newly-formed AFC Unity team losing 0-4 to a side who beat us 7-2 then 6-1 last season – with some revelations coming from newcomers getting lots of game time. However, that game time cost us some injuries, and I’ve been careful to look after players since. The season is the focus. We are looking forward to a good one, with solid support and a reinvigorated Football for Food campaign.
Yes, we have our detractors. Some see us apply an empowering, positive approach to playing, or opposing prejudice, or promoting collectivism in the workplace, or committing to use only fair trade footballs, or, yes, helping food banks, and they make it clear – usually through social media – that they want to see us defeated; pounded into the ground. I don’t want to speculate what that says about them as people, but you can’t beat an idea. You can play for any other team in the league, and score as many more goals than us as you like, but what then? We’re still here, we’re still doing things our way – and we’re still growing, and getting better and better.
So, as Naomi Klein rightly suggests, how about people honestly declare what they’re for? That’s a positive thing to do. Here’s what AFC Unity are for: engaging and empowering women, working together on and off the pitch, doing good in the community, playing with dignity, respect, and fairness – and being a socially progressive, independent women’s team (one of the very few in the world, in fact). That’s what we’re for, and that’s what we’re playing for. That’s what we’re about. And that’s an idea that won’t be stopped, but we’ll all keep battling to promote.
So please come along and support the Red Stars this coming season. The football we’re playing is reaching a whole other level. You’ll see the team attacking together and defending together, from front to back, and you’ll see passing football, with a commitment to playing the game the right way, win or lose.
Rest assured then, that when we do win, it’ll be the right way. It’ll be earned. No short-cuts, no “route one” football, no individual prima donnas, no cliques, no bullying, no nonsense. We like to say the way we play reflects who we are.
We’re excited for the season ahead. We’re now ready to take AFC Unity that step further. We have a new board, new sponsors, new kit, a new ground, and even a new league in many ways, and all a massive improvement on previous versions (the team itself is no exception to that, either!) Everything has fallen into place this spring and summer. I’ve never been so proud of my team or my club as a whole – so thank you to everyone who has made that happen and played a part in that. In turn, I’ll continue to work hard for AFC Unity’s success on and off the pitch.