AFC Unity vs Barnsley Development – match report

by Tom Menzies

This week’s fixture ended 2-9 to the away side, as unbeaten Barnsley Development’s fast and physical football style was one to be too much for AFC Unity. The match’s scoreline does show one of class and optimism for Barnsley Development who are climbing their way to the top of the league table, but also of injustice for AFC Unity who showed grit and determination until the end of the match.

 

The opening 45 minutes of the match showed a massive contrast between each of the two teams’ footballing styles, as each side managed to find the other’s vulnerability and pounce at the opportunity. Barnsley Development were the first to seize the lead in the match, in which they showed intuition to take advantage of the home’s side absences at the back from a set piece. A good amount of pressure from Unity did win them a corner early on in the first half, but their failure to put the ball in the net meant a counter-attack would break away for the away side. Barnsley’s number 11 managed to run down the wing and pull the ball back across goal for the striker to tap it in. No heads were hung from AFC Unity following their disadvantage early on, as they had a few chances to get back into the game. One of these involved Mills, who took a shot on goal following a clearance from a defender but unfortunately only managed to hit the woodwork. The other chance did manage to bring the home team level on goals, as Cusack pulled away an exquisite shot on goal, forcing the goalkeeper to parry the ball into her own net. The end of the first half did call on Unity goalkeeper Sargent to keep the home side still in the game; Sargent’s recent return from injury didn’t show to phase her through this period of the match as she did manage to make some heroic saves from the threat of Barnsley Development’s strike force. However, the ongoing pressure did result in two away goals as their number 9 and number 11 were sent through the middle of Unity’s defence, each finding the bottom corner of the net in the dying minutes of the first half. This meant that the away team had the upper-hand before the break, being 1-3 up after 45 minutes.

The second half of the match deemed more attacking minded for each of the two teams as the intensified midfield clash meant players ruthlessly challenged for an opportunity to get the ball forward. Barnsley Development showed no signs of complacency in their lead, as they started the second half strong as again, number 9 and number 11 managed to score 5 away goals between them by putting fine finishes into the net sending their the team 1-8 ahead. Despite the skill of their opponents, AFC Unity managed to display their class and composure on the ball as they fought hard to get the ball forward to their front players and give the away side a hard time at the back. Donohue for Unity showed one of the highlights of the match with an exquisite shot from outside the box, putting the ball past the goalkeeper, making the scoreline 2-8. The match ended on an away goal for the away side, as Barnsley Development’s number 14 drove into the Unity area and finished the match 2-9 to the away visitors.

After the match AFC Unity manager, Jay Baker, spoke about his views on the scoreline and how he thought it reflected his own side’s performance: ‘The result seems way over the top and unfair for how the game went today. We have nothing to be ashamed of. We played against a fine footballing unbeaten side today but to their own admission they struggled with our system at first’. The manager also went on talk about his decision to stick with Unity’s style of play and how he thinks it will prove to be a success for his side in the future. ‘It’s a work in progress. Once we embrace positive brave attacking football rather than being negative and defensive, we’ll get there’.

Despite the unjustified scoreline, today Unity showed great battle against an undefeated team who are fighting at the top of the league table. A change in mentality as opposed to physicality may deem AFC Unity an improved team in the near future as they have the capability to beat the best but they need to believe they can do so.

Moving the topic aside from football, today showed another great achievement for Unity as they managed to collect a huge amount of food donations for the local food banks in Sheffield. Food poverty is a massive problem within the local area and the UK in general, with approximately 4,000,000 people currently living in food poverty across the country. Together, we can help tackle this problem as a force of unity and do our part to reduce these numbers. I’d like to give you a big well done today girls, on and off the pitch.

Up the Left Wing

by Jay Baker

UpTheLeftWingOpinions are like behinds, and everyone has one in football – be it at the top level or even at grassroots, and we all make judgements from our own perspectives, often with little insight into the inner workings of a particular team, and lacking context.

The phrase I’ve heard most often this season has been, ‘I don’t understand what’s wrong’ – even by my own players baffled that such a positive, alternative football club playing so well could be subjected to such a string of bad results. They’re the last to deserve such outcomes given the effort put in by the majority of them, and the football they’ve played. Only once or twice have I seen opponents play purer football than we have, because we’re dedicated to playing soccer that reflects our ethos: fearless, pro-active and positive.

We just enjoyed our third birthday. This is our third season in existence. In our first season we were promoted from Division 3 to Division 2, where we then more than held our own in our second season – stopping in their tracks teams that went on to dominate the division. It was then we decided that, as we improved at a faster pace than we’d initially imagined, we still wanted to give an option to players lacking game time or experience in competitive 11-a-side football – so we set up a second team, the AFC Unity Jets, an audacious decision largely met with more resentment and condescension than admiration or support from the footballing establishment. We went ahead anyway, to great enthusiasm from the players with a promise of more minutes in league matches than they’d anticipated.

So, pre-season became more about which players were going to be in which team, rather than any focus on one squad itself being a cohesive unit. With weeks – even days – remaining until start of the season (which came sooner this time), we rushed to finalise two teams, which started with just over a dozen players each, and stretching the club’s resources to the limit, fueled by our passion for engagement and empowerment of female footballers; the AFC Unity Jets in fact actually began with a bigger roster than the first team at the beginning (and look like ending with one too; we have to understand that expectations, pressure, and commitment are different than in the first team). We were blessed to have Emily Salvin step in as Head Coach of the AFC Unity Jets when lesser coaches would have spelled disaster for team spirit right from the start.

And then the first team was struck with the now-infamous “injury curse” perhaps related to having a squad spread thin and subjected to greater wear-and-tear. Having arguably the best goalkeeper in the league injured early on was also a massive blow to a first team destined to face constant pressure given our attacking style reflecting our unique football philosophy. By this time I was reluctant to make call-ups from the AFC Unity Jets, since we’d already made several – good ones, too, albeit meaning these absolute stars (good players as well as good people) took time to mesh with the existing players, by which time injured players began returning. Simone Fenton-Jarvis made the great point the other day that, ‘We’ve almost had three different first teams throughout the course of this entire season,’ and that’s true!

Having said that, in a recent match against Rovers Foundation, I was astonished by the first-half performance of a team dscf3799finally starting to look settled – it was only 1-2 at half-time, at which point I tried reverting to last season’s old formation, leaving us with just two forwards unable to apply their pressing style, and under bombardment; conceding six more goals in the 45 minutes that followed, an incredible example of football evolution meaning you can’t go back in time and unlearn something so much harder yet better: it’s hard, even wrong, for us to go back to old styles that don’t suit us anymore. Being defensive means being on the back-foot, and surrendering initiative, and that just doesn’t fit us, as evidenced by that 1-8 loss.

You also have to have the “4 Keys to Winning” unlocked in every single one of your eleven players who are on the pitch at one time in order to succeed – if even one single player doesn’t believe in themselves, their teammates, the system or their coach, you can’t do well. While we’ve finally created a first team that reflects our positive ethos, packed with players capable of unlocking those four keys, there have been occasions where I’ve heard odd players not just lacking belief in themselves, but knocking their teammates, or questioning the system and their coach, and you can give them numerous chances but ultimately their fate is in their own hands.

There are plenty of conventional clubs with vanilla formations out there, so I’ll never feel bad for eventually letting those players go, as they have plenty of other options. In fairness to some, when AFC Unity began as an independent women’s football club with next to no resources, I wasn’t as heavily involved with coaching and we hadn’t yet built our footballing identity – now we play with a sense of ourselves, and not all players caught up with that, aren’t willing to, and will be better suited to traditional football elsewhere.

The team I’ve begun to build is one of – yes – unity, as well as camaraderie, warmth, positivity, passion, intelligence and belief in the AFC Unity project, and it’s made me so proud. I’m going to nurture that, and add more of the same to it – from the AFC Unity Jets, eventually, too, because they still have some fantastic players. Great players who want to be “Red Stars” and play for our badge can even be found in the Solidarity Soccer initiative. Some of the finest players we’ve got have been the ones to come up through our own system.

So of course, there’s always context to results or poor form that people don’t at first realise; when you point it out to them, they exclaim, ‘Oh yeah!’ and don’t feel so bad about it. Understanding this context is why I’ve been able to not just remain positive, but become even more positive as the season goes on. If the vast majority of players are playing their hearts out now, what are they going to be like in the future? If we’re about more than just winning – the hundreds of kilograms of food we’ve raised for local food banks, for example – and feel good now, wait until we’re winning matches more often.

And we will be, I can promise that.

If promotions, multiple awards, and doing good for the community seems impressive in just three years, wait until you see what we have in store just around the corner.

 

Photo credit: Steph Sargent

AFC Unity Vs Mexborough Athletic – match report

by Tom Menzies

Despite AFC Unity’s bravery and fighting effort in their battle against Mexborough Athletic, their efforts to come back from behind were shattered in the closing minutes of the game as a looping fitness shot sealed their fate and the match finished 2-4 to the away side.

20160925_131818The first half showed much to be one of a midfield battle between the two teams, as each side showed their intention to battle for the ball and get it forward in the final third of the pitch. AFC Unity were unlucky to concede an early goal in just the third minute of the match, which automatically put the home side at a disadvantage. However, despite this drawback, Unity were to dominate the core passing play in the centre of the park for the rest of the half, as the central midfielders and wing backs connected fluently to put pressure on the away side straight away. Unity’s high tempo style of football instantly proved effective, as Kotta came close with a good run down the left flank using skill to beat the Mexborough defence before shooting wide of the goal. Nevertheless, the away side bounced back from early pressure as their number 9 stormed past Unity’s central defenders to shoot at goal, but it wasn’t enough to beat Sophie Mills whose impressive save showed no signs of nerves when covering out-of-action Steph Sargent due to injury. The closing key moment of the first half involved Unity’s Shanie Donohue from a free kick, who made a fantastic run on goal before cleverly chipping the charging goalkeeper; Kotta ran towards the looping ball to nod it in for the home side, but an acrobatic clearance from a Mexborough defender ensured that the away team went into the second half with a one goal advantage.

The second half of the match up between the two teams showed more quality in the final third, as the sides went back and forth in the race to come on top before the final whistle. Mexborough Athletic came close on a couple of occasions in the early minutes of the half, when their number 7, Natasha Carlton, ran straight through the home team’s back line to run on goal and managed to beat the goalkeeper with her shot, before hitting the post and maintaining the away side’s advantage to just the one goal. It was AFC Unity who were able to strike first in the second half, as Kotta sprinted down the left with intention before cutting the ball across the goal line and the rest was finished by Spillings, putting Unity at level on their home turf and making the score 1-1. Mexborough Athletic showed no signs of forfeiting their initial efforts on goal as they reacted rapidly with Carlton persistently peppering Unity’s defence. A cross was chipped into the 18 yard box by the Mexborough full back, and headed home by Carlton; once again the away side had the advantage over Unity, as the scoreline reached 1-2. Resilience and determination fuelled the home side to push on and shake away their drawback, as Kotta put pressure on the defender from a Unity cross and forced an own goal to put the scores equal once again at 2-2. The remainder of the second half involved a good level of pressure and intensity by the home side, as the midfield battle showed players flying in to tackles and intercepting loose balls being thrown across the grass. However, it wasn’t enough to stop a third goal for Mexborough in the last quarter of the match as a scramble in the box meant that the away side were able to head away an easy goal in fortune of miscommunication amongst Unity’s defence. Despite AFC Unity’s fighting efforts against Mexborough to try and gain their side a point, in the dying minutes of the match a fantastic finish from Carlton curled over the goalkeeper to seal their fate as it meant the away side were 2-4 up when the final whistle blew. Lots of positives from each of the two sides in this match up, as signs of ambition and persistence project a bright future for each of the two teams.

20160825_161110AFC Unity manager Jay Baker commented on how he thought the match had played out and how his side were possibly picked off by the opposition: ’It was a close game today, our opponents did their homework and tried to find chinks in our armour. None of this is to take anything away from Mexborough, they played well; we’ve been really unlucky and today just wasn’t our day’. The manager also spoke about the impact of injuries within the squad and how they may have affected his team. The starting line up against Mexborough was missing Jane Watkinson, as well as other crucial players to the first team line up such as Steph Sargent and Sophie Hirst, who fell ill before the game and unfortunately was unable to take part. Baker said ‘we lost a few players before the match and there were a few last minute changes that threw us off our game a bit’.

AFC Unity’s next home game is on February 5th, where they hope to shake off this minor set back and kick on with the rest of their season by playing the excellent football that they have showed here today.

Are You a Member of AFC Unity?

membershipAs a grassroots, independent women’s football club and a legally incorporated non-profit organisation, AFC Unity rely on many forms of support through which we can increase our socially-driven activities.

One way you can help is by becoming a member.

Players are automatically made members when they are registered – with benefits beyond just being eligible to play in a customised kit with their own squad number and name on the back, or even matches and 11-a-side training covered too. They also get a 20% discount on services from our official sponsors, CFM Limited. In addition, they are invited to attend and vote at our end-of-season Awards Night, and get chance to take part in our Ambassador Programme and even on occasion access support in becoming qualified coaches.

But supporters can also become members – and enjoy a range of benefits from receiving a free AFC Unity wristband upon joining, getting 25% off AFC Unity merchandise, manager’s updates, player video messages, and invitation to 14889768_1247114865349220_6631454899400448265_oattend and vote at Awards Night, to 20% off CFM services as well! (And who knows when you might need those!) There will be other goodies too. But the really good news is, supporter membership has been reduced from £25 to £20 for the end of the season!

All membership fees are reduced if you’re a member of a trade union as part of AFC Unity’s commitment to unity, community, and the protection of people in the workplace! (Players even get 50p off Solidarity Soccer if they flash their trade union membership card!)

So please do consider supporting us further by becoming a member – all proceeds go directly back into the organisation to help us sustain the good work we do! Contact us to join!

Up the Left Wing

UpTheLeftWingby Jay Baker

As AFC Unity approaches its third birthday – incredible, considering the achievements already – I can honestly say I’ve never seen such quality football going on throughout the club; football that reflects the ethos of the club itself with its spirit of collectivism and empowerment and positivity in the way it is played.

However, this ethos doesn’t mean the style of play is the easiest to grasp, as I’ve mentioned in this column before: it takes dedication and belief, as well as intelligence and a willingness to embrace and learn different football, for players to pick it up, so major credit to them. We want the first team to hold on, move on, and progress, and it’s required patience and passion to stick to principles especially at a time when so many injuries make your team even more vulnerable. But I’m so proud of the nexus of the team for doing this, to the point where I recently had to pause training right in the middle to tell the players I was witnessing the best football I’ve ever had the privilege of coaching. The key is to carry that over into games. The better the first team do, the bigger lift it brings the club and the more breathing space for the second team, the AFC Unity Jets.

AFC Unity Jets Head Coach Emily Salvin – herself a former first team player – has done a marvelous job of getting her team nominated for a league Respect award and giving players opportunities to shine, and develop, with a great deal of calm, composure, intelligence and understanding. She also this past week started playing football again after months of recovery from surgery after her injury last May! She’s been an inspiration to all: she never once quit, never once complained, and has become an excellent role model for absolutely everyone in the club.

Speaking of injuries, it seems like our first team injury crisis is finally coming to an end, which is great news for everybody. Not only is it good for players returning, but it’s also good for everyone else as this increases competition for spots in the squad on Sundays, and brings out the best in everyone. It makes players try harder, conduct themselves even better, and earn a place. Players know the playing style we’re trying to nurture and those that believe in that, themselves, each other, and the training, will succeed the most.

However, you can also always judge people on how they conduct themselves in positions of power – while we were dealt several blows with numerous injuries, so many non-injured players never took advantage of that, never took their position for granted, and conducted themselves so well even when they knew they were needed in the team since we were so thin on the ground. I will never forget that.

A bigger squad for the first team also helps out the AFC Unity Jets, which was set up to help develop and give more game time to players who hadn’t otherwise had the opportunities they deserved or needed in order to get better and better. This is because players can potentially be transferred from one team to the other and as is usually the case in football clubs, generally more players develop, advance, and progress from second teams into first teams, although in some cases first team players prefer time to hone their skills in the second team for a while, and AFC Unity is no different.

Some current AFC Unity Jets players played with the first team in the Second Division last season and either needed more game time to keep developing or couldn’t dedicate the commitment expected and it was almost always a mutual decision for them to become part of the AFC Unity Jets – several of these are fantastic players, but at this moment in time are better positioned in that team, as it works best for them as well as the club. But make no mistake, there are some absolute diamonds in there! So many newcomers have been brilliant too, even having started playing later than most, proving age is just a number!

Naturally, there will be – on albeit rare occasions in AFC Unity – players who are less than positive, and become disgruntled with selection systems and even express interest in our spirit of collectivism extending towards players themselves deciding on the selection process or the manager behind it. Of course, there are reasons this almost never happens in football; even the most fan-led community clubs still have coaches and managers assigned by the board to pick the teams because anything else tends to be an absolutely disastrous breeding ground for power plays, cliques and bullies that we go to great pains to nip in the bud. At Ajax Amsterdam, players had too much power in the team and were so jealous of Johan Cruyff that they forced him out. And my own experiences tell me that outside influence in player selection is catastrophic and corrupt; at Doncaster Rovers, we once had a chairman meddling in picking the team, and he went on to be prosecuted and imprisoned for his hidden agendas and skulduggery. But hey, it’s no coincidence that in football the players who lobby and always complain about the manager’s autonomous selection criteria are those not getting their own way (which is, ironically, actually an anti-democratic attitude in itself!) Hardly the spirit of collectivism.

I’m proud to get votes of confidence and have such good feedback from such good people right throughout the club and to see so many women enjoy their football – many for the first team in a long time, sometimes ever. The role of the manager, particularly at AFC Unity, is as a more objective voice off the pitch to focus on nurturing a collective spirit, and keeping individualistic player agendas away from decision-making, so that all those decisions are carried out in the best interests of the club as per the direction set by the directors and founders who put in so much time, effort and energy to keep this a successful, fast-expanding, award-winning organisation. I’ve always said, no one should have rights without responsibilities, and no one should have responsibilities without rights. The system we have gets results, with our social aims, for the greater good.

Those who support the good work we do can become members to help us do even more of it (and there are some great membership package announcements coming up soon too!) We are a non-profit organisation (which means all proceeds go back into the club) but also a registered company – rather than an unincorporated association like most grassroots clubs – so we are subject to all kinds of regulations and legal and financial scrutiny that means members and players have peace of mind with us. Too often we hear stories of women’s football funding being spent on the men’s team, sponsors’ money being pocketed by some coach, or committees fiddling with packets of cash. Coming from a community business background, those running AFC Unity have given a different, more professional perspective on running a football club, which I think has been key to making us so successful.

Beyond that, AFC Unity isn’t just an independent women’s football club with no connection to or reliance upon a men’s team, but actually driven by an entirely all-female Board of Directors, which is just fantastic. How many women’s teams have at the very top of their structures 100% women?

A lot of players in our league and others like it would do well to spend more time pointing the finger at the plethora of women’s teams either co-opted by a men’s club, or mostly run by men. Here at AFC Unity, we’re very different, and I’m proud to have been one of those pushing for this to be the case.

So, for a change, let’s hear it for the women: those playing, coaching, volunteering, or on the board. It’s very refreshing, and definitely inspiring.

Solidarity Off and On the Pitch: The AFC Unity ‘Injury Curse’

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Written by Jane Watkinson, Co-Founder and Co-Captain of AFC Unity

It’s become a long-running joke (not that funny, I know) that this is the season where the ‘injury curse’ hit our first team. It seems nearly every week we have suffered a new injury blow. Beth broke her collar bone, Rachel pulled her hamstring, Becky injured her thigh, Steph injured her knee, Lisa twisted her ankle. I myself have just been diagnosed with a chronic ruptured ACL knee ligament.

As a club, since the start we have been very keen to involve injured players in different ways whilst they’re recovering. When injured your instinct is to isolate yourself so you don’t have to see other people doing something you want to do so much but can’t – this is especially the case with long-term injuries. But it’s really important that when you’re injured you try and not do that, as being involved in a different way still means you are part of that collective spirit, you can still learn by listening and watching at training, you can still cheer your team mates on and help with positive encouragement and you still get to develop a bond with your team mates ready for when you return. Yes, it can be painful, but strength and character can develop through pain too.

Playing football is a big part of my identity now and when you get injured it’s difficult not to feel slightly lost. I am fortunate in that co-founding the club and in having the off-the-pitch role – Secretary and a Director – I do in the club I have no choice but to keep very much involved and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It was difficult at the start but the more I have embraced this it has helped me deal with and process the injury. Jay Baker, the Manager of the first team, has got me involved with helping out in a coaching capacity with the first team, whilst I still coach at the Solidarity Soccer sessions.

We have found this has happened with other injured players too. In the first season, Olivia Murray injured her ACL for the second time whilst playing for us in a friendly against Sheffield Wednesday Development after just coming back from ACL injury. Olivia became involved as a first team coach and as the Chair of AFC Unity’s Board of Directors being absolutely fundamental to the development and growth of the organisation. Olivia has spoken about how important this was for her getting through a very understandably difficult time.

The same goes for Emily Salvin who sustained serious knee damage in Sarah Richard’s testimonial match. Emily is now recovering from her recent surgery but during her time out has been the AFC Unity Jets head coach and has been absolutely fundamental to helping create a positive vibe and ensuring a well organised set-up. Emily has also spoken about how the experience has helped the injury recovery go faster with her able to focus her passion for football in a different way. I personally have been so impressed and inspired by how Emily has coped with and responded to the process.

We also have provided Ambassador roles for 11-a-side players via the Solidarity Soccer coaching that gives players an opportunity to get involved by passing on their experience and skills. For instance, Steph Sargent has provided invaluable goalkeeper coaching at Solidarity Soccer. Becky Rayner has run coaching exercises at Solidarity Soccer whilst recovering from injury also.

We have provided injured players opportunities to get involved in non-coaching roles too, such as Eliah Ward becoming our Community Outreach volunteer whilst recovering from back surgery, which included helping with the Football for Food campaign expansion and talking at Diversity Festival.

It’s really important that players who sustain injuries are kept involved if they are wanting to. Obviously some players deal with it differently and don’t want to be in a footballing environment whilst injured, but we make sure everyone knows there is something for them whilst injured.

Us injured players even talked about setting up a 5-a-side team it was getting that silly – there has sometimes been a bench of us at games and training but taking a positive from this that also has helped knowing that others are there to pick you up when you’re having a low day and that you can help provide support to your team mates who are also injured whilst cheering those on the pitch. Myself and goalkeeper Steph have had a “knee pact” where we keep each other in check and make sure we don’t do anything we shouldn’t be doing to harm recovery! That has helped me a lot and I am really thankful to Steph for that.

It has been a very difficult season for injuries – we have lost the best goalkeeper I have ever seen in women’s football, we’ve lost players that boss the spine of the pitch and it’s definitely made things a lot harder. I honestly have never known anything like this in terms of luck whilst playing football but these things happen.

Players are returning though as the season goes on and we are aware that there is a long-term plan for the club and also the club is a lot more than what happens on a Sunday. The spirit of Unity, solidarity and empowerment happens off and on the pitch and whether you are playing or injured.

Here’s to a healthier 2017!

Up the Left Wing

UpTheLeftWingby Jay Baker

I’m writing this at a time of New Year’s Resolutions and renewed energy and enthusiasm within AFC Unity as we go forward with our “women’s football revolution” – which is reflected by our commitment to the community as well as our Football Philosophy which, within that, has meant developing a style of play that is finally giving us a footballing identity and a sense of ourselves as a football club: the way we play, why we do it, and how we do it.

There’s nothing more rewarding for a coach or manager than to see these things starting to emerge, and to see these points starting to click on the training ground, where if you get into good habits there, they become good habits in matches, too.

Once we were hit by over half a dozen first team injuries at the start of the season – essentially dashing any hopes of finishing high in the Second Division – it would have been easy – in such a time of footballing “crisis” – to compromise this style of play to protect ourselves from heavier defeats, but to do that would have meant having to learn the playing style all over anyway after that challenging period was over, which would have presented its own problems too, of course: if you can commit yourself to a style of play when times are hard, conceding a few goals more in defeats that would have likely happened anyway, then you can play in that style like it’s second nature by the time the crisis is over, and really hit your stride, which is what I feel we’re about to do, even with (or thanks to) additions in the first team from the second team; additions that were somewhat inevitable but expedited given the gaps in the team due to injuries.

Obviously, the main talking point has been the creation of a second team this season and how that meant players were part of a smaller team. Naturally, that presented an immediate trial for us: previously unable to meet demand following only our second-ever season in football, we simply had to face the challenge of a first – and second – team of potentially slightly smaller numbers, and while although at one point we had about 21 registered players for the second team and 19 for the first, because turnout is smaller than with one team there is less competition for spots which can breed complacency, something we haven’t expected to be an issue in our positive environment, but is, to an extent, natural.

But it had to be done: while the first team are on the long hard road to footballing success in terms of their quality and increasing standards, the newly-formed AFC Unity Jets finally gave opportunities to players who hadn’t had much chance to get stuck in to 11-a-side action in a relaxed environment, and right away, right at the get-go, expressed excitement at this regardless of the turnout; a spirit so rare it won them a nomination for another Respect award. We’ll see if the demand we tried to meet sustains and remains evident, and assuming it is, we see the AFC Unity Jets as a key intermediate step for players to get 11-a-side games and, eventually, use the opportunity to grasp our style of play and formations which we want to be utilised at all levels, throughout the club, from beginner sessions and up through both teams.

Because we’re that rarity of being an independent women’s football club, many are used to women’s teams being an add-on to a men’s club and even used as a “cash cow” to open up access to funds that end up being spent on the men. But for us, the creation of the AFC Unity Jets was never about money. Our prices as a club are amongst the most competitive in the country, so often we break even, and as a non-profit organisation any proceeds we do make go right back into the club. In many cases, a second team can generate more money but also cost more money, so it makes little difference on finances. But because as a social enterprise it’s always about more than money, you have to consider the cost to resources and energies as well. Beyond financial rewards, return on investment means returns in terms of activity and contentment are really important, so it really matters that everyone involved – from players, to coaches, to co-founders – are getting a lot out of it. That’s our primary motivating factor.

So as with any expansion – including our Solidarity Soccer initiative – you have to avoid doing an infamous Starbucks error and see demand so chase it to the point of over-stretching yourself and risking “corporate cannibalization” – a business phenomenon where you offer so many options that each subtract from one another and put a drain on resources. You have to be careful to keep strong what you have and not dilute anything. Such dilution can come in the form of financial dilution, or the dilution of the activity so it risks going off-mission. With Solidarity Soccer, we’ve spotted the warning signs and made sure to emphasise quality over quantity, which might mean fewer sessions or a renewed dedication to an inclusive environment for beginners, where 11-a-side players instead heighten their role as ambassadors (some of the very best 11-a-side players came through our Solidarity Soccer initiative, so still love it!)

The Solidarity Soccer initiative, like the AFC Unity Jets, is also important because we want our football philosophy to become a trend not a fad, and ultimately the only way we can do that is by nurturing our own players from the ground up, which naturally will mean looking towards a junior set-up. Some grassroots coaches, like Martin Bidzinski, are trying to emphasise a different way of coaching football with players from an early age in this country, where instead of talking about “the second ball” all the time, we look at “the first ball,” and quality touches, and retention of possession. You have to set a foundational style of play for a team, or club, and then you can tinker with it or tweak it down the line, but first and foremost the fundamentals of it must be understood.

But ultimately, our own football philosophy, coaching approach, and playing style are all part of the same ethos as what we do away from the field, in the community: you’ll notice we use words like “collectivism,” “empowerment,” and “positivity” in any scenario, on or off the pitch. Despite our incredible retention rates, there have been one or two players who couldn’t understand our club, feeling like it just wasn’t for them, and saying things like, ‘the food bank stuff is nice, but I don’t buy into positivity,’ as though they’re separate things. They are one and the same! It’s all part of the same AFC Unity approach, and you can’t appreciate or embrace one and not the other. I never make a single coaching decision without asking myself, ‘Is this football a reflection of what we’re about as a club?’sheffield_womens_football_fairtrade

But in these post-Thatcherite neoliberal times of “Survival of the Fittest” (a principle far too many teams are based on), our ethos is sadly not for everyone. Other clubs and even governing bodies may be baffled by our approach where we run a tight ship and stamp out bullying behaviour or cliques – for so long a given in football – but we’ll keep doing it, because we have to be more than a welcome refuge for players that didn’t fit in elsewhere, but have to try and contribute to positive change in the sport itself. We’ve even been ridiculed by opposing teams for using fair trade footballs – which makes me assume they much prefer, say, a little child exploitation, sweatshop labour, or worker exploitation with their Sunday league football. How peculiar! These are, as John Lennon sang, strange days indeed.

Yes, Donald Trump is president-elect of the United States. Yes, Labour MPs are being assassinated on British streets by right-wing extremists. Yes, there’s a Brexit. Yes, it can seem like we live in cynical times. And yes, to use an example from AFC Unity, there are those who love seeing us lose, post jibes on social media, leave abusive comments below, and cheer on bigger, more established clubs that keep the order in place.

But some of the best people I’ve encountered have been through my very lucky position as AFC Unity’s manager and the majority of people – the really good, decent, positive people – are rooting for us. We really appreciate that. We know we’re doing something right. And we will keep going, with the spirit of positivity and integrity at the heart of every decision we make. It’s brought us this far, but it will take us even further, so we can do more good things both on and off the pitch. The year ahead may bring many changes and challenges, as always, but I have no doubt is going to continue to be absolutely amazing.