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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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.

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

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.

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.

Up the Left Wing

by Jay Baker

UpTheLeftWingWe’ve always emphasised that AFC Unity measure results differently – that, as a registered social enterprise, we have different targets to meet, different aims to reach for, and different outputs and outcomes than other sports clubs that may be unincorporated associations and just about results on the field.

Having said that, I’ve also fought for the cause on the pitch too, because if an indie women’s football club like ours – against insurmountable odds – can somehow still do well in competitive matches over the years (which we have), then this allows us to raise our profile and do greater good in the community as well. It’s difficult to have one without the other.

It also sends a message that despite not being an add-on to a men’s team, despite being alternative, despite being so positive, and despite being a Respect Award-winning club focused on fair play, you can still find success.

It’s the longest, hardest road to take – we don’t accept abusive behaviour, we don’t put pressure on referees, we don’t cheat or play “ringers” – and there are times it all really tests your mettle when so many others are doing all that, but the satisfaction that comes with the knowledge we’re a club that always tries to do the right thing, and stand up for what’s right (the clue is on our badge’s scroll), is so much greater. That’s why we reject “winning at all costs.” Tainted victories are not satisfying to us; we will hold out until we win the right way.

But, with all that said, how do you win “the right way”?

The late great American college basketball coach Don Meyer absolutely nailed it with his “four keys to winning.” He claimed that, once your team fully grasped these keys, the route to victory would be unlocked. And I totally agree with him.

4keysmemeBut what does this mean in practice for players?

Believing in the system, he said, meant player commitment to the style of play, or philosophy, recommending that players ‘be a sponge and soak up concepts of how the team plays.’ He suggested that players accept and learn a specific role within that framework, to understand how it’s important to the system, and then do it the best that they can.

Believing in yourself meant playing with confidence, thinking positive, with teammates realising they’re a great player in a great programme. He added that players shouldn’t get down when they play poorly, and accept they were chosen to be part of the team, so should lead by example.

Believing in your teammates meant communicating with each other and helping each other. ‘Remember,’ he said, ‘that the strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack.’ He urged players to be friends and ‘understand that we’re all different,’ so should be tolerant, encourage and support each other, and never forget the importance of ‘the shell around the team.’

Finally, believing in your coaches because, he said, ‘they’re trying to make you better players as well as better people’ (yes, better people too). ‘Ask questions,’ he said, ‘but don’t whine and complain.’ Players, he added, must believe that their coach is doing what they think is right for the team in the long run.

Many people had many views of Don Meyer, and not everyone agreed with him (his other requirements were players taking notes, being polite, and picking up trash!), but his success spoke for itself, being the all-time leader in college basketball coaching for games won. So it’s definitely worth taking something from him.

Last week, with an injury-hit first team squad including the regular goalkeeper, a threadbare team and in a rough environment – when so many had written us off and so few gave us a chance – we won. We won 7-3. Because ability is great, but these four keys unlocked the win for us. The players played with heart, with passion, with guts and integrity…and believed in the style of play, themselves, each other, and me. We were all rewarded.

The rest of the season will continue to be tough – two really hard cup games approach – and we still have several injuries and the spectre of the start of the season still right behind us, but we know we’re getting better, and we know we can climb the mountain. Even if we took the hardest path to get there.

Up the Left Wing

UpTheLeftWingby Jay Baker

I only ask this of you. I won’t tell you off if you misplace a pass, or miss a header that costs us a goal, as long as I know you are giving 100%. I could forgive you any mistake, but I won’t forgive you if you don’t give your heart and soul to Barcelona. The style comes dictated by the history of this club and we will be faithful to it. When we have the ball, we can’t lose it. When that happens, run and get it back. That is it, basically.

– Pep Guardiola, in his first speech as Barcelona manager.

Many people fear, and therefore resist, change.

Football is changing. Some players don’t like it. Many fans don’t like it. The English press certainly don’t like it – partially fueled by xenophobia of “foreign” managers coming into English leagues and introducing different styles; different philosophies.

We have former footballers of questionable ethics complaining that players have to endure the same coaching programmes as managers, as though they have an understanding, or a head start, that managers don’t. In fact, many of the best managers are those who played very little football, especially at a top level (just look at Arsene Wenger).

I’ll go one step further: the tutor who got me my first coaching badge told me that all the experience and even badges in the world don’t matter if you don’t have heart, passion, or leadership qualities as a person. Not, in fact, English himself, he also acknowledged a deep-rooted problem within the English game and its resistance to evolving from its own traditional ways (not least the army camp culture of an otherwise-clueless Level 2 coach abusing their power to scream and shout at players, free from proper regulation). This is what’s held back English football, but few admit it.

Hence, the English press complain when a “foreigner” like Pep Guardiola comes in and influences an adjustment in the way football is played in England, too. Many managers bring in players from overseas to play this way, admittedly building a glass ceiling for English talent and limiting the potential of the English national men’s team. It’ll happen with the women’s game as well, as money begins to carry it away from its grassroots spirit and into corporate boardrooms.

But change, good or bad, is inevitable. And the way football is played is changing – which is a good thing.

In an 1872 international men’s game, Scotland surprisingly contained England because they chose to pass the ball around – play possession, unheard of at the time – rather than simply run on goal. While much junior football hasn’t changed, senior football has: formations developed throughout the 20th century, increasingly defensive, as 3-2-2-3 “WM” turned into 4-2-4, which in turn gave way to the 4-4-2. While the Italians were defending and playing keep-ball before hoping for a lucky break, at Barcelona rebel Johan Cruyff was revolutionising football with positive 3-4-3 tiki-taka, encouraging all players to think defensively when not in possession of the ball, but also be attacking-minded when their team does have the ball.

Since then, football has changed direction again: Cruyff’s understudy Pep Guardiola has implemented his own philosophy right through the Manchester City franchise, to Melbourne City and New York City FC, where – guess what? – Patrick Vieira is utilising his own twist on the 3-4-3 with that “WM” formation everyone thought had died in the 1920s.

Now such innovators have influenced the sport so much that collective pro-active zonal marking is becoming increasingly favoured over individualistic re-active man-marking, and fearless, high-risk, attacking play with lots of pressure far more premiershipcommonplace. As I write, the current English Premiership is dominated by teams who either were influenced by tiki-taka, utilise a 3-4-3, adopt zonal marking even on set-pieces, or focus on pressing – or a mixture of all these. That demonstrates how the upper echelons of football have evolved at the forefront of football innovation. Much like Scandinavian social democracy, when something works, why do we still reject it? Because we’re English?! Foolish, more like.

Grassroots football is always a good ten years behind, but here these themes will be adopted, too, because otherwise players progress, only to have to essentially re-learn the principles of football.

Yes, it’s easier for grassroots coaches to put less preparation time in and just tell everyone to adopt the same old vanilla formation, mark individual players, and hoof it up the pitch. Yes, it’s tough to teach and influence players away from tradition; it’s daunting for them too because again, people fear change.

But when change is embraced – when players are passionate, and keen to learn, and want to challenge themselves and take their game to a whole other level – success follows, both individually and collectively.

But this requires patience, something us Westerners don’t exactly have a lot of. Martial arts in its Far East origins usually saw students spend years at white belt before finally earning a black belt – when the West imported these fighting arts, people were far too impatient, so more colours were introduced as progression points; students were dropping out because they weren’t witnessing more “quick-fix” results.

My heart is with grassroots football; with women’s football. I have no ambitions for myself to go onwards and upwards in any way other than with AFC Unity; without AFC Unity, I wouldn’t be doing this. But there is no reason grassroots football should not be proud, evolve, and be ambitious for itself to improve the quality of football delivery at every level, so that players have different expectations of how much they can learn when they get involved. This is why grassroots football has to be professionalised – not for its players, but in the way it’s delivered, and regulated, rather than letting volunteers run amok venting their weekday frustrations by conducting their training sessions like an army camp, “drills” and all.

It’s why our Solidarity Soccer initiative wins awards; its retention rates are high because the ethos of AFC Unity isn’t just about working together, or skill-sharing, but also about learning without fear – and playing without fear.

AFC Unity is developing its own football philosophy, one that reflects its ethos – it’s fast becoming a part of our identity because the way you play soccer should reflect the way you are, and terms like “positivity” and “collectivism” don’t really fit with the old ways of football; they apply to the ways we’re trying to nurture.

It won’t be easy – we’ve just thinned out all our pre-existing personnel into two teams before being struck with an injury crisis – but that set-up in the longer term will provide the perfect base for women to progress from Solidarity Soccer, to AFC Unity Jets, to finally representing AFC Unity in its first team, with the football philosophy and style of play running through all of them, so players truly feel the difference playing for us, with what we do on as well as off the pitch, and understand what it means to be a Unity player.

Hope Over Fear.