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.

Up the Left Wing

by Jay Baker

UpTheLeftWingThe season is well and truly upon us with the incredibly audacious creation of a second team, the AFC Unity Jets, who I had the pleasure of watching in the cup today.

Such an advancement and expansion for an independent women’s football club like ours was always going to be a challenge, one that’s meant not just a building process for one team, but for another, a rebuilding process.

While AFC Unity Jets Head Coach Emily Salvin has brilliantly dealt with the task of including players in the valuable developmental experience of those competitive matches, in turn I have had to approach my own team with an emphasis on “quality not quantity” which has required patience and a slow progress on registering players while at the same time dealing with several unfortunate injuries.

But it is with this context that I look at the club as a whole and feel nothing but positivity for the future – a second team with a youthful, dynamic female in charge and an infectious spirit about it, learning and getting better all the time – both individually and collectively – and then, a first team designed to dig its heels in and lead the club to success on the pitch, which in turn enables us to achieve more off the pitch as well.

Ultimately, though, even I sometimes get caught up in the competition of the established pyramid – the divisions mixed up as they are with such a wide range of standards resulting in disparate scorelines up and down the league – and it’s important that none of us, myself included, forget the AFC Unity ethos of “100% positivity” and first and foremost make sure players enjoy their football and embrace our ethos in order to do so. After all, results are fleeting. And as we always say, when you become just about winning, when you lose you find you have nothing else left. Our goal is the greater good: developing not just good players but good people; and doing social good in the local community with things like the Football for Food campaign. Even our style of play is an important part of our identity and ethos – brave, bold, and attacking as it is.

The award-winning Solidarity Soccer initiative gained more recognition this past week at the Sport England awards in Westminster, giving us faith that, while longtime players rediscover their love for the sport, this innovative approach is why newer players pick up our ethos before going into the AFC Unity Jets, as evidenced by their recent nomination for a Respect award, as well.

Expanding in the way we have has presented us with another great challenge, and challenges are healthy; they’re character-building. And though it’s easy to get caught up with the modern football culture of quick-fix solutions and knee-jerk reactions, we continue to think long-term. We chose not to rest on our laurels and instead take things to the next level, as tough as it might be, for long-term sustainability.

Good things come to those who wait.

Up the Left Wing

UpTheLeftWingby Jay Baker

I’m sometimes in awe of how AFC Unity as an organisation – with help from everyone from the Board of Directors to volunteers – has hit pretty much every target set for itself when it was founded in 2014, despite being a progressive, independent women’s football club with a completely different approach.

In fact, we’ve exceeded expectations.

We became a Charter Standard Club. We got promoted in our first season. In our second season, we extended an unbeaten home record in the league to a year. We more than held our own in the Second Division and took top teams to the limit. We created an innovative Solidarity Soccer initiative unlike anything any other clubs provide. We formed a second team for more options for women wanting to play in league football. We spearheaded a “100% positivity” approach at the forefront of modern sports psychology and coaching methods. We gathered and donated 771kg of food to local food banks, extending that positivity and ensuring it runs through all we do, on and off the pitch. And now we’ve been given official recognition – not by our league but by the national governing body itself, the FA, winning the national Respect Award for our entire approach just mentioned. I had the privilege of accepting the award on behalf of AFC Unity from David Gill at Wembley Stadium for the Community Shield. It’s pretty funny as that fat kid from Donny taking a leak next to Sir Bobby Charlton in the gents.

during The FA Community Shield match between Leicester City and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on August 7, 2016 in London, England.

But it’s easy to forget the achievements, and fail to realise just how far we’ve come.

When we started up, we were ridiculed for valuing women’s grassroots football by having match reports by volunteers; since then, others have followed suit and it’s suddenly accepted. We put videos online. We had players’ names on the backs of their shirts. We developed a strong brand. All things scoffed at when we started but now, again, being done by other clubs more and more because we came along with our own unique vision of valuing and empowering women.

Men’s clubs will from time to time give women options with the greater resources of their men’s teams – but we only focused on women’s football from day one. It’s so sad how women’s teams you’d have put money on suddenly collapse and fold. We are determined to keep going, and keep growing, bit by bit, despite the challenges of independence and integrity that comes from our passion for positive social change. Seen as “radicals,” there are those with prejudices who hate us. They love the idea of beating down a progressive football club that does things like tackle food poverty. Teams love beating us. Many watch our every move. But it’s flattering, and we’re still busy keeping grounded and helping people, year after year, whether we lose a match or not. We don’t stop. We feel like we win all the time because we’re about much more than just football. Losing a match isn’t as big a deal for us because of that. I really feel for clubs that are just about football; just about beating someone else, and that’s it. It’s so sad. Because, again, when they lose, they come off the pitch and have nothing else left.

There’s the argument that we’re a big strong club. Here’s a reality check: we constantly battle against an old guard resisting the principles of Respect and Fair Play and the social good we do through football. With all of this, and with no attachment to a men’s club, we are, by definition, underdogs. We are not a big strong club. No, we are the smallest of them all.

For goodness sake, we are in the lowest levels of women’s football in this country, albeit in the birthplace of the sport itself. Players pay to play, and to contribute to an incorporated not-for-profit company and be part of a grassroots football club actually linked into the community. Regardless of the awards we give out at the end of our season, every single player that doesn’t appreciate our vision and values, only cares about football results, doesn’t like our Football Philosophy, and clearly missed a memo about all of these things, will not enjoy it at AFC Unity, should not join AFC Unity, will not last at AFC Unity, and will not be appreciated by the collective unity of AFC Unity.

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Let’s face it: clubs that are just about winning football matches are ten a penny; they’re not hard to find – they’re usually located above us in the league! We chose this hardest path but it’s the right path. I’m lucky I’ve got broad shoulders and thick skin: I’ve been abused, harassed, and received so many negative comments and so much hate mail you wouldn’t believe, incredibly, for my belief in nurturing not just good players but good people and simply because I protect and stand by the principles of our Football Philosophy – but for every negative individual there are dozens and dozens of women who have told me they wouldn’t even be playing football without this environment. I do it for them. We have an incredibly high retention rate of women who enjoy positivity, and want more positivity in their lives. After all, if you wanted to be in an organisation where you give them money for them to tell you that you’re worthless, you’d become a Labour Party member!

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For every bit of malicious abuse, I also see women being a part of AFC Unity to this day because of our Football Philosophy. Because women are not stupid, and don’t need a man telling them that they are. They know when they’ve made a mistake, they know when they haven’t been good enough, and sometimes opponents are simply going to beat you by their merits, by cheating, or by luck, and those are uncontrollable factors no amount of criticism from me would change. My work is on the training ground; to work on and improve things.

But ultimately it’s about keeping a positive environment for the many. I’m so saddened by women who don’t think they’re worthy of such positivity; that only negativity can make them the best. Because that’s the culture women are faced with every day: through media and advertising, told constantly that they’re not good enough, and not good enough for men – whatever the heck that means. As a feminist, I reject that and I can sleep at night knowing I adhere to the ethos of AFC Unity, and no individuals who thrive on negative energy will ever change that. Even if it means more hate mail. Some things are simply not for compromise because they’re the right things, and if we’re such a challenge to the status quo, if we shake things up so much – if we call out negativity and abuse – then keep that hate mail coming in, because we’re clearly doing something right. Doing what’s right is the most important thing you can do. It means you’ve succeeded. And I never read negative things anyway, or anything from outside of AFC Unity. I like to focus on what we’re doing. Even in matches, I don’t like adapting for other teams. You have to stick to your principles.

This season is going to be a great challenge in taking us to the next level, with our new home ground in a community with a clear identity and a food bank just around the corner! We’ve also created a second team, the AFC Unity Jets, offering more options for the women who come into the club and with a spirit that’s utterly inspirational, and contagious.

But again, let’s have a reality check: because the way we do things make us underdogs, we are playing the long game here. Of course we want to do well and grow and go up the leagues and raise our profile and do greater good in the community. But as underdogs without a famous badge or a longer history or a men’s club dragging us along, we have to be patient and we have to find different ways of recruiting and creating our own players. That may mean a junior team, our own mini league, or a wider network of progressive clubs.

In the meantime, we will lose games, and keep going; we will draw games, and keep smiling; we will win games, and impress you. We’re still Unity when we leave the pitch. So come and support these women. They are the ones who represent the club on the pitch, who play for our badge, who play for our ethos, who play for our way of doing things. It’s a way I’m very proud of.

I hope you will be too.