by Jay Baker
Welcome to the first entry into my manager’s column, entitled Up the Left Wing, which is an interesting title for someone who, if anything, might have been fortunate to carve out a footballing career as a slow, plodding, tough-tackling centre-half, if I was lucky. What’s that old saying? ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.’ And my managerial techniques are more likely to be found from my community work than a football course!
I first want to say how very proud I am of our humble alternative football club from modest beginnings little over 18 months ago, running a training session with about five attendees, to now becoming a frighteningly fast-growing organisation – an FA Charter Standard Club, an incorporated non-profit company limited by guarantee, with a Development programme, a fast-learning five-a-side team known as the 5 Stars, and the eleven-a-side first team gaining promotion in its first-ever season, from Division 3 to Division 2 of the Sheffield & Hallamshire Women’s County Football League, having involved nearly a hundred women ever since.
In that short space of time, we’ve learnt so much, from being a club seen as somewhere to take waifs and strays – and the teething troubles that go with that – to finally ensuring our integrity and inclusion is expected of our players, as well, to ensure a positive environment of collectivism over individualism.
We’ve also gained a sponsor, Nourish, which is another dream collaboration, and have connected with the Sheffield Food Collective to tackle food poverty in our city, because our spirit of camaraderie extends beyond the field, using football as a force for positive change, and bringing out the best in people; seeing the best in people.
With all this said, I’m very excited to oversee much of this with my co-founder Jane Watkinson and the Board of Directors, and have implemented a five-year Business & Development Plan that will see AFC Unity continue to expand while adhering to its founding principles. Without the subsidisation of a men’s club, we have still identified ways of building stronger foundations to continue to engage and empower women in football as part of their community, and some of our plans are very exciting!
Our Development programme overseen by Olivia Murray and delivered by Jonny Hodgson is a crucial entry point for women young or old who are returning to the game, recovering from injury, or kicking a ball for the very first time, and the exit strategies for them – into our five-a-side team, or eleven-a-side team – are also broadening in the near future. We see our approach in delivery and promotion of grassroots women’s football being emulated across our local area, and this makes us very proud, because more and more people are realising this is something to shout about, and just as valuable – if not more valuable – than multi-millionaire men running around on television, taking far more than they give back to working class communities.
Our passion for positivity is what drives each and every decision in the club, off and on the pitch – where positive, pro-active, pressing, passing football is key, and where we try to be bold and brave, rather than cynical or overly defensive – my preference for winning 6-5 rather than 1-0 means that, despite testing the patience of my defenders, people will see some fantastic games! And wearing my hat as first team manager for a moment, I’m overjoyed with the ‘dream team’ I’ve assembled already, and the pre-season preparations – where we lost only one game, winning two, and drawing one, against a First Division side, no less – were very impressive, despite the injuries we sustained, which are only sent to test our quality and depth in a 2015/16 squad comprised of genuinely lovely people, all so very different and unique as individuals, but who come together and play as a team.
With how fast everything’s moved, my pre-season plan was to consolidate this season, in the Second Division, and carefully place the building blocks to achieving our lofty long-term goals, but anything is possible. AFC Unity is in for the long haul, and I hope more and more players – and people in general who want to support women’s football – will continue to be attracted to its positive ethos and connection to the community. I’m sure it will continue to be one heck of a journey.