AFC Unity continued their magnificent recent resurgence with a hard-fought but richly deserved 1-0 victory over Dronfield Town Development.
In a game personified more so by the attacking intent of the biblical gusts of wind that swept in from every corner of the pitch, Unity struggled to get hold of the ball in wide areas and were often forced to turn the ball over in the middle of the park. Dronfield were initially buoyed by this state of play and utilised the weather conditions to exploit Unity’s high line. Rangy passes from deep held up in the wind, and with this Dronfield’s attackers could spin off the back of Unity’s defenders by curving their runs to get goal side.
Some superb recovery runs from Kristina Rankine and Jaimee Reeve ensured clear cut chances were kept at a premium, whilst Hannah Lamb was quick off her line to close the angle before distributing smartly to help in the transition.
Unity’s attacking impetus lay in the forward runs of Rebecca Gay and Ruth Kennedy. Coach Jay Baker had instructed them to push high and wide, and when found in possession the free-roaming Jane Watkinson was then able to drop into the half-spaces and pick up off the wing-backs. Watkinson offered the spark and incision that perfectly complemented Unity’s possession play and her link-up play with Jo Wadsworth helped the team hold possession in the attacking thirds. This was the reward for the risk that came with playing such a high defensive line against a team whose youthful energy made them an immediate threat on the break.
Half time came and went with little incident and frustrations were beginning to set in for Unity for whilst they had started opening up Dronfield’s defence more frequently they never truly made the goalkeeper work. Watkinson and Wadsworth were both guilty of spurning some inviting chances, but it seemed only a matter of time before one of them opened the scoring. The inevitable soon happened as Watkinson slalomed her way across the 18-yard box before slotting home to spark jubilant celebrations on the touchline.
It’s days like Sunday in the newly ordained wind tunnel that every member of the team’s dedication to ensuring hope prevails over fear really hits home. A fourth win on the bounce, and one that ensures Unity leapfrog Thurcroft Miners into eighth place.
It seems Sod’s law that every time I sit down in preparation of writing up my preview some almost mystical force of nature appears hell-bent on ensuring that the game in question is postponed and my grandiose descriptions are rendered null and void. Well, they say third time’s a charm, so here it is my preview of AFC Unity’s upcoming game with Dronfield Town Development.
Swirling winds, swirling debts and an apathetic contempt for division up and down the country have made for pretty grim viewing over the past week – football, however, remains the one constant chasm of optimism. Unity has worked tirelessly under testing conditions to prove the exception to the rule both in their capacity as a football club and a social enterprise. Their continued support for Sheffield’s campaign to stop and scrap Universal Credit has taken on added importance in light of reports that use of the controversial welfare scheme has increased by 4% in the North East since January – whilst their on-field preparations for the weekend’s game has failed to be disrupted by the relentless downpour of Storm Dennis.
This is not to say that Unity are a team without their issues. Injuries continue to pile up amidst a run of games that has seen players unable to build up match fitness due to the constant postponement of fixtures throughout the league.
In Dronfield, they also face a side well accustomed to causing Unity problems. The reverse fixture this season saw Jay Baker’s team concede an agonising late goal to hand Dronfield all three points, and as such the importance of maintaining concentration levels will surely have been reinforced.
Unity still retains their position as favourites, however, with Dronfield sitting one place and one point behind them in the league despite having played three more games. A defensively vulnerable outfit, only Dearne and District have conceded more than Dronfield’s 49 goals this season. A game that should by no means be taken lightly, but one that could potentially push Unity up the table and build up an encouraging run of form heading into an increasingly hectic run of fixtures.
It’s pleasing to look back on the last entry to this column and see that our aims and hopes for this season are being realised – after a challenging start, we’ve found our rhythm as a cohesive unit, despite a series of injuries hitting the squad, and we’re well on our way to realising our “2020 Vision” (and we came up with that last May, by the way, long before social media accounts started using the term this year for everything from political campaigns to marketing methods!)
Beyond the hopes expressed here last time, there have also been some pleasant realisations of events I was less certain of: opposing coaches, some from top teams, taking a loss to us and still crediting us for our advanced playing style and deserved victories. That’s been refreshing, and a long time coming.
But not all coaches are like that, of course. I’m sad to say that this league is rife with coaches and other figures from football clubs perpetuating ignorance and prejudice with a level of toxic masculinity that is bitterly disappointing. This is a women’s league, and yet the sexist views of some still continue – demonstrating the reinforcement of patriarchal perspectives that have long been trickling down from the very top of the Football Association, an organisation that – despite the years of scandalous statements and actions from high-ranking management from Glenn Hoddle to Mark Sampson and Phil Neville – now claim they “only do positive,” when my actual counter-cultural, genuinely positive approach at AFC Unity’s beginnings provoked numerous visits or complaints from local FA officials and members of the league committee at the time (and an intentionally stress-inducing nine-month long – ultimately futile – case against me) because I dared to call out racism and bullying and cliques back in the day – apparently, though perhaps unsurprisingly, a shock to the system for the footballing culture. It seems, even at this low level of grassroots football, I had to be challenged for daring to question the way things had always been.
So on reflection it should in fact be no surprise to me that I’ve seen ignorant views continue to be expressed by my peers. Likewise, it should be no surprise to them that I’ll be part of the challenge to it, as Head Coach here at AFC Unity.
In recent years we’ve been given numerous awards for our ethos and initiatives, from Football for Food to Solidarity Soccer, the latter of which demonstrates that there is a place, a safe space, for those let down, rejected, or failed by the traditional football system and its culture.
Some of the blame has to go back to the top: women’s football all too often emulates the toxic masculinity of more prominent men’s football on newscasts and sports channels and newspapers and social media everywhere. An inherently capitalist endeavour like the Premiership, for example, is a huge part of our culture. The ban on women’s soccer from football league grounds was only lifted five years before I was born – I was pulled from school by my mother at age 11 due to bullying, in part because my best friends were girls and I even preferred to play football with them, provoking a violent response from the boys in the playground. But even after the ban was lifted, and growing up in the hometown of the Doncaster Belles, there were stereotypes about women who played, whether they be “tomboys” or “butch,” and meanwhile Justin Fashanu, the first black footballer to warrant a £1,000,000 transfer fee, came out as gay and was driven to suicide by the victimisation against him as part of a culture that continues to this day, where openly gay men in football are few and far between.
While we can’t undo the damage of the past, we can learn from it and realise that outdated prejudice and stereotypes have to go. “Sex and race,” feminist activist Gloria Steinem once stated, “are easy and visible differences, (and so) have been the primary ways of organising human beings into superior and inferior groups and into the cheap labour on which this system still depends.” This is key: binary differences have been used and abused to categorise people and thus create hierarchical systems crucial to capitalism.
But Steinem’s own views have evolved, into the modern realisation that – as with the kids taught alongside me in my school years – gender is essentially a performance: the boys in my school were taught to play football, be aggressive, and pursue outdoor activities, for example, while the girls were taught to wear skirts, play with dolls, and learn to bake, and even one little kid like me challenging that was a shock to the system, to the point where the kids themselves actively reinforce those norms – “girls don’t play football,” they’d angrily shout, and “boys don’t play with dolls,” and so on.
“There’s a story,” said gender theorist Judith Butler, “that came out (a few) years ago, of a young man who lived in Maine, and he walked down the street of his small town where he had lived his entire life – and he walked with what we call a ‘swish,’ his hips moved back and forth in a ‘feminine’ way, and as he grew older that ‘swish’ became more pronounced and it was more dramatically ‘feminine,’ and he started to be harassed by the boys in the town, and soon, two or three boys stopped his walk and they fought with him, and they ended up throwing him over a bridge, and they killed him.” She continued: “So then we have to ask: Why would someone be killed for the way they walk? Why would that walk be so upsetting to those other boys that they would feel that they must negate this person, that they must expunge the trace of this person – that they must stop that walk no matter what; that they must eradicate the possibility of that person ever walking again?” It’s a deep panic or fear relating to gender norms, she explained – that people experiencing this will go so far as to require boys to be “masculine” or else possibly even be killed.
These are some of the reasons why, as many of our players will tell you, programmes such as Solidarity Soccer are important – it not only nurtures players in our positive playing style and more holistic approach, but it rejects toxic masculinity and those gender norms. It’s why the players are leading the way in ensuring that it becomes even more inclusive as part of our revolutionary 2020 Vision – a safe space for women, trans, and non-binary people. Cisgender men have had their time dominating football (and indeed still do), alongside pretty much everything else, so again it’s time to provide a counter to that culture, and at AFC Unity we plan on doing just that.
This year, as part of the 2020 Vision, we want to be more inclusive for the LGBT+ community, open up forums for feedback and input, and help create safe spaces and educational resources. Nobody’s perfect – I’m far from it – and we can all educate ourselves and learn more; Amnesty International is by no means a radical organisation and yet even they provide a decent starting point of education on this issue, which you can read here.
When I was a regular guest on BBC Radio Sheffield, as the Head Coach at AFC Unity I used to get asked the same questions over and over again about women’s football: about the supposed positives of professional football for women, its money-making developments and related raising profile (all of which I personally reject, as I’ve stated here before), and whether women will play against and alongside men. It’s an interesting prospect. With the ban now distant in our rear-view mirror, the cause of women’s football is of course a very important one. But if its feminism isn’t intersectional – if it doesn’t also stand up for trans and non-binary people as well, who have long been victimised – then it’s buying into the same harmful hierarchical attitudes that oppressed women in the first place.
The views expressed in “Up the Left Wing” are those of Jay Baker and do not necessarily reflect those of AFC Unity or any of its personnel or players
Sunday’s game presents a tale of two cities, the revolutionary inner-city dwellings of Paris have been replaced by the equally avant-garde quarters of Sheffield as AFC Unity play host to a delectably Dickensian spectacle of football and rebellion. Their opponents Worsbrough Bridge Atheltic are the high flying antithesis pushing to disrupt Unity’s recent run of form.
The possibility of resurrection and transformation both on a personal and societal level form the base from which Dickens and – pretentions aside – Unity draw inspiration from. It, therefore, seems a no better time to draw such similarities than the week in which Unity push forward with fundraising for Sheffield’s Campaign to Stop & Scrap Universal Credit.
Truly a club enveloped in revolution both on and off the pitch, Unity’s surge up the table will be met with stern opposition from Worsbrough, a team themselves reaping the rewards of a progressive possession-based ideology familiar to football purists across the league.
Away from my own premonitions of literary grandeur, we return to the football. Unity are currently riding an unprecedented wave of optimism having resoundingly dispatched of Hemsworth Town Reserves last weekend. Coupled with the return of Jo Wadsworth, who scored twice against Hemsworth, Unity are in a buoyant mood ahead of their game against Worsbrough, despite the two clubs contrasting league positions – whilst Unity sit 9th in the table Worsbrough are currently third with three games in hand over league leaders Sheffield Wednesday Development.
Stacey Leigh has joined a growing injury list and at time of writing Katie Mishner is also in doubt, whilst Lisa Gray is in line to make her 50th appearance for Unity, as Jay Baker contends with tempering expectations ahead of what will almost certainly prove to be one of Unity’s toughest assignments this season.