The international spread of a novel coronavirus resulted in the World Health Organisation declaring a global pandemic on 11 March 2020; the COVID-19 pandemic. Significant changes to the way we all live have followed, with football ceasing across the UK in March 2020. AFC Unity played our last game on the 8th of March – International Women’s Day – ending our season on a run of six league games undefeated and proud of our achievements.
During lockdown we remained a team, enjoying a virtual awards night, continuing our partnership with S2 Foodbank and taking part in Small Park Big Run. While physically distanced we are socially together.
Over the last few days and weeks, we have engaged players in discussions about what returning to football looks like for AFC Unity. There were understandably a range of thoughts and feelings, which reflects the different positions we all find ourselves in during this global pandemic. We heard concerns about returning to contact football and playing competitive league football. These included:
-the impact of the pandemic on personal health, including those with chronic conditions
-the impact on employment or income if players were required to self-isolate following contact while playing football
-increased risk to themselves or family members due to having contact with others who may unknowingly be infected with the virus
-the conflicting nature of having to wear a mask in a shop or being unable to be in close proximity to family, but playing football in contact with relative strangers
For these reasons AFC Unity will not currently be entering to play competitive football in league this year. As a club we are gutted, despite feeling this is the right thing to do. After all, we all love playing football. However, for us there is a bigger picture: a virus which has killed tens of thousands of people in the UK alone and the huge effects that it is having on the lives of us all in different ways. We will continue to play football, but this starts for us in a socially distanced way which can be inclusive of all who want to take part.
This will be my last Up the Left Wing column for the AFC Unity website, and I’ll come to the reasons why later on. But obviously this is, and has always been, an opinion piece (disclaimer at the bottom).
At our Awards Night on May 1st, I stressed the importance of keeping perspective on such occasions, because there are two ways of looking at “external validation” of your efforts:
Firstly, if you don’t win a major award, but believe in yourself as a player, then you’ll do just fine. Secondly, if you do win a major award, but don’t believe in yourself as a player, then you’ve still got a lot of work to do. Awards are nice, but they shouldn’t ever be the reason people do anything in life. They should do things because they believe in those things, not because of some kind of external validation. This pretty much sums up my entire approach to AFC Unity!
As we finished this past season on a six game unbeaten run in the league, the false importance of “external validation” will be applied to AFC Unity by critics. They’ll say that, since a global pandemic came along and authorities decided to expunge the results, wipe the statistics, and write off the season and all that went into it, then what we did supposedly didn’t matter. To rely on a website recording facts and stats ordained by some authority as valid is probably a good example of the absurdity of external validation in our culture. Our season happened. Our results were real. It doesn’t matter if an authority acts like they weren’t. And I’m very proud of what we achieved.
But it wasn’t some sort of lucky break.
People forget that back in our first season, 2014/15, we cobbled together a team of players and finished third, gaining promotion from Division Three into Division Two. The next season saw us celebrate a year-long unbeaten run at home, but these were tough times. Starting a football team without making clear what your aims are and without being bold about what your ethos is, inevitably means you attract players who just want to play football for your team in the same way they’d happily play football for any other team: they show up, get some game time, and go home, and as long as their own individual needs are met, they’re fine. That’s not why we set up AFC Unity – to be like any other team.
As I took on a little self-belief and moved from a mere “managerial” (yuck) role into that of a Head Coach, I was able to draw on my experiences as a community and youth worker and from social enterprises and emphasise the importance of doing things differently – adopting an approach that meant the individuals were valued for what they formed as a team; that individual traits can be harnessed into a creative, triangle-based system and a style of play that eschewed the traditional grassroots 4-4-2 and direct “long ball” approach. I wanted every single player on the pitch to play an equally important part in the passing-orientated football that reflected the collectivist ethos of the club itself – the goalkeeper as the first attacker, and the striker the first defender; everyone front to back absolutely valued. That didn’t sit well with traditional players who liked individualism; some had bullied teammates – even their own mates who’d complain to me in confidence – and I went to great pains to resist that culture of individuality and bullying, confronting it away from the football training but protecting the rest of the team as much as I could. Even I myself was essentially bullied, and even harassed and stalked, I started having panic attacks (and still do sometimes) and my health and working life were negatively impacted, but I decided to keep going.
And in fairness our ethos and commitment to developing safe spaces also attracted more players, and in our third season we tried to meet the demand by setting up a second team and entering them into the third division. After the bullies had finally left behind a void in the roster, the remaining first team players had a string of life changes and injuries that decimated the squad the club was supposed to be driven by and yet suddenly found itself trailing near the bottom of the second division, and I was forced to expedite call-ups from our already-struggling second team, which finished it off. What followed, in the fourth season, was a single amalgamation of players from the entire club into one team, which obviously took time to mesh.
And then by the fifth season we were really onto something – we had a team of players who all bought into what we were trying to do, were all focused on mastering a fairly sophisticated style of play and a system to fit it, and focused entirely on the process rather than the results, because they accepted that if you master the process, the results eventually simply take care of themselves. The easiest thing in the world is to play direct, rely on a few key players, and get wins – and I’ve seen so many teams do this, many of whom enjoyed immense success then collapsed shortly after. I used to tell my team, “we’re playing the long game, not the long ball game.” I began telling beginners and non-beginners alike at our Solidarity Soccer development programme, that Johan Cruyff always made the wonderful point that if you want to do track and field, it helps being strong and fast, if you want to play basketball it’ll help you if you’re tall, but with association football, you can be any size or shape: that’s why the most important, most crucial thing they learn is how to pass a ball with accuracy, at the right pace. That’s the most important thing. If you can’t do that, you can’t play beautiful football, as it should be played. Passing is the foundation that every other part of football is then built on.
And so in that fifth season we made history and retained every single player who was able to continue playing for us; nobody left to go to another team, even though our commitment to “process over results” left us at the bottom of the table, working away on our passing football. I’d tell the team that when one day we started getting those results, when the losses became draws and the draws became wins, we can then know in our hearts it wasn’t a win like any other, but a win through playing football the right way. There’s pride to be felt in that.
And in the sixth season, of course, we did it. We played – I truly believe – the best pure football in our division. And we went on a six game unbeaten run in that division. And we’d have done more. It took a global pandemic to stop it.
So no, it wasn’t some sort of lucky break; it was a painstaking building process to that point. My coaching may have developed tactically (I learned more and more every season, and became much better at reacting quickly with my decision-making during the game, in no small part because of Jenna Bacon running first aid, leaving me to just focus on the football), but I’ve never really changed my approach; it was always about the team, about what training needs to be done rather than showing off what I’d learnt or delivering speeches for the sake of it. There’s already too much “mansplaining” in football.
Rather than it being a lucky break, it’s about finally having players who bought into the approach, staying with the team when you’ve finished bottom of the league, solidifying that level of loyalty, and then playing the best football, and going on a six game unbeaten league run. And that’s not to say I wasn’t still sometimes struggling to get my approach across in a culture where matchdays feel like a war zone and I’m the odd one out in amongst the toxic masculinity. People accept what they think they deserve. You have to help them realise they deserve better, and should expect better (yes, even from me). Of course, criticism fades when you’re on a good run, and that’s not a coincidence, as many coaches at all levels will tell you. I knew, rationally, logically, I’d face defeats again, and rough streaks again, and once more I’d have to face the looming spectre of the traditional football culture narratives regarding shouting at players, and playing long balls, and the like. Yawn.
Like I said, it took a pandemic to stop us, but we know what we achieved. I’ll always have those memories, and proof that football can be done in a different way, and a better way, and still get results. A couple of weeks before the pandemic stopped the season, I’d been going to the gym, travelling on trains, trams, and buses, and shaking hands at community activities and, in fact, pretty much unwittingly doing everything to expose myself to a virus I hadn’t been taking into consideration, or taking anywhere near seriously enough. With symptoms, Jane and I went into isolation, as did other players, and then we became quite ill – the cramps I had left me in bed a few days, I’ve been unwell ever since, and Jane’s breathing became worse enough to warrant check-ups, tests, x-rays and CT scans, to the point where she couldn’t (and can’t) walk around the block without struggling to breathe properly (and now has an inhaler). We became the first team in our league, as far as I knew, to pull out of a game because of the pandemic and related health concerns. Then about a week later, after a bunch of games that needlessly took place, everyone followed suit “because t’government said.” Yes, that honest, kind, intelligent, responsible, caring, considerate, and competent government, eh? Which one is that, then?
As a club, we continued. We had our Awards Night, and there continued to be caring dialogue in our chat group, and wonderful examples of mutual aid, in addition to many players contributing their subs to Sheffield’s food bank network, since we weren’t training or playing. And for good reason. Without a vaccine at that time, the causes of infections and deaths were largely due to non-essential work and activities. And while figures from the past, from John Stuart Mill, to Benjamin Franklin, to John Maynard Keynes seemed convinced that by 2020 technology would have advanced to the point where we’re working, as humans, maybe two or three days a week each on crucial things only, capitalism has in reality created, by 2020, what anthropologist David Graeber calls “bull*** jobs” and then after a few months of infection and death rates dropping, in the absence of a vaccine our government wanted us to return to “business as usual” by bribing us with vouchers to keep the economy going that keeps the rich getting richer in the absence of a general strike. With its institutions and sponsorships, football is a part of that; they were happy to scrap last season, likely knowing full well they’d start another season in 2020/21 and offensively compare another “lockdown” to using nuclear weapons – quite the opposite, since everything going back to how it was in March is the true harm to millions of people; there’s a reason it got so bad by April.
For all its actual destruction, and the long-term effects on us we don’t even yet quite understand, this pandemic (the first of many, if we don’t change the way we do things), has shown a lot of good in people. With businesses putting people in harm’s way, there have been labour strikes. With people unable to sustain income, we’ve seen rent strikes. And the Black Lives Matter movement has been an inspiration. People have begun to reevaluate what matters in our society. What jobs must we be doing? What gives things value? What’s worth putting ourselves at risk for? And are we going to recognise every person’s varying vulnerabilities as humans?
It was this mentality that left me refusing to return to football during a pandemic. Our last season was scrubbed and cancelled because, for a brief moment back in March (though better late than never), we accepted that life is too valuable to risk for affiliated league football. To return to league football now, and recreate the circumstances that spread the disease so much in the first place, would be to accept that our last season was cancelled for no reason. To refrain from playing in March means to refrain from playing now. There is nothing stopping people from finding space in the park and kicking a ball about in a physically distanced manner, or full-on with people they share a home with. But to dive back into affiliated league football now – especially with the news of a vaccine bringing hope for the near future anyway – would be not only chaotic and stressful, but irresponsible, disjointed, and divisive. Unity is about “all for one, one for all.” This is why I will not return to coaching in these circumstances (even if I was able to somehow travel to trainings and games, home and away – perish the thought). Our behaviour patterns can avoid spreading infection and destroying lives on a larger scale.
This said, I do not subscribe to the negative narratives and name-calling of “Covidiots” (unless perhaps I’m talking about the people in positions of authority). When many of us are being told to go into workplaces and other unsafe environments, inevitably people will want their leisure time too, whether that be heading to the beach, or to the park…but again, it doesn’t have to be affiliated league football as part of the old system, the old way of doing things. My choice is to refrain from being a part of that personally, and it’s then for others in society to reconcile. Our collective memories recall the “lost season” and our six game unbeaten run in the league, and I want history to also show that I did not take part in a return to affiliated league football during a deadly pandemic.
I’ve enjoyed contributing to the Up the Left Wing column because as mentioned I’m uncomfortable giving speeches for the sake of it, or when people don’t want to hear them! This is an opportunity for people to know my views if they’re at all interested. As we’ve progressed with AFC Unity to the point where players have a say on how their money is spent and how the club is run, we’ve tried hard to put the team at the forefront of the club, and with that this column should be given to them. My views can be found away from AFC Unity, at my own website, where I’ll try and archive these column entries.
What AFC Unity does next is something I do not know at the time of writing, and therefore I don’t know what my future is in terms of my own involvement. I don’t know if the culture of football itself has been ready for something like what we’ve done, but I take great pride in our ethos and our football philosophy, and the way we’ve cared about and valued individuals, and developed safe spaces. And it’d be nice to see it continue, with patience, loyalty, togetherness, solidarity, and unity.
I want to thank everyone who has stuck with AFC Unity through the years, believes our collective way is the right way, and a special thanks to those who have contributed so much time and effort behind the scenes, and continue to do so to this day.
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
The National Education Union have outlined 5 Tests before a move to increase numbers of children allowed to return to schools can be considered safe enough to not compromise the safety of pupils, school staff and all their families.
These 5 Tests have been agreed across the NEU nationally. They have been supported the British Medical Association, Parentkind (the leading membership organisation for parent teacher associations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland), and by other Trade Unions representing members in schools including Unison, Unite and the GMB.
We recognise that schools have remained open, with very limited numbers of key workers’ children attending, and that teachers have been keeping the schools running – and providing work and support for children at home.
But the proposal to bring several year groups into school on the 1st of June, followed quickly by all other year groups in primary schools, should not be considered until the NEU’s 5 Tests are shown to be met by reliable evidence, peer-reviewed science and transparent decision-making.
AFC Unity stand in solidarity with the NEU Sheffield District Branch, all local Trade Union Branches supporting their position and with the NEU nationally. Young people are the future of this country and the importance of their safety cannot be taken lightly, neither can the health of people working in our schools up and down the country, the health of their families and of the families of pupils.
We call on Sheffield City Council to reconsider its position to not rule out the reopening of schools on 1 June with immediate effect and to engage fully with the Trade Union representatives of school staff to ensure that no school is reopened locally until the 5 Tests are met.
With the 2019/20 season not able to be completed because of COVID-19, we decided to have our end-of-season Awards Night on the 1st of May online instead. Whilst the results have officially been expunged, this season has been one that we all wanted to celebrate, reflect on and remember. Last June, we met as a team as part of pre-season and created a 2020 Vision as a catalyst for change throughout the football club so that better results can then harness better social impact in the community. Starting with our shock 0-1 win away to then-unbeaten division leaders Millmoor Juniors Reserves on the 8th of December, the team had an unbeaten league run of 6 games, up to and including the last game on the 8th of March, with the 2020 Vision starting to be realised.
Alongside the first team, volunteer first aider Jenna Bacon and several Solidarity Soccer participants attended the Awards Night that took place via Zoom. After introductions from all attending regarding their involvement with the club, Head Coach Jay Baker provided a reflection on the season and presented the first awards of the night: Red Star Awards.
Red Star Awards recognise first team players for different individual traits that they have brought to the team this season. This year, first team player No.11 Becky Gay also organised Attribute Awards as part of this, with the winners of the following attributes voted on by the team:
Hardest Trainer: No.1 Hannah Lamb and No.6 Sarah Peck
Smiliest/Happiest Player: No.2 Sarah Choonara
Twinkle Toes: No.3 Jane Watkinson
Bravest Player: No.29 Kristina Rankine
Leadership: No.37 Rachel Rodgers
Following this was the Solidarity Soccer award to recognise outstanding achievement by a regular Solidarity Soccer attendee, which this year was awarded to regular participant Kizzy Jaycock who has attended a total of 49 Solidarity Soccer sessions so far and is always looking to provide support to other attendees, helping create a safe and inclusive space. Kizzy has also supported the team at our 11-a-side games this season, which has been fantastic and much appreciated.
We then moved onto the ‘silly awards’ organised by No.41 Amy Brown and nominated by first team players, with the winners as follows:
Clumsiest Player: No.24 Jodie Spillings (for a second year running!)
Best miss…training and game: No.1 Hannah Lamb
Club Comedian: No.16 Lizzie Smith and No.41 Amy Brown
Wackiest goal celebration: Head Coach Jay Baker (if anyone has been at a game when we have scored, you will know why Jay won this…)
Cleanest Boots: No.27 Michelle Garrigan (justice after being robbed of the award last year!)
Following this was the presentation of the Ambassador Award by former first team player and also a regular Solidarity Soccer attendee/Ambassador, Corinne Heritage. The Ambassador Award is picked by Solidarity Soccer participants based on which Ambassador they would like to acknowledge in terms of the help and support they have given attendees of Solidarity Soccer. For the second year running Hannah Lamb was the winner of this award, with Hannah attending a total of 82 U-Mix Centre Solidarity Soccer sessions so far. Hannah is always one of the first to greet new attendees, runs the warm-up most weeks and makes sure that all attending understand the exercises taking place, with Hannah crucial to helping create the safe, supportive and inclusive space at Solidarity Soccer. Hannah is also leading on – with fellow first team player No.45 Katie Mishner – important changes to the Solidarity Soccer programme to ensure a safe, welcoming and inclusive space for women, trans and non-binary people. Hannah is now looking at becoming the Solidarity Soccer Secretary as a member of the Board.
We then moved onto the Integrity Award, which is for a first team player involved in the club, based on its vision, values, and mission, overtly standing up for and defending these, showing a dedication and commitment to setting an example to others – with the shortlist proposed by and voted on by the team, and with the award presented by first team player and Director No.8 Sophie Smith. There was a shortlist of four players proposed by members of the team, which included: No.1 Hannah Lamb; No.2 Sarah Choonara; No.5 Jaimee Reeve (last year’s Integrity Award winner!); and, No.27 Michelle Garrigan. For her ongoing commitment and passion for social justice, Sarah Choonara was the winner of this year’s Integrity Award with the players acknowledging Sarah’s leadership on the #UnityForAll campaign, representing the club at numerous events furthering social justice and how much support and resources she has provided her teammates – especially in terms of workers’ rights – which she continues to do during these difficult times. Sarah is now becoming a Director of the Board and will lead on everything to do with the AFC Unity Ultras.
After a break, Jay presented the Solidarity Award for outstanding achievements by any (usually non-playing) club personnel who have demonstrated dedication and a long-standing commitment to the club. This year’s winner is Jenna Bacon who has provided first aid for the club (and other teams several times when needed too!) over the last 3 years and will sadly be moving on when football resumes. Jenna has been invaluable for the players and also for Jay as a Head Coach, going above and beyond anything we could have ever expected with regular dialogue and support for injured players beyond game times. Jenna is irreplaceable and we are all so thankful for all she has done for the club.
We then moved onto the Collective Award which is selected primarily by Ultras (secondarily by other supporters) as being the fan favourite this season. This award was presented by Corinne Heritage, who has attended several games this season herself, and was awarded to No.3 Jane Watkinson. Jane has had a difficult previous 3 years with injuries, which included getting injured in this pre-season and not playing until December, but on returning Jane featured in all the remaining games of the season scoring 6 goals in 7 appearances and providing 2 assists.
Following this was the Breakout Award, picked by the Head Coach, for the player that responded to the coaching during the season and notably developed as a player technically, tactically, socially, psychologically and physically, on and off the pitch, in line with the club’s ethos. The winner of this award was No.17 Kirsten Vizor, with Jay explaining how Kirsten is a student of the game, always asking questions about the first team Training Guide, tactics and the club’s footballing philosophy, becoming absolutely crucial as our defensive central midfielder in the team’s formation, approach and style of play, and providing technical brilliance in terms of breaking up attacks and starting our own, alongside perfect passing.
Sophie Smith then presented the Unity Award, for the first team player voted on by their teammates on the night, confidentially chosen, in reference to ability, attendance, and attitude, and how they have represented the club and their team on and off the pitch. Winning her second award of the night was Kirsten Vizor, with the team overwhelmingly choosing Kirsten as their players’ player reflecting the crucial role Kirsten has in the team. Kirsten has appeared 16 times this season (in all but one game), scoring 1 goal, providing 2 assists and also being a regular captain providing invaluable support to her teammates. This is also the third year in a row where the Head Coach and players have agreed on recognising the achievements of a player. Kirsten is also now the Co-Secretary of the club as a member of the Board.
Finally, Head Coach Jay Baker presented the Hope Over Fear Award for best player of the season, for a first team player who has turned negatives into positives and adhered to, trusted in, and enacted the Head Coach’s vision, AFC Unity’s football philosophy, and acted as a role model, inspiration, and positive influence on the team as a whole. The winner of this award is No.5 Jaimee Reeve. This was Jaimee’s fourth season with the club, with Jaimee progressing from Unity’s former second team – the AFC Unity Jets – into the first team and becoming an essential player, being able to play as part of a back three and also as a wing-back. Jay spoke of Jaimee’s uncanny ability to always be in the right place at the right time, how her honesty in communication with Jay is crucial for him and the team, as shown by how Jaimee is a regular captain. Jay said that Jaimee has become a giant figure in AFC Unity, including being a Director for the last two years and recently becoming the Chair of the club. Jaimee appeared 14 times this season, providing 1 assist, and was always one of the first to lead on making sometimes difficult but important decisions where needed. Alongside all this, Jaimee has led on the Football for Food campaign creating a strong connection with the S2 Foodbank and taking donations from players at home games to the food bank on a regular basis.
We know that the future is very uncertain. Importantly though, we want to do as much as we can as a club to help people during these difficult times. As part of this, we are connecting with the Sheffield TUC CV19 Council of Action, who are an alliance of Sheffield trade unions, faith organisations and community groups, coordinating demands on government bodies and employers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes players taking part in related actions to further workers’ rights and raise awareness of the need for mass testing and protective equipment for all key workers alongside recording and distributing a video regarding these issues. With subs stopped for the time being, some players have decided to keep up their monthly standing orders to the club so this can then be donated to the Sheffield Foodbank Network alongside players organising food bank collections outside their homes to do what they can as part of #FootballForFood (read here for more on this). The team have also been supporting each other via mutual aid on our team Telegram chat, there are also plans for online training sessions of some kind (such as tactics focus) via Zoom to take place alongside plans for running online events/activities with Solidarity Soccer participants. We are also looking to support local businesses as a club where we can, including via obtaining custom-made awards for this year’s winners. We want to keep doing what we can as a club and we welcome any suggestions regarding this.
Thank you for reading this! From all at AFC Unity, we hope you are well and stay safe. In solidarity. #InUnity
Hello and welcome to our Football for Food update!
Food banks are facing huge challenges in light of COVID-19. The lack of delivery slots and the limit of items per shopper at big supermarkets makes it difficult for food banks to order items in bulk as they might usually do. The financial difficulty or uncertainty that many will now be facing will no doubt impact on donations of both food and money. Volunteer numbers are likely to drop due to the need for shielding, social isolation and social distancing.
Of course, at the moment, there is no traditional Football for Food donation at match days, but there are still ways that you can help.
Could you arrange a local collection on your street? To arrange a street collection, contact your neighbours and ask them to leave donations in a box outside of your property. Make sure you adhere to the current guidance on social distancing – you should keep a distance of 2 metres. Therefore, a box outside is a good way for no contact donations.
Could you ask your local shop to host a collection? They could have a box in place for donations and you can transport the items to the food bank.
If you arrange either of these and need support transporting food – get in touch and we will help if we can!
3. Donate food
You could donate to the food bank directly by following the link shared earlier and finding your local foodbank. You could donate in the baskets available at some supermarkets. You could keep donations to one side to be donated at a later date. You might like to have a look on social media sites for the food bank you will be donating to. Here you can often find a list of items which are needed.
4. Share this post
You may not be in a position to donate right now, but by sharing this post you could encourage others to if they are able.
In a week where even handshakes are being outlawed in some professional sports due to health regulations, AFC Unity and women’s football clubs up and down the country are rejoicing in a celebration of inclusivity as International Women’s Day makes its way to the forefront of contemporary society.
Sunday’s game against Thurcroft Miners Welfare is merely a contributing factor to a far larger collective process taking centre stage over the next couple of days and weeks. Preparations both on and off the pitch have been amplified tenfold with news that 17-year-old female referee Caitlin O’Grady will be officiating the game. She herself is a woman with lofty ambitions, stating her desire to one day referee in the Football League, and it seems only fitting that Unity should look to her for inspiration and visa versa.
The match itself is set to be tightly contested with Thurcroft sitting just four points behind Unity but with three games in hand. There is a case to say that Thurcroft could be lacking match fitness as a result, and with Unity having won 7-1 last weekend hope of another positive result will be firmly in the minds of everyone involved with the club. The same however could’ve been said of Unity a few weeks back, as they too suffered from numerous cancellations at the start of the year. But the resilience they’ve shown to turn their fortunes around recently suggests such issues don’t take as much prevalence as might be assumed.
Thurcroft’s results show them to be somewhat of a Jekyll and Hyde outfit, having comprehensively dispatched of Dronfield Town Development in December they were then given a taste of their own medicine when they welcomed Dronfield back to their place in January – said 8-1 loss was also the last game they played, due to poor weather conditions, and Thurcroft will be looking to get back to winning ways and close the gap on Unity heading into the business end of the season.
Injuries continue to pile up for Unity, but with a couple of players returning to the fold competition for places is certainly healthier than it has been in recent weeks.
The selected squad of 16 is as below:
1 Hannah LAMB 3 Jane WATKINSON 6 Sarah PECK 9 Claire WATKINSON 11 Becky GAY 14 Chloe BURDITT 15 Jodean WADSWORTH 16 Lizzie SMITH 17 Kirsten VIZOR 18 Ruth KENNEDY 22 Pippa JOSEPH 24 Jodie SPILLINGS 27 Michelle GARRIGAN 29 Kristina RANKINE 33 Lisa GRAY 37 Rachel RODGERS (captain)
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.