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
AFC Unity has a habit of attracting players who have really good jobs. And by “really good jobs,” I do not mean high salaries and superb perks that enable them to live flashy lifestyles; I mean they generally do really genuinely good work for a living. Teachers, doctors, nurses; these are women who work in public services, do important jobs. I think there’s some link between our culture of collectivism and our players who genuinely see life in general as being about more than just what they can get out of it, but what they can also contribute to the world around them. Interestingly, the rewards for our society as a whole are reflected by the work these women often do. For example, each £1 to a trash collector creates an equivalent of £12 in terms of health and sustainability. For every £1 a hospital cleaner is paid, over £10 in social value is generated. And for every dollar a researcher earns, a value of at least $5 is pumped back into the economy. In contrast to these examples, for every pound earned by advertising executives, for instance, they destroy an equivalent of £7 in the form of stress, overconsumption, pollution, and debt. So let’s talk about professional football players…
In my last entry to this column, I concluded that elite professional players of our fine sport understandably have a mentality of “win at all costs.” Indeed, everyone at the top of the game are trying their best to financially succeed: the players, the managers, the board of directors, the investors – sporting success and financial success are totally intertwined in the professional game; they’re one and the same. If you win a tournament, you reap financial awards. Conversely, if you lose money, you’ll have fewer resources at your disposal in order to do better on the field. It’s a fine balancing act, where the budget and the results must be matched carefully – football clubs raise finance in order to provide a catalyst for footballing success, careful not to “overspend.” If what the board consider to be a generous budget is provided for the management, the pressure is then on the manager to make decisions that reflect wise spending, in order to provide success on the field. As a result, the managers convey that pressure on to their players, as evidenced by Brian Clough telling his team on a particularly good day, “Now that’s what I’m paying you for!”
I met Brian Clough as a child when I was with my dad paying one of our many visits to various football stadiums. My dad encouraged me to ask for his autograph, which I did, to which the notorious and rather intimidating Clough – still getting his gear out of his car – replied, “You certainly can, my beauty,” before signing in my autograph book, with a personal message that included the all-important reminder: “Be good!”
On Monday, November 15th, 1976, I was born in Doncaster Royal Infirmary, like any football fanatic, kicking and screaming at 3pm – traditionally kick-off time. My dad supported Doncaster Rovers, and began taking me to games with him when I was aged 9. He played football since a young age, a small but speedy and skillful winger in local factory teams featuring former professional footballers, before turning to refereeing, instilling a sense of footballing fairness in me from the very start.
When my father first started attending football matches in the latter part of the 1940s, aggregate league attendances were over 41 million. By the time I began going, in 1986, they were around only 16 million, ironically damaged by several years of increasing wages for workers and the corresponding diversity of leisure activities that this made available to them – not to mention hooliganism putting people off and being used as state rationale for related crowd controls. Yes, I was watching a very different version of football to the one my dad had.
In my father’s day, the players retired from the game and joined the factories blokes like him worked, still playing football for fun, because they never earned much from the sport. But after that, they very understandably got together and complained that, despite being entertainers, many of the fans coming to watch the games in their droves were earning more money than the players they’d come to see! Tickets were selling in their thousands, and chairmen were making a fortune, as football clubs became seen as investment opportunities. No surprise, then, that players wanted their fair share. The Professional Footballers’ Association, led by Jimmy Hill, fought to have the maximum wage scrapped, and eventually, as we know, player salaries skyrocketed to astronomical proportions. Interestingly, the businessmen owning the clubs remained rich, and this continuation was only made possible by rising ticket prices and deregulated television rights deals. Top teams make sure they get more of the TV revenue than smaller clubs, in order to help sustain their bloated multi-million pound superstar wage bills. This is very different to American football, where television revenues are distributed evenly amongst all the teams, while the top teams get to the back of the line when getting picks on the up-and-coming college players ready to be drafted up to the NFL.
Televised soccer has meant revenues generated for the teams that play games the general public want to watch. Naturally, this means that the sport becomes top-heavy, because the larger teams attract fairweather fans who will follow clubs simply for their success and likelihood to win games – thus the larger clubs sustain significant income generation; smaller clubs will rarely get a decent opportunity since fewer members of the national audience care to watch them.
In 2012, the average Premiership club spent a shocking 70% of its turnover on player salaries – incredibly, Manchester City were spending more than 100%! No wonder they brought in Pep Guardiola to develop a football philosophy and subsequent brand, built up around the world – with New York City FC in the States, Melbourne City in Australia, and – back home – Manchester City Women: they required different revenue streams to try and plug the hole. And revenue streams are what women’s teams are becoming for many large football clubs, make no mistake about it.
Since I was a kid, I’ve witnessed what to my dad was an unknown phenomena of numerous clubs entering financial jeopardy and even administration. Even our very own Doncaster Rovers was taken over by a corrupt businessman, Ken Richardson, who ran it into the ground before being convicted as many fans got together to form the Viking Supporters Cooperative (VSC). These kinds of trusts are nothing new, and often a threat to powerful vested interests – shortly after it was founded in 2008, Liverpool FC bigwigs referred to the newly-formed Spirit of Shankly (SOS) group as “a very small, yet highly-motivated group of agitators” and yet a few years later it was named Cooperative of the Year at the Social Enterprise North West Awards.
The democratically-elected directors of the not-for-profit VSC helped support Doncaster Rovers and steer them from dangerous waters into calmer seas, where it was taken over by businessman John Ryan, who had a passion for Donny as big as his ego, and despite rescuing the club financially, eventually butted heads with the VSC itself when it started asking questions about shadowy consortia he was interested in selling significant control of the club over to. I wanted to see my club influenced by democratically-elected representatives of the supporters, so there was only one thing left to do and on November 15th, 2014 – my birthday, no less – I was gifted a place on the board of directors for the VSC by its voting members and in my year’s tenure on the VSC board, I felt sorry for my fellow directors – all really sharp, switched-on guys with rhinoceros skin who, regardless of what was shouted by some clueless hooligans who couldn’t tell a penalty from a pennant, genuinely cared passionately about Doncaster Rovers and felt fan influence in football clubs was the way forward. From what I understood, the current owners agreed, and their Club Doncaster initiative fit in well with the long-term vision for financial sustainability through collaboration with Donny’s other local sports teams.
One exception was Doncaster Rovers Belles, the world-famous women’s team formed back when the club was still playing at its old dilapidated Belle Vue stadium, at the time calling themselves the Belle Vue Belles and the subject of I Lost My Heart to the Belles by Pete Davies, who I cited here last time. The Belles, despite moving to the Keepmoat Stadium with their men’s league counterparts, made it clear to me in the past that they were pretty adamant about remaining independent, only to be informed by the FA, after having played just one match that season, that they’d be forcibly relegated from the Women’s Super League to make way for Manchester City Women and their millions of pounds of investment from the men’s club. When the Women’s FA Cup final took place at the Keepmoat Stadium, Belles’ self-professed “noisy fans” turned up on the day to hand out fliers about their scandalous “relegation” and passed around a petition, only to have their campaigning materials confiscated by stewards “acting on behalf of the FA,” including not only the pamphlets and petition but also replica shirts and a banner that read “DONCASTER BELLES: 22 YEARS IN THE TOP DIVISION ENDED BY THE FA’S GR££D.” As a director of VSC, I wrote a regular column in the local Doncaster Free Press at request of their sports writer Paul Goodwin, who covered the whole Belles affair and who himself wrote, “Decisions like this set a dangerous precedent. Bang go the concepts of competition, fair play, and a level playing field to do it all on.” He was right. But sadly he was talking about the very core principles of professional football itself.
In my time enjoying insight into the behind-the-scenes workings of a professional football club, I witnessed things I couldn’t reconcile. This wasn’t a reflection of that particular football club, but of the professional game as a whole. At the time, I’d co-founded AFC Unity, and a by-product of coaching players from the local area, who paid to play, was a decrease of enjoyment of the pro game: the cold concrete stadium bearing the name of a sponsor, featuring players supposedly representing my birthplace but who were manoeuvred into the team by their agents brokering the best deals for them, and everyone from the locker room to the boardroom obsessed with making more money to keep their jobs. I watched each game at this time with less and less enthusiasm. Who were these players I supposedly supported? What did they represent any more? A profit-making corporation called Doncaster Rovers Limited, with a board of directors with money on their minds, lest the team fail to exist at a professional level. As I mentioned in my last column entry, Sheffield Wednesday are owned by Dejphon Chansiri, a Thai businessman. Sheffield United are owned by Abdullah bin Musa’ad and Kevin McCabe (at the time of writing). These are just business entities, controlled by multi-millionaires, with rich players in the team, more than most quite content to play for whoever pays them the most. What are we really supporting any more? A professional football club that happens to be based in our hometown? What does that even mean in an era when they’re shifting clubs from Wimbledon to Milton Keynes? You can probably count on one hand your team’s players who actually have any connection to your town outside of playing their home games there. So what are we being loyal to, exactly? I’ve said this before, as Jerry Seinfeld humorously pointed out, when you’re supporting a pro sports team, you’re merely cheering for a shirt:
Lovers of the game all over are increasingly suspicious and disenchanted with the money-dominated nature of the big leagues. Manchester United’s fans, of course, simply went off and created their very own alternative, FC United of Manchester. They’ve been another success story, climbing up the non-league divisions to the point where they now just got themselves a brand-new stadium, paid a visit by the Tory politician who backed it – provoking outrage from a hard core of their followers, who stand true to the founding principles of the club.
But what do we expect? The more money your club makes, the more professional it becomes – and then the more you find yourself no longer part of the solution…but part of the problem.
At AFC Unity’s beginning, bullying, bad-attitude, traditional players not getting picked demanded greater democracy – but they didn’t want it for everyone, just themselves. They wanted to strong-arm their way into the game. AFC Unity being set up as a not-for-profit independent women’s football club coached by a feminist was seen by some as a weakness to exploit: “Oh, you’re about ethics and empowerment, so give it to me.” These same players moved on (thankfully) but lo and behold never once called for greater democracy from the traditional teams they went on to play for. This is because they themselves – if they were honest – wanted power. As we’ve shown at AFC Unity, we’re very much of the Nye Bevan mentality: “The purpose of having power is to be able to give it away.” That’s why, here we are, years later, and we’re opening up the football club to greater ownership, with responsibilities and rights taken up by the players themselves – players who aren’t just in it for themselves. These players aren’t journeying footballers drifting from one team to another until they get the high profile they want like some sort of football version of Chuka Umunna. Not at all. Quite the opposite.
Players having an ownership over their football club is key when they’re putting their money into it; in AFC Unity, they are getting an increasing input into how their subs are spent. There are bimonthly team meetings and these are becoming slowly intertwined into the ownership of the company limited by guarantee that is AFC Unity’s legal status, registered as strictly not-for-profit so that every penny has to go back in to the club, and is subjected to annual accounting scrutiny. How many other football clubs anywhere in the world can say this? Legally registered as a company while also obligated to be non-profit. There’s almost nothing like this in non-league grassroots football, let alone at professional level.
In the professional game, the argument is that those putting their money into clubs are not the players, but the supporters. There is still a major problem with this, though. Even the fan-owned FC Barcelona are five hundred million euros in debt and still seem unable to avoid scandal. After all, it’s bloated, the fans crushed under the weight of the club they supposedly own, and it’s still in the same system as all the rest of the clubs: turnovers of hundreds of millions are required to stay at the top of the sport.
So what’s the solution? Well, take the money out of the sport altogether.
For starters, you’ll find that players genuinely go where their hearts are. Suddenly, they play for their local team – wherever they genuinely choose to live at the time. Then the spirit of community returns once again; cleaners, youth workers, volunteers, refugees, all from your local area, all playing football to represent it. And most of all: playing for fun, not for money. This is an ethos that can not be found anywhere in the professional game. And it’s not about taking us back to the days before Jimmy Hill came along; it’s taking us forward to a world where every community has its own identity and camaraderie reflected in its own football team; rather than one team for a city with the pressure of thousands of citizens resting on it, paying more entry fees than the club knows what to do with; there would instead be one team for each district, with a few hundred people supporting it from that area. This breaks up Big Football the same way we talk about breaking up Big Energy or Big Banks. It localises it once again, by taking the money out of it. Communities working cooperatively could maintain their own facilities, and team supporters could pay just enough to cover the costs, the players being their neighbours, friends, family even. There would be an accessibility and relatable quality to the players known in women’s football for now but being lost to big money as we hear stories of top stars moving away from terraced houses into fancy homes in gated communities. Teams – and their players – should represent their communities once again.
Trapped by the big business of professional football, FC St Pauli have paid over a million euros for some players – their current squad of thirty-odd, at the time of writing, featuring only eight actually from the vicinity of St Pauli’s city of Hamburg (and this is a better ratio than most!) Granted, St Pauli is the football club providing “a home for those without a home” with supporters travelling from across Europe to sit in solidarity with like-minded fans, but they’re still supporting professional football. Fans flock to St Pauli games because they are seeking something they lost in their communities back home, and I can understand that. But flying on a plane to another city to pay for players’ over-the-top wages for kicking a ball about is counter-productive and adding to the problem, not the ethical, bottom-up solution in our own backyards (and at least, worldwide, St Pauli supporters have set up their own localised versions). But at grassroots level, we are poor, because they are rich. Professional football has to go.
It’s easy for me to finally admit all of this because, as I said, I long since lost any loyalty or love towards professional football. It seems difficult to believe that, as a child, my parents took me to pub quizzes knowing I’d get all the football questions correct. Now, while obsessed with the coaching philosophies and tactical concepts of the sport itself, I wouldn’t know most top players if I bumped into them in the street. Ultimately, even before I became involved with and fell in love with AFC Unity, there were only so many times I could sit and watch wealthy men serve as the sole justification for a ticket price twice as much as it’d cost for me to sit in a warm cinema enjoying two solid hours of entertainment…even while still watching millionaire celebrity superstars like George Clooney – the movie theatre still costs less. I had this conversation with family recently when my sister pointed out, “These people are just modern-day court jesters. Why are they being paid so much?” I thought she had a point. Wow. Paid court jesters.
Let’s go back to the value of work, and the social impact of jobs that we do – as I said at the start, some jobs like cleaners and researchers and nurses and doctors have absolutely immense returns on investment; those are the very backbone of our society. There’s a great example by historian Rutger Bregman where he compares trash collectors going on strike, and bankers going on strike – the city needed the garbage collectors as they just couldn’t allow their streets to fill with waste, so they gave them a pay rise that they needed; the bankers went on strike, and nothing really happened.
Someone kicking a ball around and being paid more than the people who do those good jobs cited above is, in my opinion, utterly immoral. The USA national team’s quest for equal pay is a just cause in principle, but long-term, the aim needs to be to avoid matching men’s obscene wages and instead chopping them down to size. This is my greatest concern about the rise of the women’s game: it will be seen as a money-making opportunity to sell twice the amount of football kits at extortionately high prices, sell twice the amount of football boots made in overseas sweatshops and oppressing and exploiting other women, and ultimately, simply reinforcing an out-of-control capitalist football system.
Not one single person I have ever met in all my life has ever said they think there isn’t enough money in professional football; not one person has said they think the players need a pay rise. Quite the opposite. We all complain constantly about there being “too much money in professional football.” People passionate about soccer almost always sympathise with the losers who just happened to make a simple mistake, which is human to its core – but mistakes cost money for the powers that be, and cannot be tolerated. These fans also hate cheating in the game – but when there’s money at stake, why wouldn’t the players cheat? It’s their job; their livelihood. Getting rich means getting to the top of the sport; getting to the top of the sport means getting rich.
Who has any power to change all this? The players themselves aren’t going to ask for pay cuts; they’d be mugged in the dressing room, probably kidnapped and dumped in some unknown location. The PFA is the most powerful union in the world – and it’s the only one whose base members get filthy rich through its bargaining powers. It’s more of a mafia than anything else.
So, women’s football may well be on the rise, but in what sense? When you have women who are multi-millionaires just like the men, cheating to win, hiring the slickest of agents, avoiding taxes, signing sponsorship deals, doing bad “reality” television shows, and promoting unethical products, will we suddenly consider ourselves a fairer society when families are having their incomes slashed while having to pay hundreds of pounds to take their children to watch the big women’s game? Ticket prices are so high that you’re seeing a Norman Conquest-style transfer of wealth from poor to rich via something as silly as soccer. In this sense, professional football becomes one of the most sickening examples of capitalism.
As technology replaces many jobs – in a lot of cases, jobs we don’t want to be doing – there will be a crucial requirement for implementation of a shorter working week, and even a universal basic income, as we finally realise work was only ever supposed to be a means to an end, not the end itself. Life is about enjoying leisure activities, socialising, travelling, while also contributing to making the communities we live in and the whole world a better and fairer place. Football would be very low on the list of jobs needed (in fact, it won’t even make the list) – but it will be a valued leisure activity. With that said, it’s more important than ever that we put our money where our mouths are, turn off the television, cancel the sports channel subscriptions, choose not to renew that season ticket, and instead support grassroots football. Kick the habit, get into something much heavier, man.
Start now. Start with supporting AFC Unity’s against-all-odds mission this coming season. As the for-profit football clubs enter teams into our league, your support is more important than ever as we try to promote a different, better way of doing things. It will cost you nothing but your travel fare and maybe a lunch on the way there – and you’ll be supporting these players who make a living working hard in jobs around your community, not by playing football. The football just represents that community.
If you can’t do any of this, find a local team near you. Support it. Urge them to adopt a transparent, democratic operating structure with a sense of local ownership, a commitment to remain linked to community issues, and a promise never to ruin the team with a money motive. Help them out. You’ll find a renewed passion, a renewed sense of pride and connection to your football team, everyone involved coming from your community, by your community, for your community. It can really help begin a significant change in football, and start to set the wrong things right.
Thanks in advance, and thanks for reading.
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
But for a brief moment – particularly at the beginning of our affiliated football journey – AFC Unity have never been at the bottom of the league. We’re there now.
There will be some celebrations. Those who opposed our ethos as a socially progressive, independent women’s football club – from our food bank actions to our trade union links to our entire football philosophy matching this as an approach committed to “Hope Over Fear” and “100% Positivity” (years before it was in vogue with the FA) – will bask in this moment. Oh, yes. Those overly perky, pesky, positive do-gooders are rock-bottom! Hallelujah!
In seriousness: I recently attended an annual club meeting where I addressed what I felt was the backstory to this situation, but any football manager will always seek a vote of confidence and in doing so will often offer behind-the-scenes insight and rationale that can and will inevitably be interpreted as excuses. These can include the fact that the league has grown in quality while we have steadily recruited good people and then developed them into even better players; individualists who didn’t fit our spirit of collectivism left the team having previously portrayed themselves as being in for the long haul and this naturally disrupted the squad; and, we’ve had brilliant players enter the team from our award-winning Solidarity Soccer programme, but have needed time to gel.
This is all in addition to the fact that I am stubborn in my refusal to sacrifice beautiful football for results, or build a team around any one player for short-term gains. Everything has been designed to have a long-term strategy. It’s why we’re one of about half a dozen teams still in existence from around twenty teams in the league when we joined (some championship-winning teams from that time have even been wiped from existence due to their boom-and-bust culture and reliance on results and individuals).
So yes, of course there are logical reasons for this. I didn’t suddenly become worse at managing. The team certainly isn’t worse. This team I have now would beat any of our teams from the past; they’d rout them. There are lots of contributing factors for our current situation, and the above are just a few of them.
Ultimately, people will think what they want. As I encouraged my players from the sideline at a recent game, praising them in staying positive, an opponent on the bench shouted over, ‘How the hell can you be positive when you’re losing?’ to which I said, under my breath while rolling my eyes, ‘You’re winning and you’re still not positive.’ It was true. Not all, but most of the teams who beat us look utterly miserable after the game, while we’re positive and see things in their correct context. I’ve said that in this column before. But why is this?
Well, we’re almost more like a social movement with everything we do in and around the first team itself. We’ve always said, if as a team you’re only about winning on the field, well then when you lose you have nothing else left. We have plenty left. But it’s important to avoid existing inside that bubble, and instead be fully aware of how you’re perceived outside of that bubble. So let me humour that for a moment.
I know we’re perceived as being the rightful occupiers of the bottom spot in our division. I know that. Teams interpret our unshakeable positivity, even in defeat, as a sign that we don’t take football very seriously and therefore don’t care about winning. That’s wrong, but I know that’s the perception. Officials also, I feel, are likely to buy into this narrative too, because for all the praise about AFC Unity for our conduct (as previous national Respect winners, no less), I truly believe they’re likely to allow that to influence their view of the game: if decisions don’t go Unity’s way, who cares because they’ll never complain, and they’ll expect to lose, anyway. We’re also perceived in a way where we couldn’t possibly be serious about football if we also have a relaxed, friendly, fun, and positive environment: usually you have one, but never the other. So, invariably, I personally will be perceived as some clueless football philistine punk rocker leading cheers from the sidelines (and admittedly I probably play on that if anything, as I love being underestimated).
But it wasn’t always this way. In our first season, after recruiting whatever players we could get to take a chance on this unknown brand-new team, we gained several upset victories, attracting wrath and vitriol for daring to define ourselves as “underdogs” while winning games and gaining promotion from Division Three to Division Two. We knew this idea of a socially progressive, independent women’s football club would forever define us as “underdogs” by default, and we knew the journey would be this way: full of twists and turns, trials and tribulations, as we tried to do something very, very different. As part of that, we also knew that on-the-pitch determination and aggression from those individually skilled players – playing for the name on the back of their shirt rather than the one on the front – would eventually see most of these very players leave when the culture of collectivism over individualism kicked in and truly dawned on them.
We have an amazing group of people playing for us now, new and old. These players openly embrace and enact and reinforce our culture and reject those of other football clubs. In turn, we’ve delegated more and more tasks to players so they have a sense of ownership over AFC Unity – and I’m sure we will be going even further in that direction in future.
So what about this “bottom of the league” business, then? Who’s going to be the architect of “The Great Escape”? Obviously it has to be me – you don’t have rights without responsibilities as well (I’ve always believed that, in life, they must be irrevocably intertwined) – but I have to have consistency and commitment to carry from one season to another. Would I stay on as manager if I didn’t succeed in this epic challenge? I’ve said I’m open to any consequences. I’d stay on if the squad stayed on, and if that squad wanted me to.
Towards the end of 2018, realising the squad available wouldn’t be the one I’d originally anticipated at the start of the season, I apologised to the team and took responsibility for some bad results, and switched the system of play. It did its job for a while – we stopped haemorrhaging goals, for one – but we still failed to make a big push of it.
I’ve always liked positive, pro-active, attacking football – that’s actually been one of the biggest criticisms of me from ex-players, probably. Before the holiday break, I warned of the danger to come if we were to play for 1 point rather than 3, or play it safe rather than take risks. I perhaps didn’t always communicate that in the best way possible. But the fact is, we truly have nothing to lose now. Let others celebrate, let them laugh, let them point fingers, let them ridicule, and let them continue to underestimate me, and us, in Unity.
As Janis Joplin sang, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
This will be a true test of character for even the best of players: We now have the toughest stretch of our whole season underway, a six-week period of cup and shield games alongside league matches against top teams, while our squad is still finalising the process of starting to gel after having had just one pre-season friendly.
Despite this, we still started the season playing our best football yet against every league opponent but one; those games we only took one or less points from were games where we knew we played the better football, and had to stick to a longer-term plan.
Having said that, we can be better, and will be better, and we know we must be better to overcome the odds we’re up against in a league full of boom-and-bust teams who throw everything they have at every game for short-term results, build a squad or system around one player, or win at all costs. It’s an epic challenge for us, and that’s why we have to work even harder than these other teams in order to succeed.
We want to do well on the field so we can do more off the field, as well. Our profile has skyrocketed in just under five years; we’ve been in local, regional, and national press, been covered in books and talks, and achieved a heck of a lot in the community. But we still need more support. I realise people want to support a team that wins every week, but with us, regardless of the result, there’s an opportunity for purists to watch truly beautiful football when we’re on our game, and we can’t truly succeed if that support isn’t in place on the side of the field as well.
As a not-for-profit limited company as well as a socially progressive, independent women’s football club, it’s harder to get that support, but it’s also more important for us too. That’s the irony. So a massive thanks to everyone who has attended games so far this season – it means a lot!
The players deserve such support. They work so hard and they’re involved in the football club more than they have ever been; they organise socials, fundraising, and all kinds of events; they take on coaching roles at Solidarity Soccer, where there’s a wonderful link formed between first team players and other participants at those sessions (some Solidarity Soccer players have been amongst those attending games to root for the first team players, their Ambassadors at those sessions!)
Those who have attended a few games will have noticed how the captaincy changes almost every time. It’s another unique Unity approach to empower players throughout the squad.
But more than just lead, players have to want to learn and understand the whole football philosophy. Not yet everyone truly grasps the inseparable link between our ethos and the Barcajax approach – that is sacrosanct, in my view. When we fail badly, it’s because we have deviated from those principles, it’s no more complicated than that. So players must have a full comprehension of that.
It’s a learning process. It’s a long-term project buoyed by the immense talent emerging at Solidarity Soccer from players learning the fundamental elements of the Barcajax style from scratch, players who are starting to bang on the door of the first team, a door I’m eager to kick open for them if the opportunity arises!
However, the first team roster is now officially full, since I signed our twenty-fifth and final player last week – like the other incoming players this campaign, another addition who fits our culture and playing style perfectly, and again having attended Solidarity Soccer first.
And this is important: players wanting to play for the first team really must attend Solidarity Soccer beforehand, because it doesn’t matter how good you think you are, our playing style is very different to other teams, as is the ethos it’s designed to fit. It’s also a real test of character for players: by them biding their time in Solidarity Soccer, working hard, going over concepts again and again, absorbing information like a sponge, they demonstrate the commitment to our club while also tooling up on the skills and knowledge of our approach to football. If someone wants to just play any old football for any old club, they have lots of options out there for that!
Solidarity Soccer is also a great way for me to scout players and see if a rapport can be built!
I’ve never missed a match in our history, nearly a hundred of them in just under five years – I’ve been there for the record 1-13 win and the record 17-1 loss; I’ve accompanied a player to the hospital in the back of an ambulance; I’ve taken on clubs and committees over a nine-month painstaking process because I challenged bullying against my players; I’ve been to Wembley to accept the national Respect Award for women’s clubs in the country in a rare recognition of our club and its integrity in practice.
But, at the end of the day, it’s voluntary, it’s tiring, and traditional clubs with men’s teams and several other tiers to their system have more support networks for head coaches and managers, and it can be tough at times, I’m not too proud to admit – more so when you’re trying to do something so very different. The women in this club are important. I’m a feminist and I believe in what I do, and what this club is about. That’s why I’m committed to this season.
Yes, we’re trying to do something different. We’re determined to play a certain kind of football that, despite borrowing from developed concepts from the past, is years ahead of its time in many ways. It’s why every game is a struggle – when we win, there’s no doubt we deserved it, and there’s no doubt it took a collective effort from everyone, not just one key player. We’re trying to reflect our ethos of collectivism on the field as well.
We believe in a way where everyone is unique yet has their part to play in equal amounts. A way where everyone must stay positive to help the team get ahead. A way where we stick together. A way where we root for each other.
In the last entry to this column, I said pre-season was going to be awesome. I was wrong. The season is going to be awesome.
Last season, it’s been said countless times, was all about building a solid foundation after merging two of our teams into just the one. But then afterwards, we realised there were still yet more players coming through wanting to play for us – quality players; quality people, mostly through the Solidarity Soccer programme as a conduit to re-engage these amazing players back into football, which they wanted to play for an ethos, not just in any team.
With the 16 we carried forward from last season (in itself enough to fill a squad on a Sunday), we were already quality, but those coming in have been a seamless fit for what we wanted. As I’ve said, there was always a long-term plan. For a whole year before, I suspected that the 2018/19 AFC Unity squad might be the best yet. Now I know for certain.
That’s not to say this build-up to the season has not had its challenges. Players relishing the friendly competition for places ahead wanted to make sure they took their trips away in the summer, spreading the squad a little thin for friendlies, which have not been as high in quantity as we’d have liked, though the quality has certainly been there – with no expectations, a newly-formed AFC Unity team losing 0-4 to a side who beat us 7-2 then 6-1 last season – with some revelations coming from newcomers getting lots of game time. However, that game time cost us some injuries, and I’ve been careful to look after players since. The season is the focus. We are looking forward to a good one, with solid support and a reinvigorated Football for Food campaign.
Yes, we have our detractors. Some see us apply an empowering, positive approach to playing, or opposing prejudice, or promoting collectivism in the workplace, or committing to use only fair trade footballs, or, yes, helping food banks, and they make it clear – usually through social media – that they want to see us defeated; pounded into the ground. I don’t want to speculate what that says about them as people, but you can’t beat an idea. You can play for any other team in the league, and score as many more goals than us as you like, but what then? We’re still here, we’re still doing things our way – and we’re still growing, and getting better and better.
So, as Naomi Klein rightly suggests, how about people honestly declare what they’re for? That’s a positive thing to do. Here’s what AFC Unity are for: engaging and empowering women, working together on and off the pitch, doing good in the community, playing with dignity, respect, and fairness – and being a socially progressive, independent women’s team (one of the very few in the world, in fact). That’s what we’re for, and that’s what we’re playing for. That’s what we’re about. And that’s an idea that won’t be stopped, but we’ll all keep battling to promote.
So please come along and support the Red Stars this coming season. The football we’re playing is reaching a whole other level. You’ll see the team attacking together and defending together, from front to back, and you’ll see passing football, with a commitment to playing the game the right way, win or lose.
Rest assured then, that when we do win, it’ll be the right way. It’ll be earned. No short-cuts, no “route one” football, no individual prima donnas, no cliques, no bullying, no nonsense. We like to say the way we play reflects who we are.
We’re excited for the season ahead. We’re now ready to take AFC Unity that step further. We have a new board, new sponsors, new kit, a new ground, and even a new league in many ways, and all a massive improvement on previous versions (the team itself is no exception to that, either!) Everything has fallen into place this spring and summer. I’ve never been so proud of my team or my club as a whole – so thank you to everyone who has made that happen and played a part in that. In turn, I’ll continue to work hard for AFC Unity’s success on and off the pitch.
As we enter the pre-season for 2018/19, it’s worth reflecting on the remarkable season just gone, culminating with our amazing Awards Night.
Let’s face it, as we’ve said numerous times, last season was about taking Unity to the next level, as a principle and not just a name. Having gone from two teams to just one, we aimed for a creation of squad harmony, with an emphasis on developing a team alongside individual players – we talked about the process, not the results; we knew all along that the results would take care of themselves later if we focused on the process now.
And, funnily enough, they did already – even sooner than I’d expected! Going forward I’ll be aiming to win games, now we’ve achieved harmony in the team and developed everyone, but here’s an honest admission: last season I never once tried to win a single match; at numerous games I made last-minute decisions that were about testing out elements of the team or a player, even if it meant the risk of throwing away a result (and yes, several results were thrown away because of that). It was tough to do at times, but I had to resist the temptation of getting caught up in the pursuit of victories and reminded myself that if I did that, I’d put at risk the development of the players, the team, and – as a result – the long-term plan.
With that in mind, it’s quite astonishing: without trying to win a single game, we still took 17 points from the season, compared to a measly 6 points the season before. Because results are a by-product of the process, and truly will be in the future.
Last season, aside from giants like Worksop Town and the big development squads, we held our own against teams hell-bent on winning – and often, in particular, hell-bent on beating AFC Unity. Why? Well given the season before, many put pressure on themselves based on the expectation to have an easy win over us. Calm in the knowledge we weren’t focusing on results, but instead the process, we came away from many matches looking pretty good anyway.
In the opening match of the season at Dearne & District, we had our only goalkeeper pull out in the warm-up, which was rotten luck, yet despite losing 4-1 at half-time, we mounted a comeback and only lost 7-5.
Again, some poor luck continued, losing 2-0 to Mexborough Athletic in a really close game, and then losing just 2-1 at Shaw Lane. We were winning 2-0 against Sheffield Wednesday Development at half-time, only to lose 3-2. But then we were losing 2-1 to Wickersley Youth, and came back to beat them 4-2. All exciting stuff.
Again though in some bad luck we lost a lot of players to absence, illness, and injury for the Socrates game, including our goalkeeper again, and got hammered 12-0 – at full strength in the return fixture we were winning 1-0 at half-time, only to lose 3-2 when they snatched a last-second winner. (We also got ourselves an excellent second goalkeeper!)
We beat Worksop Town Juniors 5-3 and then again, 3-1, but then gave Worsbrough Bridge Athletic their first big win of the season when we lost 8-4 at theirs, and sacrificed results against Millmoor Juniors Second and Oughtibridge War Memorial Development, and against Mexborough Athletic, losing 2-1, and were battered, not just in the scoreline but physically and psychologically, as intended, by Shaw Lane, in one of the worst games I’ve ever experienced.
But there were still better days ahead: both Oughtibridge and Wickersley held on to draw with us, the latter beating us 2-1 to knock us out of the Krukowski Cup, provoking a secret sigh of relief in me as I was apprehensive about progressing in the cup to face teams from higher up the league and distracting us from our process this season. We had bad defeats against Dearne & District, Millmoor Juniors Second, and Sheffield Wednesday Development, only to give the best footballing performance in Unity’s history in the final game, a win over Worsbrough.
It’s interesting to note that Rovers Foundation Development beat us heavily at the start of the season, only to forfeit the return fixture because they couldn’t field a squad – such is the chaos of developmental teams that are a stepping-stone for players with ambitions of playing at a high level. Some want to be the next Lucy Bronze or Steph Houghton. Recent weeks have seen news stories of big clubs buying their way into the top divisions of women’s football – which is delivering on its promise of emulating the men’s game and being money-dominated.
As a result, we may see more and more “development” teams with good coaches scratching their heads at the inconsistency they’re faced with because their players get called up to the first teams, and this inconsistency is felt in our division too: one minute a development team is beating everyone, the next they can’t even field a side. Who knows what the upcoming season will throw our way? We can try to win going forward, but ultimately we may also be at the mercy of top players being tried out in development teams ready to be plucked back up into the big leagues – and this can impact on our division and its results. There is a lot more context than people often realise.
There is definitely a clash of culture in non-league football: between individualism, and collectivism. Some players are out to do the best they can for themselves, and don’t necessarily care which team they play for; while others, such as those who continue to play for us, are passionate about wearing the shirt, and playing for our badge.
This grassroots league is essentially recreational – so many of our players say to me that they have challenging occupations or stressful lives at times and training and games at AFC Unity are a haven, a refuge; they don’t want negativity. As a result, we’ve just retained 16 players from that season just gone, into this pre-season, which is staggering considering many teams during the season can’t even put together a maximum squad of 16 for match-day!
We’ve built a foundation, and every player we have believes: We’ve said before, a player can either have team harmony, or can have everything go their own way just for themselves, but they can’t have both. You’re either an individualist or a collectivist; selfish, or a selfless team player prepared to sacrifice for the greater good.
The foundation we’ve built is strong, because it’s a squad of collectivists; we long since tested the integrity of players in the past who were found to be individualists, who were happy in any team or with any result as long as they were getting the lion’s share of game time. But this is a team sport and that’s not what football at its core is about, especially here at Unity – we thought when we set up the club that the clue might be in the name but it seemed to be lost on some people, or we were seen as easy pickings being a relatively recent start-up, perhaps desperate for players. We never have been desperate for players. We’re desperate for good people, first and foremost. Those are the ones who enjoy the environment – in particular, the players not with junior football fresh in their minds but more experienced players who are disenchanted with teams run like army camps, with “drills,” with a “survival of the fittest” mentality, and with “route one” football. They just want to enjoy their football and feel part of a team they can be proud of.
We are the team for them: a team where every player is valued, every player is seen as unique while working for a collective cause, every player from back to front needs to play a passing game, and attack together, and defend together. We’ve worked painstakingly over four seasons to get get to a point where the social and psychological environment in Unity is second to none: friendly, positive, hopeful, fearless, ambitious. I’ve said it before, some teams have beaten us yet walked away from the match looking depressed and dejected due to their negative team environment, while we’ve looked like winners. And although we’re building for the future, and we now aim to win games, that’s how you win no matter what: by being happy. Not such a wild idea.
Players come to us because they want that environment. Some are already pretty much part of that environment by taking part in Solidarity Soccer – and we’re looking there for players, too; that’s worked really well in the last year. But it’s up to players to choose us; to really want to be part of the Unity ethos and the Unity project. I’m proud to be picking those kinds of people as I seek a goalkeeper willing to develop, a full-back, and a central midfielder. Those are my priorities in terms of adding to this fantastic squad we have now, where the overall quality has increased even more to a level never before reached: we’re now fully a passing, pressing team. But the football is going to be even better. It’s already a great squad, and – given our criteria – that will only get better too.
As mentioned here before, this season was about getting the right people involved as players – from the first team, the previous second team, from outside AFC Unity altogether, as well as from our innovative Solidarity Soccer initiative.
Judging from the results, you could be forgiven for assuming we don’t play well, but the opposite is more often our challenge: Our playing style and systems of play are designed to reflect our values, our ethos of collectivism, and that just so happened to mesh nicely with a lot of the football philosophies of the late great Johan Cruyff.
Cruyff is arguably the greatest football figure of all time, given not just his status as a player but also his coaching influence which largely transformed the way much of the game is played – to an extent where grassroots football, and particularly English football in general, is still catching up and switching on to this, causing many to scratch their heads at the way Cruyff’s protégé Pep Guardiola has come in and completely dominated men’s matches at the top of the sport. Yes, Pep has access to the best players in the world, which he admits he needs in order to play some of the best football in the world.
We have grassroots footballers who instead pay to play: some have been damaged from years of traditional footballing environments and poor coaching, others have been playing only a short amount of time, but all of them have to be willing to learn, and I’ve been lucky enough to have a squad that has at least given me a chance to coach them this season, by buying into what we’re trying to do as a football team.
So we have a mountain to climb in several ways: not just socially, having this mix of players fresh to this style of play; not just structurally, being run by women independent from any men’s club; and not just ethically, being committed to fair play, fair trade, and progressive ideals – but also in trying to play football in this way I’ve mentioned, with our own identity separate from the vast majority of other teams in our division who generally focus on outcomes instead of the process; results instead of the football itself.
Solidarity Soccer is designed to reduce the culture shock for incoming players with their sights set on playing 11-a-side football – playing, that is, for our badge in particular.
And there are, admittedly, some pretty wild concepts at AFC Unity for players used to 4-4-2, “man-to-man” marking, long ball territorial football, and an obsession with “winning the second ball.” We reject all of that, completely, right from the get-go.
All that matters in football is the ball – where it is and where it’s going, not the opposition. Obviously there are chases to win the ball first, there is using your physicality to an extent, and there are dangerous off-the-ball runs, and offside traps. But, overall, if your opponents were even magically invisible, it shouldn’t make that much difference to you as a player in terms of your focus on the ball location on the pitch, how you position yourself, and how you’re going to win it back as a unit. As Cruyff taught us, the ball is the most important thing: you have to have it in order to make sure only one team can score: yours.
So if your team has the ball, you have to keep it in your possession. If you lose it, you have to win it back as quickly as you can, with lots of pressure, before your opponents organise themselves through transition from defensive play to attacking play. Once your opposition has settled into attacking, you too must settle into a defensive organisation positionally.
We always say: if we have the ball, every single player on our team is part of the attack; if we don’t have the ball, every single player on our team is defending. It’s why terms like “attacker” and “defender” are falling out of fashion – every player has to be able to both defend and attack, including the goalkeeper. We play with “centre-backs,” “side-backs,” and “wing-backs,” but there’s really not much point in referring to these players as simply “defenders” when every player on the pitch will have to defend at some point. You call players higher up the field “forwards” – so if they’re forward, those opposite are “backs.” The terminology is evolving, and changing, and it makes more sense.
Again, this approach is all about unique individuality of players all working together for a collective good. Zonal marking is a part of this, where rather than following an individual opponent around like a lost puppy – being pulled way out of position – each player simply needs to patrol their patch based on their position, and seize the ball, making sure an opponent doesn’t have it. That is then a focus on individual responsibility for a collective good, rather than being obsessed with a single individual opponent as being more important.
This kind of collectivism in our football club is also reflected in the way we include so many players who were in the past told they were too small, too slow, too weak, or even too old.
First off, you can get injured at any age and have your playing days finished. That’s the sad reality on that one. And if you play football the right way – making the ball do the work – none of those other things should matter all that much. Cruyff was quite vocal about the absurdities of football pundits talking about how much a player ran, or how much stamina they had, because Cruyff’s idea was that you circulate the ball through quick, accurate passing. Then there’s less running to do. See how that works?
In addition, the idea that long balls have to be hoofed up in the air to the other end of the pitch to an individual star player is everything we oppose; that’s individualism, not collectivism. For us it’s about making sure the team passes the ball properly and works it up the pitch.
At AFC Unity, we’re not particularly keen on relying on headers, or that dreaded phrase of “winning the second ball.” Our focus is on the first ball: the accurate pass, not a hopeful, uncertain ball somewhere in the opponent’s half. Where’s the pride or unity in that? Players told me recently that our opponents in one game were shouting to each other to “gamble” by hoofing the ball long, and I found it the most bemusing thing I’d ever heard in football (though to my amazement, apparently this ugly, territorial game of chance is quite common – incredible!)
So the most important thing is passing. We do lots of it in training. And I mean lots of it. Again, we’ve spent this season starting over, with a great squad of players, who are all grasping these far-out football concepts and doing their best to execute them. But we’re getting there. My plan is to get some good results next season now our team has gelled fully, and then in a few years, this culture will be so engrained, we’ll go from strength to strength. We might be a similar team to the present, or be quite different. I’m very happy working harder to create and develop players from within, over bringing in top players later down the line when we’re doing well all of a sudden. I want players who buy into all this here and now, so we can start from the bottom and build up (and that includes starting from the bottom of the league too, if that has to be the case).
So passing will be a major theme of Solidarity Soccer because that’s how we play – that’s our foundation for our good quality football in the future. If you can’t stop a shot, or you can’t shoot, or you can’t even tackle, you know what? I can work with that, that’s just fine. But if you can’t pass the ball well, you can’t fit this style of play we have. Passing the ball well is the absolute most important thing. And hey, that’s not such a wild idea now, is it?
I’m very excited for the relaunch of Solidarity Soccer and for building on this foundation in the months and years to come!
It’s a testament to AFC Unity and its ethos that despite everything, we’ve had the maximum amount of 25 registered players, and a varied 16 selected each Sunday – from a squad held together by a passion in playing for our badge, and belief in a different way of doing things. Even teams winning every week struggle to have any hope of harmony in a large roster, never mind a team losing a lot of games like we have recently. In many ways we remain the envy of the league. You read that right.
I’m not at this time talking about the national headlines, high-profile campaigns for food banks or trade unionism, or the multiple awards for our efforts, by the way. Yes, I’m talking about the football. That’s what makes us the envy of the league.
So it may seem like a strange statement to make – if you’re looking at this league from a very traditional perspective. But for those involved in our club, and even those who have come along to support us at our matches and seen what we do, it makes perfect sense.
Our current culture is dominated by short attention spans, quick fixes, and short-term gains – the kind of approach that sees this league’s previously successful teams (Rotherham United Development, Sheffield United Reserves, and even Edlington Royals and Brampton Rovers, all of whom comfortably beat us at one point or another) do so well for so long, only to then suddenly, seemingly inexplicably, vanish.
Too many teams are set up as part of a stepping stone for bigger clubs, made up of individuals seeking to be the next Steph Houghton, while other teams do well for a period of time, only to lose key players, leading to the team’s collapse. Both examples of individualism rather than, well, unity.
Our entire ethos is represented in the name and the badge, and that’s what players play for. Every single player is unique, incomparable to anyone else, each and every one bringing something different to the team, yet all part of a football philosophy and playing style that binds them together.
It also happens to be one of the most difficult playing styles to understand, grasp, and enact. Our players will happily tell you that.
This means that while a team can play a traditional, tough, crude, long ball game, and soundly beat us so they can get ahead of us in the league, we know that by sticking to our principles and playing pure, passing, team football, we won’t just still exist in the future, we’ll thrive: we’ll be even better, while that winning team only has to lose a couple of key players, or have the plug pulled on its entire project, and it’s finished; gone as quickly as those teams mentioned above – while we’re still on mission.
This season, we condensed two teams into one, added a few players who’d stopped playing but rediscovered their love for the game with AFC Unity, and then focused on team harmony, and getting the players all used to each other, so they were able to gel, and then start playing the style we want.
And they have.
Anyone who saw last week’s cup game against Wickersley will have seen some of the best football ever seen at this level: complex in formation adjustment; sophisticated build-up play; every single player involved in both attacking and defending; passing from the back; good pressing – it was slick, really slick.
And on that day, we kept playing that style, kept rotating players, kept being patient, kept thinking long-term, and even though we lost 1-2, we gained something much greater: the knowledge that we can execute high-concept football on an increasingly regular basis, all while continuously developing each and every player, rather than relying on “the brightest and the best” like so many other teams do. You won’t find any “fringe” or “utility” players here: every player is valuable, every player has their part to play, and every player in training and on matchday contributes to the development of each other and the style of play as a whole that’s enacted in games.
I think maybe one or two teams in our division have played better football than us this season: one of them have changed their head coach about three times already, and the other had their head coach tell me that in one of the games we actually played better than they did – his opinion, not mine.
So let’s not get stuck in old-fashioned ways of thinking. Any fool could take on this role, tell their players to play territorial long ball up top, bang a few goals in, win some games, and have a few players shut out of the team before quitting, with the others remaining resenting each other. It’d be easy for me to do that, too. But then Unity would be just like any other team, wouldn’t we? And we could win a heck of a lot more games this way, and find ourselves being just another statistic on FA’s Full Time website. Instead, we’ll go into next season even stronger, with a squad used to each other, as a team with absolutely no expectations and nothing at all to lose; opponents carrying the pressure to beat us – and the obsession to beat us.
No, AFC Unity are not Rotherham United Development, or Sheffield United Reserves. We’re not Edlington Royals or Brampton Rovers. And we’re not Greasbrough Youth, Hemsworth South, New Bohemians, Staveley Miners Welfare, Sheffield Rangers, Thorne United, Swinton, Anston, Hoyland, or Brodsworth – all now gone.
We’re not Shaw Lane either, or Dearne & District, or any of the other current teams beating us yet just as susceptible to the collapse-and-fold process experienced by the above-mentioned teams. That’s not a knock, by the way – it’s a challenge: I want teams to keep going, I want the league to have sustainability and a sense of consistency. We’re here to stay. That doesn’t mean we want to face a different local footballing landscape each season.
We’re already unstoppable. But the days where we’re unbeatable are just around the corner. Failing to understand that is failing to understand football.
Firstly, happy new year from myself and everyone involved with AFC Unity. It’s such an exciting time for this football club, as morale has never been higher, team spirit has never been better, the football itself has never been so good, and we’ve never been more sure of ourselves and the work we do in the wider community.
This is the first entry into this column since before the start of the season, in which I made the bold statement that you’re now ‘seeing a real, true Unity.’ And that was absolutely right, as evidenced by the complete difference in our football as well: now in a much tougher second of two divisions formed from the original three, our defeats have actually been less heavy than last season when we diluted ourselves across two teams – yes, we’ve won as many if not more games already by the new year than we did all of last season (and there will be more wins to come in the future, though no easy ones), but the emphasis is still on the process rather than the results.
With one team in Unity now, we rebuilt the squad from scratch in the pre-season, as mentioned in my last entry to this column. We made sure we had all the right ingredients to succeed and meet our aims off and on the pitch, and sure enough the club has been democratised even further with greater player involvement and the women really pushing the club further forward – be it via shared captaincy, or taking the lead in socials and fundraising – and this has only been possible because we have the maximum amount of 25 registered players who are good people who believe in the club and its ethos and really genuinely care about something bigger than just themselves. It’s what we wanted all along.
These 25 players are selfless, prepared to fight for their spots in the 16 on a Sunday, so they can play for this badge and everything we represent. It’s a camaraderie and friendly competition made possible by the positive approach we have, the sports psychology and social elements that go into making this such a great team of players to coach and manage. They know that it’s not just about what they get out of it, but what they put in to it, too – that the culture of our club that they enjoy only exists because people like them stand up and fight for it. That’s selflessness, and it’s admirable.
And it’s not for everyone. One or two players in the past may have found the positivity a culture shock – scoffing at the empirical evidence of sports psychology and the work of Dan Abrahams, for example, they were used to football clubs run like army camps, with drills to match, and an “everyone for themselves,” dog-eat-dog culture of negativity. That’s fine. There are plenty of other clubs for those types. But now AFC Unity has 25 players who all believe in it, and battle to protect it.
That kind of culture shock can be avoided in future by the potential players interested in joining us (around one a week, on average) being directed first to Solidarity Soccer (and some go for it, but a remarkable few are prepared to relearn football in this way, which is how you separate those who just want to play some football for some local team, and those who really badly want to be an ambassador for AFC Unity, which is something I for one hold in high regard).
Yes, there are journeying footballers who play Sunday league football drifting from team to team changing their shirt and their badge with nothing to believe in or fight for. That’s how you get some teams having star players presented as saviours, a very individualistic and frighteningly short-term mentality. And because of that, you get teams going up and down the divisions or even collapsing altogether, or changing coaches and managers every several months. At AFC Unity we’ve at least enjoyed a consistency in that area, and a long-term approach that sees us still going four years after our formation in early 2014, even while being completely unaffiliated with an established men’s team and being proactive and progressive with our community actions, and doing things so differently.
So with that in mind, we’ve harnessed that consistency within the culture of the club to a point where players don’t panic when they lose a game; they know there’s a long-term plan and a process; they smile and laugh and have fun after matches where meanwhile I’ve seen “winning” teams shouting and swearing at each other and looking absolutely miserable as sin.
Yes, we have yet again chosen the path less travelled, and it’s been a mountain to climb. It’s always been about doing things the right way for us. I don’t sit here and pick out my star players for praise (they each know how highly I think of them, and every one is valued); I don’t sit here and slag off our opponents to provoke negative reactions and get a few extra hits on our web page that may or may not be put together on a template by Pitchero (our page hits come from our supporters more than our enemies, which is a far more positive response, one we should all seek to provoke in people).
So yes, ours is the right way, but it’s the hard way too – dealing with abuse from opponents, and from players rejected in the past, and seeing us lose matches to inferior football (not always, mind you – several times we have been beaten by pure class, and we praise such teams for their integrity). But our integrity continues beyond the pitch, out in the community, not just with Football for Food, but with our promotion of trade unionism too.
When we had our early lucky run – when we were a grouping of individuals rather than playing football that represented our ethos – we endured far more abuse than we do now. Teams hated us because we were just formed, and yet we were winning games (there were more genuinely local grassroots teams then, rather than mighty professional football clubs pumping money into development teams). Now, they condescend to us, because they don’t see us as a threat. I said at a recent training session: let them do that, let them patronisingly praise our pretty football, but they’ll start hating us again soon, I’m afraid. And that’s fine.
So could we win more matches, right now? Of course we could. We have fantastic players. But having them play defensive, boring, long-ball territorial football to win a match would have them puke on the spot, and probably quit right after (with me not far behind). They want to be challenged, they want to be developed, individually and as a team; they want to master more complicated styles of play where they all attack and they all defend. These players know the effort put in at training, the higher quality of football we’re working hard for, so that the process presents greater (and more satisfying) results in the long-term – while these so-called “winners”; teams of individuals, relying on individuals, are back in chaos and upheaval and jeopardy yet again.
Ultimately, though, we’ve shown that these players are winners – not just their spirit as a team after a match, not just their incredible efforts and development. But with everything Unity continues to do in the community and beyond. We’ve always said, time and again, ‘When you’re just solely about winning, when you lose you have nothing else left.’ I laugh when teams love beating us, because it’s not only immensely flattering, but also misguided: win or lose, we’re still Unity. We don’t stop.
I’ve never been so proud of my team. They’ve challenged me too, because now I’m not putting out fires, I focus on the football coaching and this season this team is making me a better manager, which is something I’m really grateful for. There’s a trust in the team where we all care about each other and know we can all bring out the best in one another.
So as AFC Unity grows, and as more and more people get involved – at matches, at activities, and in campaigns – so our football evolves, and improves. And these players are grasping an art form at the moment, so be patient, because once they’ve mastered it, the results will follow as well, achieved in the right way – even against the bigger clubs and the short-term teams.
Please support our players, come to matches, cheer them on, and spread the word: something special is happening at AFC Unity.
I made a lot of promises in the last entry to this column and I’m proud to have kept them. But I’m more proud to say that now, AFC Unity’s current squad is the best I’ve ever managed.
What’s the secret? Well, I’ve mentioned in this column before about the keys to winning, and belief, but it goes beyond that. We’ve got such really good people and personalities in the squad right now – a mixture of pre-existing players who craved an even more positive environment, players who were in the second team, players coming through our Solidarity Soccer initiative, and also players coming to us from elsewhere (yet who seem like they’ve played for us forever).
One thing managers and coaches must be, first of all, is decent, and respectful, and see themselves as teachers or facilitators, not drill sergeants. You have to conduct yourself in a way where you can practice what you preach. My background in youth work and community coaching helped me a lot with this, and last season reached a point where I’d worked hard, learned as much as I possibly could, and was being positive, but still wasn’t afforded the same positivity in return by some players, because at some point all coaches have to put their ego aside and admit that they have to give up trying to change some players, because those types of players will never change anything except your own environment, which is fatal for a football team.
We were really clear about the kinds of people we wanted involved this year because the club had reached a point where it wasn’t a start-up any more, struggling to recruit players. It’s not even September yet and the fixtures aren’t announced and yet I now have the maximum of 25 players on the roster, and each and every one of them met the right criteria when we decided on registrations, with top quality players knocking on the door still wanting to join the club since.
But because we went into this preseason with the right people, there was a mutual trust where we were not only all working together to develop our philosophy and style of play which are a very strong part of Unity’s identity, but we were also able to empower more and more of the women in the team to step up and really help drive the club forward. When the players trust you, and you trust them, you can do that, as evidenced by the shared captaincy – each of our five preseason games was captained by a different player, and none of them had captained our team before. That not only exemplifies our emphasis on empowerment and doing things in a dynamic way that reflect collectivism, but also demonstrates the strength of character and belief we possess in the squad now.
There’s also been an emphasis on process before results (which have developed nicely over the preseason as well, a far cry from the constant heavy defeats we suffered last season). Players have bought into the style of play in a way where we can employ different systems to fit it, ask them their thoughts on it, and again empower them to be pro-active and positive, questioning not ‘Why are we doing this?’ but ‘How can we make this work better for the greater good?’
This solid identity of our style of play and work ethic means it’s a good thing our squad is full of players who want to play for our badge and everything different it represents about grassroots football. Because coming into our environment of positive football can be a culture-shock for a player used to “drills,” authoritarian coaching, the huffing and puffing of frustrated teammates, and negative, defensive 4-4-2 stuff that doesn’t even challenge a coach never mind the players. I am really proud that we’ve taken players from the calibre of several divisions above and we’ve still shown them a kind of football they’ve not encountered for years or even decades, and challenged them so that they’ve developed into better players, and better people with stronger character and mental toughness (something we talk about a lot and a cause for amazement from onlookers at how focused and positive our players remain in challenging circumstances).
So things like Solidarity Soccer are now more crucial than ever as a way of introducing women to our different way of doing things, and our positive playing philosophy. And it’s something we’ll have to find ways to fund more as time goes on because it’s an important potential stepping stone to the sought-after standard four-week first team trial that avoids that culture shock for incoming players.
We all believe more than ever in our positive culture on and off the pitch, and that’s all part of the process that in the longer term also has a positive effect on results, especially as this squad settles in and gels even more than it has in preseason. We’ve learned a lot but are still figuring things out. We’re just getting started.
Support has been great this preseason, and I’m sure will continue to grow after the start of what, incredibly, will be our fourth season in a league where even women’s teams who rely on a men’s club collapse, let alone an openly progressive, independent women’s team that runs as a legally incorporated not-for-profit organisation facing the inevitable but welcome high levels of scrutiny that brings with it.
I rather facetiously said at last season’s Awards Night, ‘What is past is prologue,’ but actually it was probably the least daft thing I said all night. The past is prologue; everything we’ve done was building up to this point, where finally our culture and identity is strong and unshakeable, and we all believe in it, and stand up for it. You can tell the players fight for it.
If you want to see physically and mentally tough, talented and strong women who have big hearts, come along and support this team. You won’t meet a better bunch of people and I’m proud to even know them; coaching them is an honour and a privilege – because they’re empowered anyway and capable enough to know many of the solutions to problems; I just facilitate it.
They play for a badge that represents a different way of doing things; a better way of doing things. These “Red Stars” wear that red star badge with pride – and win, lose, or draw, that will remain. We won’t stop doing things the way we do them because of any single one result, be it on the pitch or out in the community. That makes this team winners anyway.