Up the Left Wing

by Jay Baker

UpTheLeftWingI haven’t made an entry into this column since the last season ended, but suffice to say I was very pleased with what was a mission accomplished after we set out to consolidate in the Second Division.

After a pre-season of shakeups in the way we trained, and the newly-set target of holding our own in Division Two, the nerves took over for our opening league game at Rotherham United Development, where we were already losing 4-0 by half time – a regroup needed in the break to score a goal and concede one in the steady second half, for a 5-1 result.

We responded well the week after at home, beating New Bohemians 6-0, before losing to Shaw Lane Aquaforce 6-2 at theirs, incapable of dealing with their tried-and-tested tactics and seeing them take the top spot in the table, undefeated.

Being 3-2 down by half time at former Division One side Edlington Royals, we felt we really had a chance to take the win, but an unregistered referee and horrific two-footed tackle on Charlotte Marshall that made her miss most of the season rattled the whole team, and we lost 4-2.

The team remained rattled for some time, and we lost 7-2 at Mexborough Athletic who, despite playing the best football we’d seen at that point, admitted ‘something wasn’t right’ about Unity. My coach and I felt we fixed it in training the following day, and felt much more confident about the next game, at home to undefeated league leaders Shaw Lane Aquaforce, who we beat 3-2 by playing to our system in a disciplined manner, where everyone had their part to play, and did so very well. Later that month, we took Mexborough to the limit at home, winning 6-5 in another thriller.

Trailing 2-1 at half time at AFC Dronfield, who had taken the top spot in Division Two and won every single match, we remained confident of further “scalps” as league underdogs, but lost 4-2 in a close game, and were beating them 2-1 in the return fixture when a lack of concentration made us concede the equalizer in added time, albeit becoming the first team in the division to stop their winning streak. In between those two matches, we beat Sheffield Wednesday Development 3-2 at home despite losing 1-0 at half time. We remained unbeaten in home league games for over a year as a result.

That record was broken with relish by Rotherham United Development, who beat us 6-0 when a fragile formation fell apart because a key individual refused to be a team player, presented a host of headaches for the players, and was eventually ousted. This was the opposite of the win over Shaw Lane, where team harmony beat the odds, and this trauma caused to the team meant it took a 3-0 home defeat to Edlington Royals for them all to resettle and enjoy their football again, which we did, winning the last two games 13-1 and 9-1 to guarantee the mid-table finish we needed, and deserved. Granted, teams were struggling for numbers by this point despite being backed by significantly-sized men’s clubs, and we certainly shouldn’t ever apologise – or be penalised – for valuing women’s football and engaging high numbers. Our opponents get penalised by losing, as it should be.

“Unity” isn’t just a word. When you have players out for themselves, upsetting half a dozen teammates, we deal with them. Grassroots football is too often about “survival of the fittest,” with players bullying others or being bullied themselves; teams driven down to the lowest common denominator – a horrible culture I reject and one this club rejects, and as a result we go to great pains to get rid of rotten apples before they spoil the barrel.

We have to keep an environment of positivity. Negative personalities thrive off negative dialogue and slanging matches, making scenes on the training ground, and I reject that. I will never engage in negativity that my team must be subjected to, and everyone who runs AFC Unity understands, appreciates and values that. Players value that too, and that’s why, despite being one of the very few clubs in the country exclusively dedicated to women’s football, we have such high retention rates.

REVOLUTIONAsk any of our players – especially ones who have experienced the pain of playing for other clubs just about football and nothing else – and they’ll tell you what a positive environment we have. Our end-of-season Awards Night was a fantastic celebration of this, where I reiterated the sentiment that when you’re only about winning, on those occasions you lose, you have nothing left. That’s why we keep smiling even when we lose. We’re unstoppable. We keep going. Unity always goes on, win lose or draw. That’s why what we’re doing is a women’s football revolution.

As we look towards next season, we have a better way to keep up with our high demand with the introduction of a second team, the AFC Unity Jets (who are not “reserves,” as some clubs like to call them). This provides a clearer line between competitive ambition and a fun chance to play 11-a-side league football.

The AFC Unity Jets will enter into Division Three, with the first team remaining in a Division Two which will endure an influx of top teams deserving of higher status but forced to climb the ranks of the leagues – this will make it harder for the first team, but I look forward to this next challenge, and at the same time am excited for the AFC Unity Jets to take off on their own experiences!

Finally, I’d like to thank everyone involved in AFC Unity, from my co-founder Jane Watkinson, to the Board of Directors, and newly-appointed Director of Football Sarah Richards, to the players, coaches and volunteers, for everything they put into this fast-expanding organisation that is utilising the power of football to do so much good for people.

¡Viva la Revolución!

– “Jay Guevara”

Up the Left Wing

UpTheLeftWingby Jay Baker

Everyone ought to find something in life that they can feel proud of, and take pride in. It’s really important that the choices we make as people are ones we can be proud of. Granted, most of us don’t have the luxury of making whatever choices we’d like – due to things like class, gender, race, and such – but when we get the chance to make a choice, we have to make it one we can be proud of; one that makes us feel good about ourselves.

The best players on and off the pitch are ones who can take pride in the club they play for, from enjoying the experience of involvement with that club, and feeling proud to pull on that team’s shirt.

In an age where so many players at a professional level are shipped about, and bought and sold like cattle, the disconnection between players and the club and its community is greater than ever. But even at grassroots level, where so many women’s teams are an afterthought or a tag-on to an established men’s team, too many women find themselves wondering what makes them play for that team, other than having friends there, or it suiting them in terms of time or location, which in itself fine – but ideally, it should be about much more than that. It should be a team, a club, that you can be proud of; that you want to play for above all others.

I take pride in AFC Unity, and there is no other team on earth I’d rather coach for, or manage, because it’s about football with an ethos I believe in. Ideally, I expect others involved to share similar passion for it.

AFC Unity exists and thrives because it’s about the results off the pitch as well as on it. Aside from keeping things in perspective – and keeping players level-headed – this all takes place because it reflects our vision, and values – of being part of the local community, and helping that local community.

The football philosophy we have – which will have its own special section on this website soon – means that the approach to games and training sessions actually makes the soccer reflect the ethos, whether it means rejecting cheating and dishonesty, or standing up for what’s right no matter how hard it is. This is called “integrity.” That’s our motto. That’s on our badge. And these things are what that badge represents.20150821_182018

It’s no secret we have attracted an incredible amount of women to AFC Unity partly because of this ethos and the “brand,” and at the moment we are devising more and more ways for women of different ages and abilities and backgrounds to get involved in playing football to keep up with the demand we’ve provoked.

But as we create more training sessions, and more teams, it’s also important to remind players that an “alternative football club” isn’t just about the positive ethos meaning it’s a safe, friendly environment where you’re not going to be doing army camp “drills” or get shouted at for making a mistake. It’s also about seeing that this can only exist in the spirit of solidarity that AFC Unity represents: sticking together, and helping the community.

So, as we approach the end of our second-ever season and move closer to the break, I’ll be asking myself what players want to represent that the most, what players represent us the best, and who believes in and buys into what we’re all about. Because there are plenty of other clubs out there – huge, professional, profit-driven companies that too often treat women as money-making tokens – and I want people around me who reject all that, prove they believe in a better world, and players who take pride in pulling on that red shirt, and wearing our badge, as one of our “Red Stars.” Because we’re about so much more than the beautiful game we play. And as so often in life – based on the choices we get to make – what you give is what you get.

Up the Left Wing

by Jay Baker

I’m writing this one week after our incredible 3-2 upset over previously unbeaten Shaw Lane Aquaforce, who were at that point joint league leaders, in what was probably the best game of soccer I’ve ever witnessed in my life, because it had everything, from our opening goal one minute in, to going 1-2 down at half-time, to pulling equal, and finally clinching the winner five minutes from full time – you couldn’t have scripted a better fairy-tale, and a fine ending to our run of losses away from home which we knew didn’t reflect our quality, or the football we know we can force teams to engage in when on our home turf. But again, this season is about consolidation in the Second Division, as part of bigger plans for AFC Unity.

UpTheLeftWingGetting an organisation like ours off the ground in the grassroots game is always a challenge, and even more so when you’re anchored to your motto of ‘integrity’ and doing things the right way, rather than the easy way. Not everyone sees a football club as having a key part to play in its community, but for me that attitude is what’s allowed the sport to become dominated and damaged by profit, reducing it to a business, and disconnecting it completely from honest, decent working class people. That’s why we’re an alternative football club – and why we will keep our roots firmly in these areas.

The volunteering opportunities we provide exist as much to give back to the community as to help our organisation grow – such involvement is important for AFC Unity since our resources are limited, with no subsidies from a men’s team (when such clubs actually pass on any rewards reaped on to their women’s teams, which doesn’t always happen, by the way – they’re often treated like tokens to make money from). Every volunteer we take on has a goal in mind for how their own prospects can be improved by participating with us, and it just so happens that we have had top-notch volunteers such as the passionate Anna Pickering focused on sports psychology, knowledgeable Jarrod Skervin in sports physio, and sports journalist Finola Fitzpatrick, who’s been an absolute force of nature for us and really raised the profile of our Football for Food campaign.

The Football for Food campaign was originally my co-founder Jane Watkinson’s idea, as a simple bread-and-butter issue AFC Unity could tackle in a pragmatic way – dealing with food poverty in our city via our collaboration with Sheffield Food Collective and the backing of our sponsors, Nourish. It’s another reminder that, in the grand scheme of things, football isn’t the be-all, end-all, and should only exist because of community, not in spite of it. We’re here for what good we can do socially – and the more successful we become on the pitch, the more effective we’ll be at doing some good.

Probably the biggest supporters of the AFC Unity concept since day one have been South Yorkshire Sport who, more than any other organisation, have helped us avoid the collapse so many women’s teams succumb to, whether associated with a men’s side or not. No one has done so much to get behind the good we’ve tried to do, or to make sure we’ve kept going when we’ve felt browbeaten. Stuart Rogers, in particular, has been a guardian angel for AFC Unity, and I don’t mind saying it, and it was our director Anna Cordwell who first put us on to South Yorkshire Sport so we could connect with him. One thing he said recently was, ‘AFC Unity are developing good people, not just good players.’ One of his colleagues then backed up that statement by suggesting that this was essentially the USP of AFC Unity.

My dad – a former grassroots player and referee – always said that soccer tends to attract ‘really unintelligent, thick people’ at the top. And it’s true, because who in heaven’s name would want to take on a job as a player, contributing nothing at all to society than kicking a ball around a piece of grass? People do this stuff as a hobby; heck, our players actually pay to play! No, football should be about enjoyment, about covering costs and giving back to the community, and our players value that. Good people, not just good players.


I see so many misogynistic managers who just don’t get women’s soccer, and instead use their teams as an opportunity to vent their frustrations after a long week, and regain some sense of power, and that aggressive attitude is reflected in turn by their players swearing, shouting and cheating on the pitch. I happen to feel like I have enough responsibilities in my working week without grasping for more power on a Sunday, or at training on Monday – you can’t have rights without responsibilities, and ultimately it’s the manager’s duty to take the flak when things go wrong (since he or she is coaching the players), but take the credit for when things go right? I don’t think so. I don’t see how that helps women’s football or how any manager can lead a women’s team without being a feminist. It’s about empowering these women, simply guiding them, but letting them enjoy their football and showing that it’s them – not some man – that are enacting plans on the pitch. It’s their game. They’ve stood in the shadow of men long enough, thanks, without me getting in there and making it about me. That is not why I do this.

The coaching approach I take is designed to reflect all this as well, and it’s one I’m happy to share, because I’d like to see it emulated more by those secure enough to take coaching tips from a lowly Level 1 like myself who isn’t one of those at the top, but comes instead from the bottom – the community sector:

  • Give good feedback but don’t single players out for heaps of praise; tell them aside on an individual level
  • Don’t pick out a ‘player of the match’; no one player ever has a good game without good players around them working hard as part of that team – collectivism, not individualism
  • If players all want to pick out a player they felt had a great game, encourage them to go and tell that player themselves; it’s an important part of the social aspect of a football team, too!
  • Call them training exercises, not ‘drills’; it’s football, not an army camp!
  • Use training exercises (!) that are simple to explain, and understand – and make sure players know why they’re doing them
  • Players can’t gain fitness through one-off sessions of off-the-ball action, they gain football fitness just by playing soccer regularly – the more time they have on the ball, the better, as each second counts in on-the-ball training and has a great effect on the player’s confidence
  • Never, ever, get on the ball yourself – of course, if you’re like me, you miss playing and love to play, but don’t: for every touch you have on the ball, that’s one a player could have had, and developing them is more important than you wanting a kick-about
  • Don’t talk too much – words are better in quality not quantity; they came to play and have fun, not listen to you show off how much you know about the game, so instead throw it out to them for their feedback too, since they’re the ones out there in the thick of it, not you!
  • Stamp out cliques at all costs – obviously, friendships are formed, and players have some things in common with some more than others, but when they play, they play as a team, and they’re there because they want to play for that badge
  • Keep boundaries in place: you’re their coach, but you have to get the balance right between being friendly and keeping a professional distance (and you should never look like you have favourites when you’re in coaching mode)
  • Keep all criticism constructive, i.e., ‘Try and remember to do what you usually do best; you haven’t done that as much today’ and ask them why – 100% positivity, no negativity whatsoever (it’s really not such a crazy idea)
  • Don’t encourage, accept, or allow cheating of any kind, ever, even if the opponents are doing it: if you play good football, you’ll win anyway – let the others cheat and try and sleep at night, since you’re a winner anyway if you always do the right thing

I’ll leave it there for now, but I thought I’d throw out there how our coaching approach is designed to reflect our ethos, and how in turn this way of doing things gets the ethos reflected by the players. It’s not for everyone, I know – some prefer screaming, shouting, intimidating, and see football as war, and to be fair, for some it might as well be since their jobs depend on it in big clubs. But I prefer hope over fear – football is just a part of society, and society needs a little more of that, don’t you agree?

Up the Left Wing

UpTheLeftWingby Jay Baker

With the 2015/16 season underway in the Second Division of the Sheffield & Hallamshire Women’s County Football League, I felt it was time to add another entry into the manager’s column here.

Before we get to the actual football, it’s worth acknowledging all the foundations of AFC Unity that enable it to function as well as it does – from my co-founder Jane Watkinson and the Board of Directors, to Director of Development Olivia Murray, to Head Coach of Development Jonny Hodgson, the Development programme itself with its ‘stars of tomorrow’ and 5 Stars Powerleague 5-a-side team, as well as the fantastic volunteers we have in Sports Journalism, Sports Psychology, and Events Coordination, all of whom have been of a high standard of work ethic and contribution.

As mentioned in my first entry here, the club’s been expanding faster and healthier this year, and we’ve really hit our stride to the point where we’re having to accelerate some of our long-term plans so we can keep up with demand. We’ve also kicked off the Football for Food campaign to tackle food poverty in our city, and it’s started extremely well, with interest from local media and even the One Show, and we’ll be back home on November 1st to pick up where we left off after several weeks of away games through October.

The fact AFC Unity is about community – firmly rooted in the grassroots from which football originally grew despite since losing its way – is what makes our actual results on the pitch less significant. When you walk off the field, you still feel you can hold your head high, because the entire club is about community benefit and not just who scores more goals than who, and even though some people really want to beat us, we see that as a major compliment, as well!

Having said that, it’s natural that we want AFC Unity to slowly and painstakingly climb up the league, because with a greater profile comes greater opportunities to do good in the community. We have long-term plans, as mentioned, and we’re passionate about our ability to utilise football as a uniting force for positive change. So the way we even do this has to be the right way, and the ethical way.

Positivity is what drives pretty much all of our decisions, and our approaches to coaching – we compliment players, magnify their strengths and always stay focused on that, with training sessions aimed at lots of action and time on the ball. We reject the ‘drills’ of the army camp and ensure players are, first and foremost, having fun; at the end of the day, they’re paying to be playing, not spoiled multi-millionaire men that require extra discipline. Of course we have rules, we have our vision and values and ask players to adhere to that for the good of the many over the few – a simple principle that helped form the foundations of the club itself.

Division 2 is going to be tough. We knew that. We also knew we wanted to consolidate this season and prove that we belong here, and we do, because on our worst day we can be beaten by anyone, but on our best day are capable of beating any other team in this division, too. We sometimes forget that.

Because of our ethos, we tend to attract players who are modest, and sometimes that comes with a lack of confidence, but each and every one of them is an absolute star – we were particularly picky this year about having players with the right commitment to the ethos, as well as an emphasis on attitude, ability, and attendance. This is a team that will comprise the nucleus to take us forward, too.

We have a rather unique Development programme that not only provides opportunities for women of all abilities to get into the game, but also helps us bring in players ourselves if need be. I have been so impressed by the work Jonny has done in Development lately, and I know Olivia is watching closely for the next players to make the progression to 11-a-side. Next year, we’ll have even more progression routes, but for now, we have to be patient and be careful not to bring players up before they’re ready, as this can have a detrimental effect on confidence rather than boost it. There are some players I’ve seen that I wish I could have in the first team now, but again, we have to get the timing right. Patience is a virtue, and it’s again also a great way to make sure players are in AFC Unity for its ethos and are prepared to wait it out for the reason that it’s us they want to play for.

On that note, thanks to everyone involved in this alternative football club, and thank you for reading and valuing the grassroots game and its connection to community that we hold on to, and nurture. This sport can still mean something to ordinary people, and we’ll always do our best to make sure it does.

Hope Over Fear.

Up the Left Wing

UpTheLeftWingby Jay Baker

Welcome to the first entry into my manager’s column, entitled Up the Left Wing, which is an interesting title for someone who, if anything, might have been fortunate to carve out a footballing career as a slow, plodding, tough-tackling centre-half, if I was lucky. What’s that old saying? ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.’ And my managerial techniques are more likely to be found from my community work than a football course!

I first want to say how very proud I am of our humble alternative football club from modest beginnings little over 18 months ago, running a training session with about five attendees, to now becoming a frighteningly fast-growing organisation – an FA Charter Standard Club, an incorporated non-profit company limited by guarantee, with a Development programme, a fast-learning five-a-side team known as the 5 Stars, and the eleven-a-side first team gaining promotion in its first-ever season, from Division 3 to Division 2 of the Sheffield & Hallamshire Women’s County Football League, having involved nearly a hundred women ever since.

In that short space of time, we’ve learnt so much, from being a club seen as somewhere to take waifs and strays – and the teething troubles that go with that – to finally ensuring our integrity and inclusion is expected of our players, as well, to ensure a positive environment of collectivism over individualism.

We’ve also gained a sponsor, Nourish, which is another dream collaboration, and have connected with the Sheffield Food Collective to tackle food poverty in our city, because our spirit of camaraderie extends beyond the field, using football as a force for positive change, and bringing out the best in people; seeing the best in people.

With all this said, I’m very excited to oversee much of this with my co-founder Jane Watkinson and the Board of Directors, and have implemented a five-year Business & Development Plan that will see AFC Unity continue to expand while adhering to its founding principles. Without the subsidisation of a men’s club, we have still identified ways of building stronger foundations to continue to engage and empower women in football as part of their community, and some of our plans are very exciting!

Our Development programme overseen by Olivia Murray and delivered by Jonny Hodgson is a crucial entry point for women young or old who are returning to the game, recovering from injury, or kicking a ball for the very first time, and the exit strategies for them – into our five-a-side team, or eleven-a-side team – are also broadening in the near future. We see our approach in delivery and promotion of grassroots women’s football being emulated across our local area, and this makes us very proud, because more and more people are realising this is something to shout about, and just as valuable – if not more valuable – than multi-millionaire men running around on television, taking far more than they give back to working class communities.

Our passion for positivity is what drives each and every decision in the club, off and on the pitch – where positive, pro-active, pressing, passing football is key, and where we try to be bold and brave, rather than cynical or overly defensive – my preference for winning 6-5 rather than 1-0 means that, despite testing the patience of my defenders, people will see some fantastic games! And wearing my hat as first team manager for a moment, I’m overjoyed with the ‘dream team’ I’ve assembled already, and the pre-season preparations – where we lost only one game, winning two, and drawing one, against a First Division side, no less – were very impressive, despite the injuries we sustained, which are only sent to test our quality and depth in a 2015/16 squad comprised of genuinely lovely people, all so very different and unique as individuals, but who come together and play as a team.

With how fast everything’s moved, my pre-season plan was to consolidate this season, in the Second Division, and carefully place the building blocks to achieving our lofty long-term goals, but anything is possible. AFC Unity is in for the long haul, and I hope more and more players – and people in general who want to support women’s football – will continue to be attracted to its positive ethos and connection to the community. I’m sure it will continue to be one heck of a journey.