Football for Food’s Reverse Advent Calendar

We’re in our second season of our Football for Food campaign, following on from a massively successful 5-a-side tournament with talks held alongside it this past summer.

Now it’s the “Season of Giving,” our first team have played all their home games for 2016 – but at the suggestion of Director of Football Sarah Richards and current director and first team co-captain Simone Fenton-Jarvis, inspired by similar initiatives elsewhere, we’re kicking off a club-wide “Reverse Advent Calendar”!reverseadventcalendar

The Reverse Advent Calendar takes us back to the original spirit of the season (and grassroots football itself), with its focus on solidarity, community, and giving back in these capitalist times of consumption.

Those within AFC Unity are invited to grab a box or bag, and each day in the month of December, add a single item of food to it, right up until the 24th, at which point it can be delivered to a local food bank! (Our volunteers can help with this, but it’s sometimes great to go directly, in which case we can connect participants to a food bank nearest to them). Those taking part can use the #FootballForFood hashtag in their social media posts documenting their progress!

Our friends at the Sheffield Food Collective offered a handy list of what might be best to contribute.12063598_993844903991636_417211139417466014_n This can have a massive impact on people’s lives, particularly at this time of year, and is another way of showing that the AFC Unity ethos of collectivism and community is more important than ever.

AFC Unity Board of Directors Reshuffle

AFC Unity’s dynamic, all-female Board of Directors is undergoing a reshuffle as the organisation continues to evolve and expand.


Original “Red Star” Olivia Murray started out with AFC Unity on its very first day, first as a player recovering from injuries, before becoming a coach, then Director of Development, and finally Acting Chair of the Board of Directors. Moving away from the city and with a change of career endeavours taking up her time, she is now moving on from AFC Unity after nearly three years of involvement.

Co-founder and fellow director Jane Watkinson said: ‘We’re all so grateful as an organisation and as a board for all Liv did for AFC Unity, and we really wouldn’t be where we are today without her.’

Anna Cordwell and Charlotte Marshall also remain directors, and are joined by Simone Fenton-Jarvis, whose company CFM Limited began a two-year sponsorship deal with AFC Unity that helped to secure its stability, bringing with her a brand-new MBA in Facilities Management and a plethora of qualifications and experience in women’s football, having managed teams in the past, at a time when AFC Unity look to expand further and solidify their presence in the city.


Watkinson added: ‘We’re very excited to welcome Simone onto the board of directors, as she brings with her a wealth of knowledge from her brilliant background and, maybe more importantly, really grasps the ethos of AFC Unity and what we’re trying to do both on and off the pitch, which is crucial at this time.’

The Board are expected to announce major plans for AFC Unity’s expansion in the new year.

AFC Unity Up For Another Award!

thumbimage-phpFollowing on from our extraordinary success this year in winning the FA’s national Respect Award, and taking Bronze in Sport England’s Satellite Club of the Year awards, we are proud to announce that AFC Unity have been shortlisted in the category of Most Innovative Organisation for the Sheffield Make a Difference awards from Voluntary Action Sheffield who are arguably Sheffield’s leading non-profit support and advice organisation and are based at The Circle, AFC Unity’s registered office.

The Sheffield Make a Difference awards are being held ‘to celebrate the quiet heroes in the not-for-profit sector who deliver so much benefit for the city.’ The awards are part of marking Voluntary Action Sheffield’s 90th anniversary – and it also marks important anniversaries for two of their sponsors in South Yorkshire Housing Association and South Yorkshire’s Community Foundation.

AFC Unity co-founders Jay Baker and Jane Watkinson were filmed on November 4th for an awards night video, and first team co-captains Jane Watkinson and Simone Fenton-Jarvis will be on BBC Radio Sheffield on Tuesday morning, November 22nd, to talk to Rony Robinson about the awards nomination prompted by AFC Unity’s Community Outreach, Eliah Ward.

AFC Unity manager Jay Baker said: ‘We are very pleased to continue to build on our success through further recognition for our dedication towards offering an inclusive, positive environment for women’s football that is geared towards empowerment and community cohesion.’ He added: ‘Being up for this award means a lot to us because it shows our quite different methods are good methods; methods we feel are the way forward.’

Jessica Ennis-Hill will present the awards and winners will be revealed at a prestigious ceremony this Thursday, November 24th, at the Cutlers’ Hall.



Up the Left Wing

by Jay Baker

UpTheLeftWingWe’ve always emphasised that AFC Unity measure results differently – that, as a registered social enterprise, we have different targets to meet, different aims to reach for, and different outputs and outcomes than other sports clubs that may be unincorporated associations and just about results on the field.

Having said that, I’ve also fought for the cause on the pitch too, because if an indie women’s football club like ours – against insurmountable odds – can somehow still do well in competitive matches over the years (which we have), then this allows us to raise our profile and do greater good in the community as well. It’s difficult to have one without the other.

It also sends a message that despite not being an add-on to a men’s team, despite being alternative, despite being so positive, and despite being a Respect Award-winning club focused on fair play, you can still find success.

It’s the longest, hardest road to take – we don’t accept abusive behaviour, we don’t put pressure on referees, we don’t cheat or play “ringers” – and there are times it all really tests your mettle when so many others are doing all that, but the satisfaction that comes with the knowledge we’re a club that always tries to do the right thing, and stand up for what’s right (the clue is on our badge’s scroll), is so much greater. That’s why we reject “winning at all costs.” Tainted victories are not satisfying to us; we will hold out until we win the right way.

But, with all that said, how do you win “the right way”?

The late great American college basketball coach Don Meyer absolutely nailed it with his “four keys to winning.” He claimed that, once your team fully grasped these keys, the route to victory would be unlocked. And I totally agree with him.

4keysmemeBut what does this mean in practice for players?

Believing in the system, he said, meant player commitment to the style of play, or philosophy, recommending that players ‘be a sponge and soak up concepts of how the team plays.’ He suggested that players accept and learn a specific role within that framework, to understand how it’s important to the system, and then do it the best that they can.

Believing in yourself meant playing with confidence, thinking positive, with teammates realising they’re a great player in a great programme. He added that players shouldn’t get down when they play poorly, and accept they were chosen to be part of the team, so should lead by example.

Believing in your teammates meant communicating with each other and helping each other. ‘Remember,’ he said, ‘that the strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack.’ He urged players to be friends and ‘understand that we’re all different,’ so should be tolerant, encourage and support each other, and never forget the importance of ‘the shell around the team.’

Finally, believing in your coaches because, he said, ‘they’re trying to make you better players as well as better people’ (yes, better people too). ‘Ask questions,’ he said, ‘but don’t whine and complain.’ Players, he added, must believe that their coach is doing what they think is right for the team in the long run.

Many people had many views of Don Meyer, and not everyone agreed with him (his other requirements were players taking notes, being polite, and picking up trash!), but his success spoke for itself, being the all-time leader in college basketball coaching for games won. So it’s definitely worth taking something from him.

Last week, with an injury-hit first team squad including the regular goalkeeper, a threadbare team and in a rough environment – when so many had written us off and so few gave us a chance – we won. We won 7-3. Because ability is great, but these four keys unlocked the win for us. The players played with heart, with passion, with guts and integrity…and believed in the style of play, themselves, each other, and me. We were all rewarded.

The rest of the season will continue to be tough – two really hard cup games approach – and we still have several injuries and the spectre of the start of the season still right behind us, but we know we’re getting better, and we know we can climb the mountain. Even if we took the hardest path to get there.

Solidarity Soccer Participant Spotlight: Sarah Choonara

Solidarity Soccer is our innovative community based football training initiative for women which has empowerment, skill sharing and a personalised approach shaping it. We have a session running at Hillsborough College, a session based at Concord Sports Centre and another session at Meadowhead School, running weekly – we have plans to expand the initiative into more areas and engage more women in the sport in a unique way.

We spoke to regular Solidarity Soccer attendee Sarah Choonara about her experiences of Solidarity Soccer, and what kind of impact it has had on and off the pitch – Sarah has won the Teamwork Digital Award and is a key defender for the AFC Unity Jets 11-a-side team!

AFC Unity: In a few words, how would you describe Solidarity Soccer to someone who hasn’t been?
Sarah: It’s a unique training session that works really well with players with different levels of experience and confidence so everyone learns and progresses together.

AFC Unity: What would you say to someone who hasn’t been to Solidarity Soccer if you wanted them to come along?
Sarah: You have nothing to lose! You can enjoy it for what it is, use it to progress your football, have fun, try something new, meet Jane and Jay, find out about the AFC Unity set up, it’s a top way to spend an evening!

AFC Unity: Do you have any stories that stand out from your time of being involved in Solidarity Soccer?
Sarah: I forgot the session start time had changed and was a bit early and saw another woman who appeared to be waiting. I asked if she was waiting for the AFC Unity session and she said she wasn’t but asked what it was. It didn’t take much persuading for her to cancel her lift, join the session and take information about other Solidarity Soccer sessions in her area!

AFC Unity: Has Solidarity Soccer had an impact on your outside football life?
Sarah: Yes – I’m fitter and I’m proud I’ve tried new things. It’s also really good spending time chatting on the bus, in the car and between activities with players I wouldn’t get to know otherwise, and consolidating friendships with team mates I do play with more.

AFC Unity: Has Solidarity Soccer helped you with 11-a-side football at all?
Sarah: Yes – my 11-a-side experience is just starting so I’m not quite employing flicks and tricks yet but the small sided game time with more experienced players gives me great opportunity to work on areas of my game I feel need a boost. The master classes are also excellent as you are encouraged to try things you may never have focused on before in a supportive environment which really helps.

AFC Unity: If you could pick one word to describe Solidarity Soccer what would it be?
Sarah: Inclusive

AFC Unity: What has been your favourite skill to learn and why?
Sarah: The Cruyff Turn as it was the first skill we learned and it encapsulated the whole ethos of Solidarity Soccer about football being for everyone. This beautiful, creative, world class move is there for everyone to try… our first session!!

AFC Unity: Anything else to add?
Sarah: The Sport England’s Satellite Club of the Year nomination was brilliant recognition for all the thought, dedication and hard work that has gone in to creating and developing Solidarity Soccer. I’m so pleased women’s football in Sheffield has this wonderful provision for us to enjoy and hopefully inspire others. Many thanks AFC Unity!!!!

Up the Left Wing

UpTheLeftWingby Jay Baker

I only ask this of you. I won’t tell you off if you misplace a pass, or miss a header that costs us a goal, as long as I know you are giving 100%. I could forgive you any mistake, but I won’t forgive you if you don’t give your heart and soul to Barcelona. The style comes dictated by the history of this club and we will be faithful to it. When we have the ball, we can’t lose it. When that happens, run and get it back. That is it, basically.

– Pep Guardiola, in his first speech as Barcelona manager.

Many people fear, and therefore resist, change.

Football is changing. Some players don’t like it. Many fans don’t like it. The English press certainly don’t like it – partially fueled by xenophobia of “foreign” managers coming into English leagues and introducing different styles; different philosophies.

We have former footballers of questionable ethics complaining that players have to endure the same coaching programmes as managers, as though they have an understanding, or a head start, that managers don’t. In fact, many of the best managers are those who played very little football, especially at a top level (just look at Arsene Wenger).

I’ll go one step further: the tutor who got me my first coaching badge told me that all the experience and even badges in the world don’t matter if you don’t have heart, passion, or leadership qualities as a person. Not, in fact, English himself, he also acknowledged a deep-rooted problem within the English game and its resistance to evolving from its own traditional ways (not least the army camp culture of an otherwise-clueless Level 2 coach abusing their power to scream and shout at players, free from proper regulation). This is what’s held back English football, but few admit it.

Hence, the English press complain when a “foreigner” like Pep Guardiola comes in and influences an adjustment in the way football is played in England, too. Many managers bring in players from overseas to play this way, admittedly building a glass ceiling for English talent and limiting the potential of the English national men’s team. It’ll happen with the women’s game as well, as money begins to carry it away from its grassroots spirit and into corporate boardrooms.

But change, good or bad, is inevitable. And the way football is played is changing – which is a good thing.

In an 1872 international men’s game, Scotland surprisingly contained England because they chose to pass the ball around – play possession, unheard of at the time – rather than simply run on goal. While much junior football hasn’t changed, senior football has: formations developed throughout the 20th century, increasingly defensive, as 3-2-2-3 “WM” turned into 4-2-4, which in turn gave way to the 4-4-2. While the Italians were defending and playing keep-ball before hoping for a lucky break, at Barcelona rebel Johan Cruyff was revolutionising football with positive 3-4-3 tiki-taka, encouraging all players to think defensively when not in possession of the ball, but also be attacking-minded when their team does have the ball.

Since then, football has changed direction again: Cruyff’s understudy Pep Guardiola has implemented his own philosophy right through the Manchester City franchise, to Melbourne City and New York City FC, where – guess what? – Patrick Vieira is utilising his own twist on the 3-4-3 with that “WM” formation everyone thought had died in the 1920s.

Now such innovators have influenced the sport so much that collective pro-active zonal marking is becoming increasingly favoured over individualistic re-active man-marking, and fearless, high-risk, attacking play with lots of pressure far more premiershipcommonplace. As I write, the current English Premiership is dominated by teams who either were influenced by tiki-taka, utilise a 3-4-3, adopt zonal marking even on set-pieces, or focus on pressing – or a mixture of all these. That demonstrates how the upper echelons of football have evolved at the forefront of football innovation. Much like Scandinavian social democracy, when something works, why do we still reject it? Because we’re English?! Foolish, more like.

Grassroots football is always a good ten years behind, but here these themes will be adopted, too, because otherwise players progress, only to have to essentially re-learn the principles of football.

Yes, it’s easier for grassroots coaches to put less preparation time in and just tell everyone to adopt the same old vanilla formation, mark individual players, and hoof it up the pitch. Yes, it’s tough to teach and influence players away from tradition; it’s daunting for them too because again, people fear change.

But when change is embraced – when players are passionate, and keen to learn, and want to challenge themselves and take their game to a whole other level – success follows, both individually and collectively.

But this requires patience, something us Westerners don’t exactly have a lot of. Martial arts in its Far East origins usually saw students spend years at white belt before finally earning a black belt – when the West imported these fighting arts, people were far too impatient, so more colours were introduced as progression points; students were dropping out because they weren’t witnessing more “quick-fix” results.

My heart is with grassroots football; with women’s football. I have no ambitions for myself to go onwards and upwards in any way other than with AFC Unity; without AFC Unity, I wouldn’t be doing this. But there is no reason grassroots football should not be proud, evolve, and be ambitious for itself to improve the quality of football delivery at every level, so that players have different expectations of how much they can learn when they get involved. This is why grassroots football has to be professionalised – not for its players, but in the way it’s delivered, and regulated, rather than letting volunteers run amok venting their weekday frustrations by conducting their training sessions like an army camp, “drills” and all.

It’s why our Solidarity Soccer initiative wins awards; its retention rates are high because the ethos of AFC Unity isn’t just about working together, or skill-sharing, but also about learning without fear – and playing without fear.

AFC Unity is developing its own football philosophy, one that reflects its ethos – it’s fast becoming a part of our identity because the way you play soccer should reflect the way you are, and terms like “positivity” and “collectivism” don’t really fit with the old ways of football; they apply to the ways we’re trying to nurture.

It won’t be easy – we’ve just thinned out all our pre-existing personnel into two teams before being struck with an injury crisis – but that set-up in the longer term will provide the perfect base for women to progress from Solidarity Soccer, to AFC Unity Jets, to finally representing AFC Unity in its first team, with the football philosophy and style of play running through all of them, so players truly feel the difference playing for us, with what we do on as well as off the pitch, and understand what it means to be a Unity player.

Hope Over Fear.