Up the Left Wing

by Jay Baker

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.

AFC Unity Progress with Trade Union Promotion

A progressive Sheffield football club and the local Trades Council have teamed up for an innovative campaign for the TUC’s Heart Unions Week.

AFC Unity is one of a small number of clubs playing in women’s leagues that have been formed independent of an existing men’s club.

Founded in 2014, AFC Unity have marked their identity as a progressive club through campaigns tackling injustice such as their hugely successful Football for Food campaign which has to date collected 908kg of food at 25 events for local food banks.

In a development of this campaign, the club has sought ways to highlight issues behind food poverty, such as low wages and insecure work. A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation revealed that Sheffield is the lowest-paid of all the UK’s major cities, with hourly wages in Sheffield £1.15 less than the national average, and 76p lower than they were in 2010.

In a bid to raise awareness of these issues, the club has teamed up with the Sheffield Trades Council, the umbrella organisation for trade unions in Sheffield.

Employees at unionised workplaces have been shown to earn around 12.5% more than non-unionised workplaces, as well as unions helping to provide safer workspaces and highlight and fight together for improved terms and conditions at work. Sheffield Trades Council has a strong tradition of providing solidarity support to trade union campaigns on issues such as low pay.

The partnership aims to promote the benefits of belonging to a workplace trade union with a series of eye-catching and novel posters highlighting the similarities between supporting each other at work and on the football field. Released for Heart Unions Week, a week of activity from 12 – 18 February throughout England and Wales that highlights the good work that unions do every day to offer everyone a voice at work, AFC Unity hopes the message will reach and encourage workers to find out more about what trade unions can do to help conditions at work.

Sarah Choonara, player and volunteer with AFC Unity, has said ‘It is great to develop new ways of promoting the value of trade unions. Hopefully the images and slogans in this campaign about teamwork and fair play will catch the eye of young people and those who haven’t had much contact with the trade union movement, and they will look into it more.’

Martin Mayer, Secretary Sheffield TUC, said ‘Sheffield TUC is proud to stand by AFC Unity women’s football team – a truly fine example of practical solidarity and collectivism for progressive politics. It’s great to show the positive side of the trade union movement in action during Heart Unions Week.’

AFC Unity are promoting the values of trade unionism reflected in Unity’s ethos by using the #UnityForAll hashtag on social media.

You can view, download, and print the posters here:

For more information, go to sheffieldtuc.co.uk