Up the Left Wing

by Jay Baker

With the start of season just days away, we are about to enact our “2020 Vision” – a player pact providing a working document for me to facilitate as Head Coach. Much has been written about this initiative elsewhere on this website numerous times, but suffice to say it means the first team nurturing friendly competition to make us better on the pitch, so as to raise our already-impressive profile in order to do more good off the pitch.

This isn’t going to suddenly happen overnight. It isn’t called the “2019 Vision,” for example – it’s called the 2020 Vision for a reason: it’s about where we want to go, and how we go about getting there. Every single player is involved with it, every single player buys into it, and every single player is prepared to work, and sacrifice, to make it succeed. And it is going to be hard work, for all of us, including me – because I’m now judged on my own merits as a coach strategically, and I feel that difference already. It’s a big deal.

Pre-season was a mish-mash of games against very different teams – some strong performances and results against Division One sides, but also some more challenging ones against teams in our very own Second Division. More importantly, it’s really apparent from those performances – and the way the team clicks – that we retained every single player from last season who is continuing to play in the local area; not one single player defected – how many teams, let alone teams that finished bottom of their league, have ever been able to say that? Very, very few.

This is demonstrative of the fact that our players believe in what we’re trying to do here at AFC Unity, and when you’re part of it, it’s something bigger than just yourself. Look at our last couple of Awards Night ceremonies, and the way the team and myself have voted the same way on both occasions, or that we all now see similar attributes at Solidarity Soccer in terms of players who’d fit in with our positive, proactive approach.

On top of that, the way this team has retained all these players – while adding a few superb additions to the squad from Solidarity Soccer as well – helped us to feel like we finally had a really solid foundation to build on, whereas in the past we’ve had to rebuild from scratch almost every summer until our ethos was so obvious and so clear and so strong that finally – finally! – we have a team that wants to fight for it; again, something bigger than just themselves.

I’m entering my sixth season coaching the team and can safely state that we’re playing the best football we’ve ever played, which you’ll know if you’ve seen some of our preseason friendlies. Some opponents don’t like that fact – perhaps they make excuses, or prefer to claim they had an off-day, or were missing key players – and some opponents like it, appreciate it, and compliment you on it…but mostly when they’ve won. Let’s see if teams will praise us on our football when we’ve used it to beat them. That’s the true test. I know I do it all the time: I’ve lost count of the amount of times over the years I’ve suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of a Rovers Foundation, or a Sheffield United, or a Sheffield Wednesday, and praised them on their cohesive, intense machine of a team performance. I’m not too proud to do that. Good football is good football. And besides, I much prefer to lose to good football than bad football (and sadly, though not always, it’s far too often that bad football – long ball football, route one football, direct football – is what beats us).

But it’s more than that. There’s a condescension towards AFC Unity. Over the years, some players, teams, clubs, even officials from various leagues or institutions at the time, have seemingly worked hard to keep us down, because the idea that a 100% positive football philosophy at a football club driven by social justice could prove successful probably makes them uncomfortable. And as we’ve grown and attracted multiple awards and hundreds – approaching thousands – of followers on social media, as our ethos becomes stronger, so we’ve been able to shift the team from a collection of individuals who perhaps cared more about their own game time or stats than the success of the club, to a true collective of players who put their heart and soul into playing for our badge, and making a success of it.

So of course there’s a condescension – little AFC Unity: no men’s team, legally registered as a not-for-profit company, transparent and democratic – of course there’s even a preconceived notion from the traditional footballing culture that what we do can’t be any good. Well, get ready. We’re going to be good.

What we’re about to do is develop the football we play – the football that played triangles up and down the pitch and around and through opponents in preseason – and make people take notice, that whether we win, lose, or draw, we can and will play beautiful football in a way it’s meant to be played: a collective effort where every single player, back to front, front to back, gets on the ball, every single one with a responsibility to defend from the front and attack from the back. Even if it’s the hardest thing to do – which it is, especially at this level where it’s often a case of playing on an underfunded and neglected playing surface and the easiest thing in the world is to just hoof the ball up the field to play territorial football and get some quick-fix results. We’re looking to change things, but we’re not about to use a quick fix. We’re going to keep learning, and learn the hard way in these first few games, and we’re going to get better and better and better.

What we’re also about to do as part of the 2020 Vision is further the democratic engagement of the first team players beyond our dynamic Team Meetings right through the entirety of the club itself, and we’re going to evolve our grassroots campaigns and initiatives – including Solidarity Soccer – to be more progressive, more forward-thinking, more inclusive, more impactful, and more radical. We’re going to build an even stronger foundation, from Solidarity Soccer upwards, so that it provides not just the basis for the first team but also the basis of our base itself: the culture that drives the whole club.

But yes, it’s going to be a really challenging start to the season: you look at the fixtures and realise – especially with some of our players still absent or injured from the summer – that, wow, this is going to be as tough as it gets. But I kind of like that. I think if we can be faced with those sorts of challenges early on, we’ll learn lots from such experiences, we’ll develop more, we’ll gain a lot, and we’ll be even better for the rest of the season.

Yes, in terms of the league, we’re starting at the bottom. But starting at the bottom is nothing new for AFC Unity. As an independent women’s football club founded in 2014 by two people in a cramped little studio flat down the road from the U-Mix Centre, hell-bent on providing an alternative to the traditional footballing environments and structures, we were starting at the bottom for sure. Now, a limited company legally registered as strictly non-profit, with several seasons and awards behind us and an incredible development system to boot, we’re about to build on the foundation from those five years to go to the next level, on and off the pitch. There’s a sense of harmony and belief in the team and the club where we know we’re unstoppable now. We’ve been to the bottom, and it made us stronger. We can’t be defeated as a club. We can’t be beaten as a team. We never lose – we either win, or we learn. Every challenge is an experience to take something positive from. And we keep going, and we’re getting better and better.

In closing then, I must thank all the players who have made this such an amazing experience for me to coach this team, as I’m so lucky now to have this role and I volunteer my time with an enthusiasm and excitement that reflects that sense of good fortune. This team is the best group of people you will find anywhere, the environment they perpetuate is positive, and they deserve to be supported; they deserve to succeed. And they have it in them to do just that.

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

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