Wednesday, 14 January 2015

AFC Unity women's football club

AFC Unity first attracted my attention back in the summer when they put out a call for players to start a new team (… not that I qualify). They seemed something a little bit different in women’s football. There’s a lot of talk on their website about their ‘ethos’ of being anti-discriminatory and socially inclusive. And they also have a really cool social-media profile. I was interested in the substance that lies behind it, so I went along to watch a game and to find out more.
AFC Unity play in the Sheffield and Hallamshire Women’s County Football League Division 3 – the 7th tier of women’s football. I admit to not having seen much women’s football, except for the odd match on the TV, and to not being much of an expert; but I can see it is an exciting time for the women’s game. More schools are giving girls the chance to play and the image is changing. The BBC have at long last taken an editorial decision to cover women’s football; and the game itself, and the way it is played, is demanding a higher profile – with the increasing support that the England women’s team is attracting, and the forthcoming World Cup in Canada shaping up to be quite a pull.
Unity's Nathalie Silver, happy with her hat-trick
You will be disappointed if you set out wanting it to be the same as the men’s game. Most obviously, it is less physical (although that doesn’t mean the tackles are in anyway dainty!). Nevertheless, the skill levels are getting better all the time (for proof, look no further than Stephanie Roche’s Puskas award-contending goal).
It is wrong to judge the women’s game by the standards of the men’s. Put those pre-conceptions to one side and it is entertaining, and, of course, once you start wanting one team to win more than another, you are drawn in to the personal and team battles going on out there on the pitch – as in any sporting contest.
Seeing a live game might also answer daft questions I had from watching on the TV – like what do they shout when an opposition player is coming up behind a team-mate?
These women are also part of a long tradition of the women’s game: it was widely played at the beginning of the 20th century and attracted very large crowds. In Sheffield during the First World War, teams of women munitions workers played regular fixtures against each other. It died a death when the old-school-tie codgers of the FA banned women from playing on football grounds under their auspices because  “…the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.”
The match at Hillsborough College between AFC Unity and Rotherham United Ladies Development was that old cliché – a six pointer. Unity were lying in third place in the league, one point behind Rotherham and 5 points behind Beighton Magpies, whose game was postponed today. So, Unity’s victory narrows the gap behind Beighton to 2 points; although Beighton now have three matches in hand.
Silvers floating shot that went in off the bar.
Unity were the first to score on 23 minutes. Great pressure down the right wing from Jodie Spillings kept the ball in play, only for her to put the ball out for a goal-kick. Goal-kicks, at this level are more like in junior football, the ball sometimes not being cleared much beyond the box, creating an opportunity for the attacking side to steal. This is what Unity did: Nathalie Silver floating the ball in off the cross bar.
Their lead was short-lived. Three minutes later Rotherham forced an error from Unity’s keeper, Chess Hollingdale: the ball was spilled right at the edge of the goal and bundled over the line.
Both sides created further chances. Silver had a corker of a chance from a great ball pushed down the middle and found herself with only the keeper to beat, but the keeper did just enough to put her off and she put it wide. Minutes later a cross was put in from the right and travelled across the goalmouth with no one making the movement to get onto it.
The second Unity goal came 15 minutes into second half when Silver made her superior pace count, and again dashed forward onto a skilful through-ball from play-maker Jane Watkinson; this time she skipped beautifully passed the keeper and slotted it home – it’s not often you get a chance to replay an earlier miss, but that is exactly what she did: almost a replica of the 1st half chance.
There was a lot of honest graft by both sides, but Rotherham couldn’t find the break, and it was Unity who finished the game off with the best goal of the game, some great skill being shown in crossing the ball from the right and Silver again stepping round the keeper to side-foot it in for her well-deserved hat-trick.
Rotherham squandered two late chances to take something away from the game and it finished 3-1 to AFC Unity.
Unity's keeper, Hollingdale, palms one wide
Afterwards, I spoke to the co-founders of the club: Jane Watkinson, also AFC’s captain, and the manager Jay Baker, in the Old Crown Inn.
They decided to set up AFC to provide a different, more progressive, sort of club – with a community, grass-roots base, as Baker says: “raising awareness of certain issues and tackling misconceptions of what sort of people like, or don’t like, football.” For example, challenging stereotypes that women have to: “take on a macho guise or be aggressive towards their own team mates.” It is early days, but one of the things they do is to run open-access sessions at the U-Mix Centre to encourage women, who have never kicked a ball, to try it out. I asked if there was a lot of untapped potential – women sat about doing nothing who could walk into a team in this league. Watkinson said there was: “I think it’s sometimes down to lack of publicity. It’s something we do well –  our advertising through social media. I also think it’s sometimes the case that teams only offer one route – just competitive football – which is why we try to offer informal football – so that women can get involved without having to commit every week. If people have kids they can’t always get to training – it’s about being flexible.” Baker added: “there are probably women out there who would be phenomenally good at football, but who might be more inclined to have a go at tennis, for example, because of ideas that it might be more socially acceptable.”
 They also want to raise funds for things like work in schools, youth groups, and with women’s groups in the city. They are also hoping to do some sessions with women who have been through the Criminal Justice System, to get them back into meeting other women from the area.
I asked what makes AFC Unity different. They said while they are competitive, it is not the be-all and end-all. Watkinson says Baker’s management style is: “different to any managerial style I have known before, because it is friendly and individualized – making people comfortable.”
It was clear to me that it is a friendly club. It may seem a paradox, but, just by not obsessing about being competitive, it may actually strengthen the side. Unity’s results show that this approach can have benefits in building a winning team through good team spirit. They have also attracted what Baker called “great players” who want to play in a supportive atmosphere – you don’t need to sacrifice competitiveness just because you reject certain attitudes.
Unity shot goes wide
It would be easy for some to fall into cynicism, and knock their earnest approach, but I came away believing in what they were trying to do. They are genuinely trying to make a difference, and that deserves support. I would encourage anyone with an hour or so on their hands on a Sunday afternoon to get down to Hillsborough College and support them: something quite special is happening in women’s football on our doorstep.

And, that question about what to shout when about to be tackled from the blind side: “man-on” – what else could it be!

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