AFC Unity: Sheffield football club closes its doors but has set standard for the future

Written by Michael Jones

If the government’s lockdown exit plan can be trusted, this summer, amateur sport will return with a flourish. 

Sadly for one of Sheffield’s football clubs, AFC Unity, this will not be the case after they made the difficult decision to close the doors for good on their footballing venture. They are unlikely to be the only club who have made this choice, but for what they represent, they are truly unique. 

Created in 2014 as an independent women’s football club, AFC Unity was founded by Jay Baker and Jane Watkinson to combine their dedication to feminism and social justice with their passion for community-led sports. It was led by women, trans and non binary people committed to furthering intersectional social justice.

Since its launch, the club’s trajectory had been an upwards one. Tasting success on and off the field, it is the latter which really made the club stand out. 

In 2016 the club were handed the ‘FA Respect Award’, receiving the prize from ex-Manchester United chief executive David Gill. This was in recognition of their ‘Football for Food’ campaign, an initiative which raised awareness on food poverty and collected donations for food banks all over Sheffield, including those in Fir Vale, Parson Cross and Firth Park.

The impact off the pitch was just as important and the work with S2 food banks was outstanding and something I’m proud to have played a tiny part of – Amy Brown, player for AFC Unity

Many clubs who had won such an award may have been tempted to try and pursue different ventures, however this was not in the ethos of a club whose values tended to be community-driven. 

For all the success that ‘Football for Food’ has brought, including the 2019 Grassroots Project of the Year Award from the Sheffield & Hallamshire County FA, the club has always strived to do more.

Their ‘Unity for All’ campaign saw them team up with trade unions in the steel city, highlighting the benefits that they could have on Sheffield, which had the lowest average wage of a major city in the UK at that time. Using the #UnityForAll on social media, the team’s campaigning demonstrated the values of a team who are “a truly fine example of practical solidarity and collectivism for progressive politics,” according to Martin Mayer, secretary of Sheffield Trade Union Council. 

Because of the club’s amateur status, it could easily be interpreted that their off-the-field achievements completely dwarf their success on the football pitch. Speaking to former players, their playing experiences were spoken of immensely.

Rebecca Gay, who left the club last summer due to their decision not to enter the league in light of lockdown, reflected glowingly upon her time at AFC Unity. Advertising themselves to players of all abilities and playing pedigree, the club became a desirable destination for women looking to play more regularly. 

A great football club is often supplemented by expert coaching and the Sheffield-based club was no different.

“The club were amazing, so supportive and the coaching was second to none,” Rebecca told me. “It took a few years to develop but in our last two seasons we were were playing football you rarely see at Sunday league level. Quick passing football, high pressing and brilliant to watch and be a part of. They developed me as a player from no experience to having nearly 70 games under my belt within 4 years and they developed so many good players into incredible ones!”

AFC Unity’s way of playing, modelled by head coach and founder Jay Baker from the great Johan Cruyff-inspired methods famously seen at European giants Barcelona and Ajax, embedded the club’s ethos into their way of playing. An emphasis was on ‘collectivism over individualism’, whereby the team attacks and defends as an entire unit.

The collectivist approach was neither merely tactical nor technical. The club’s philosophy outlined on their website highlighted the importance to discourage ‘Micro-management, teammate instruction, or cheating,’ meanwhile, ‘players are empowered by a shared captaincy system so the team is comprised of numerous leaders’.

Kristina Rankine, running with the ball for AFC Unity 

Kristina Rankine, who grew up watching Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, returned to the game after a long time out of the sport due to operations and negative experiences from playing women’s football. Rankine was one of the later additions to AFC Unity, and the positivity radiating from the club from top-to-bottom was critical in keeping her involved.

“AFC Unity taught me to learn from my mistakes and move on.”

The team’s former number 29 went on to describe how “the ethics behind the club are so important and demonstrated the positive impact football can have on lives, not only on those involved, but society as a whole.”

It may be time for AFC Unity to close its proverbial gates to their playing ground, but the campaigning will continue and who knows, it may be the inspiration behind similarly special teams of the future.

Written by Michael Jones

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