It is testimony to Jay and Jane’s social enterprise that they describe moving into their new offices in Kelham Island, only to find that it sits below a halfway house to 40 people, as “a stroke of luck”. It’s the end of their first season as the brains and legs behind AFC Unity, a woman’s […]

It is testimony to Jay and Jane’s social enterprise that they describe moving into their new offices in Kelham Island, only to find that it sits below a halfway house to 40 people, as “a stroke of luck”. It’s the end of their first season as the brains and legs behind AFC Unity, a woman’s football team promoting inclusion, equality and social responsibility, and the brains and legs of SilenceBreaker Media, whose offices we now sit in, enthusing about the future of football.

Their debut did not, it has to be said, kick off in the most encouraging of fashions – losing their first game 7-0 (albeit to eventual league champions) and encountering the kind of prejudice that you might expect fielding a team whose ethnic make-up spans both hemispheres. Aside from the occasional volley of “take your make-up off, you stupid bitch” – something many of us are guilty of aiming at Ronaldo – it looks to have been an entirely positive experience. Women’s football too, it seems, cannot escape the inflamed passion of the beautiful game.

Yet AFC Unity, like any women’s team, are fighting Ronaldo’s stereotype. “I didn’t see a single dive all season,” says skipper Jane. “We’re united against the misconceptions society has of us. It’s a tougher kind of footy.”

There are the usual gripes about the condescension of refs, who are nearly all male – “They go easy on us” – but it is clear that the women’s game is better geared towards honesty and comradeship than the ‘professional’ one that Sky, Barclays and co so kindly put in front of us every weekend, and neither gaffer Jay nor versatile midfielder Jane can hide their delight at this.

AFC Unity finished third and are setting their sights on substituting their good form on the pitch with some good form off it. For a newly formed club in Sheffield, it has some tough history to reckon with. Sheffield is home to the two oldest football clubs in the world – one of whom plays on the oldest pitch in the world – played home to the first ever tournament, drafted the first rules of the game, and was heavily influential in the formation of the FA. But it’s a different kind of association that Jane and Jay are interested in. “We’re planning on developing more links with a Hillsborough food bank,” says Jay. “We want to have food donations as part of our weekly subs for next season.”

In doing so, AFC Unity will become part of a breakaway culture in football that does not just have social responsibility and tolerance at heart, but actively pursues it in the local community. Other fresh-faced football outfits of the same ilk, the likes of Easton Cowgirls in Bristol and Republica Internationale in Leeds, are high on the pair’s wish list for participants in a summer tournament that they hope will also host a variety of guest speakers, tackling topics such as the Israel-Palestine conflict and the need for female role models in society.

Both Jay and Jane are acutely aware of the potential to be even more inclusive, and are even working on club subsidies for childcare and travel to engage players and fans who are harder to reach. “In terms of winning football games and making a difference in the community, we are anticipating an easier season off the pitch, but a more difficult season on it as a result,” says Jay. “But we need to start getting more results outside of the 90 minutes, as well as still competing every Sunday.” With trials upcoming, they can’t warm down just yet.

For fans of football in general, May brought a lot of us back down to earth. Facing a summer devoid of spherical distraction, and the sudden prospect of a further five years of austerity, it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. A slight gloom descends over the office when I bring this up, and even Jay’s bright red trousers – the colours of AFC Unity – begin to look a little faded. For SilenceBreaker Media, who recondition computers and offer multimedia workshops for the elderly and young unemployed, the implications could be drastic. “It has taken us a week [since the election result] to get to grips with it,” says Jay. “The last five years have been hard enough.” As the pragmatist, Jane steps in to give me some sense of how Conservative-guided economics have moved the goalposts for social enterprises like theirs.

SilenceBreaker Media, like many of their equivalents, now rely heavily on funding from the National Lottery, from the Council and from Europe. Between 2000 and 2009, Sheffield was afforded ‘Objective 1’ status, a European funding programme accredited with bringing £1.3 billion extra a year to the region and helping to finance over 650 community-based projects, and with a further £180 million from the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF) promised earlier this year, SilenceBreaker Media and the communities they work alongside will continue to reap the benefits as the programme moves into its secondary stages. One cannot blame Jay and Jane, then, for having one eye on the ‘are-we-aren’t-we’ referendum likely to be thrown to public vote next year.

Despite this, the pair of them display the same steely optimism that has underpinned the good work SilenceBreaker and AFC Unity have done over the past year. They are working closely with the Council to provide the 40 homeless residents above us, who have only one working computer between them, with the necessary skills and equipment to get a foothold in the job market, as well as running the tongue-in-cheek ‘Kick Like A Girl’ training sessions at Hillsborough College Sports Complex every Monday.

“The best thing right now is how much more united we feel, on and off the field,” says Jay. Sheffield was the first city, lest we forget, to field a team with ‘united’ emblazoned on its crest, and at grassroots level this certainly has not been eroded by big money and television deals. Sorry Wednesday fans.

afcunity.org
silencebreakers.org

Joe Penrose