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AFC Unity: Women’s Community Football in Sheffield

Founded this year in the birthplace of Association Football, AFC Unity is a new women’s community football club. I caught up with co-founders Jay Baker and Jane Watkinson to talk about the club’s creation, ideology and hopes for their first season. I found two people who were passionate and enthusiastic about changing the game and the whole community for the better. What was the inspiration behind setting up the team? [Jay] Well, both working for SilenceBreakers Media, we were already heavily involved with the community. Jane played football and we were both very into the sport and, along with the feminism aspects, we created the team to merge those interests. Women’s football has certainly been more prominent in the media over recent years. Why do you think we’re seeing that shift? [Jay] These things take time. Historically, women’s football was very big last century. In 1921, they were getting crowds of 70,000. But it was subsequently banned and it’s had to rebuild itself from the post-war patriarchal view of women who saw it us unladylike. The Olympics really helped attract everyone to the idea of the sport. But whilst there has been more in the media, a recent study by the Women’s Sport Foundation found that we only got 5% of sport media coverage, so we’ve still a long way to go. [Jane] Money still talks in all forms of the game. For example, Doncaster Rovers Belles were pre-relegated from the reformed Women’s Super League to make way for Manchester City. What barriers do you think exist to women’s football and how do you hope to break those down? [Jane] I think it’s becoming more acceptable for women to play football and do sport, but there are still a huge number of barriers. Body image for girls is key, but also social economics, because it isn’t a free hobby. Racism is a big problem across the game. We’re very big on social awareness and want to break down the view that girls can’t play football from a young age. [Jay] The community aspect of the club raises awareness on more general issues like racism and homophobia and that’s something we want to be heavily involved in. What do you hope to achieve with the non-profit social enterprise? [Jane] I think it’s all about engaging more with women’s football and sport, but also raising awareness about inequality in general. [Jay] There is sustainability to the social enterprise model which we hope can create a long-term vision regarding connecting to the community. [Jane] We don’t want any pressures associated with playing for the club. There is a drinking culture that goes with male football, but we’re trying to provide a different type of club where you’re not pressured to fit in. How has the creation of the team been received to date? [Jay] Honestly, it’s been incredibly heart-warming. We’ve had girls come to us saying they’ve felt less welcome in other clubs and that there were no barriers to involvement with us. [Jane] It’s a very diverse group ethnically, which has helped welcome people from all backgrounds. The FA were very supportive with us as well. We got funding where we were able to run ten training sessions with people from different skill sets. You can either train or register for the actual team depending on your ability with us and there is no pressure involved with participation. What’s the age range of the current players? [Jane] The age range is 16-40, but the core is probably 16-30 year olds. What would you consider a success as you embark on your first season? [Jay] To not finish bottom! But seriously, it takes a long time to establish the foundation from the beginning. We love being the underdogs so we’ll take anything to be considered a success in our first season. Is there anything else you’d like to say in connection with the club? [Jay] One thing I’ve noticed about sporting engagement is that I think the picture of women has been unfairly captured. I want to use this club to promote the idea of positive role models in the local community. We want to change the lives of women in this area. AFC Unity play their home games at Hillsborough College. It’s free to go along and cheer them on as they embark on their first season in the Sheffield & Hallamshire Women’s County League. AFC Unity SilenceBreakers Media )

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