Solidarity Soccer Versus Thatcherite Football: Lessons from Six Years of Coaching and COVID-19

Imagine the sport of association football being utilised to reflect the teamwork and collectivism of a community, where the team drives forward the club and its campaigns in that community, and where the actual football reflects an ethos of skill-sharing, positivity, care, and collectivism through its strictly passing-based playing style, culminating in successful results on the field, harmony in the team where everyone is valued, as well as a stack of recognition and awards, and a unique, innovative local informal football programme called Solidarity Soccer that engages and includes all players of all skill and confidence levels.

This happened. It happened because of something called AFC Unity.

At a point in time that feels like a lifetime ago, but is actually just over six years ago, my partner Jane Watkinson and I sat in a cafe and scribbled up some ideas of how the sport of soccer could be utilised for social change.

I was a lifelong fan of football, as a child playing as much as bullies would permit me, before – at the age of 11 – my mother pulled me out of school and taught me at home herself in the face of the threat of imprisonment from the education authorities.

I only played occasionally as I grew older and became a youth and community worker, and while living in Canada came up with a recreational “co-ed” session I called “Solidarity Soccer,” designed to attract like-minded people who wanted to play football in a friendly way, with a positive, inclusive ethos; we had men, women (both cisgender and transgender) as well as non-binary people coming along to play. It was awesome. I tried to continue the concept when I moved back to Britain. I loathed the toxic masculinity I had never embraced as a kid (at significant personal cost) and felt like the “beautiful game” had yet to ever break away from it.

Despite captaining her school team to a national tournament cup final victory and reaching the FA’s “Centre of Excellence,” being a player who didn’t fit into the FA culture and always put her teammates first (often to her own detriment), Jane too has experienced the bullying culture of football, not just from peers, but also coaches, and the system itself; toxic masculinity dominating the sport and permeating through training and games into the interactions between players, whatever their gender. Its toxicity cannot be underestimated.

So on that fateful day sat in that cafe, we talked about how our experience in the voluntary and community sector could perhaps be applied to football: we wanted to set up a women’s football team that was directly counter-cultural to the team I’d seen her play in at the time, where hierarchy was reinforced, cliques dominated, decisions from hypermasculine coaches were never explained, and less popular players were utterly neglected. To us, it was everything that was wrong about this sport, and we wanted to create the antithesis of that: we believed football could be about true teamwork, collectivism, where each and every individual’s unique abilities could be harnessed, and contribute to something bigger; a team where everyone is supportive and encouraging and positive and embrace mistakes as lessons.

We’d seen “left wing” teams whose politics ended as soon as the players crossed that white line and went onto the field, and we didn’t want that; we felt that the ethos could be continued, and even be represented in the way we play, based on passing football, with the goalkeeper as the first attacker and the striker as the first defender, everyone included and everyone with a part to play, not “route one” direct football involving a long ball over the top to a sole star striker putting the ball in the net; we agreed we’d rather lose for as long as it takes than to play football in such an individualistic and unattractive way. Life, we agreed, cannot be “win at all costs”; that’s a Tory ideology perpetuated by Margaret Thatcher and her despicable claim that “there is no such thing as society, only individuals.”

On a more personal level, Jane and I never wanted anyone to experience the negatives we had in our footballing lives, and with Jane’s passion for playing and my fascination with playing styles and tactics, we came up with AFC Unity: with an opportunity for me to draw on my years of inclusive, democratic community facilitation by “managing” the team, and Jane playing.

Once I’d sold her on the idea of us going ahead with it, Jane bought into it with enthusiasm, and to her own admission she adopted the requisite secretarial role with relish and with her typical hyper-efficiency rushed us into league-ready status. We had to cobble a team together quickly. Our clumsy emphasis on “inclusion” meant we had all kinds of women joining, including players who saw the team as a potential substitute for dating apps, in addition to Social Darwinists and even bloody BNP supporters – the red star logo and “Unity” name we thought sent a clear message had, it turned out, been insufficient at emphasising what we were supposed to be about, and we’d been overly cautious as a result of carrying over from our day jobs in non-profits a care to avoid overt politics in case it harmed our chances of funding as a start-up, a perspective lacking bravery that we learned from pretty fast.

We paid the price for our hesitancy towards being bold. Rather than fun and focus on football day, the changing room became a proverbial frat party of inappropriate sex acts, drug abuse, and bullying towards nicer players quickly losing a voice, and it was a headache – barely contained by a young jock coach volunteering his time in-between his studies, as I had not yet gained coaching qualifications. We had some good players in this mixed bag, but we also had only a few good people. And the latter, we felt, was essential to build what we had discussed. This start was a disaster for Jane and I personally.

After a potpourri of pre-season friendlies, this feeling was only exacerbated in our opening league game where we happened to play the promotion favourites who verbally and physically assaulted our players, and made racial remarks I called out and formally complained about – only for their people to sit on the league committee to dismiss the complaint, and I went to the County FA, who received a counter-complaint against me, literally making up a series of accusations about my supposedly violent reaction to the racism on the day that not a single person witnessed (including the referee), in a case that dragged on and caused me significant strife until nine months later, the opposing team were indeed found guilty and the absurd claims against me were completely dismissed. But I suppose I was essentially made to suffer for daring to confront these ingrained prejudices of the culture. Though it was just the beginning.

With my team consisting of either the bullies or the bullied, not a single one of my players came to support me on the day of that disciplinary “hearing,” and Jane and I were wondering how we could actually realise this vision of a different kind of football. Ironically, with this mish-mash of players, I tried to put the pieces of the puzzle together with what I had, and we managed to scrape through a promotion in our first season, but the more I stood up and became heard over the voice of my coach and called out bullying, the more stress was caused: one player I removed from the team harassed me by continuing to turn up to trainings, games, and even socials, constantly trying to push my buttons and provoke me, while as we were recovering from that another new signing for our second season was so horrible to her teammates that I received no less than seven player complaints about her within a few days, tried to confront her about it away from the team, and she began stalking me online, and on top of the harassment I’d already experienced this all led to sleepless nights and panic attacks I still experience to this day. This player who shall remain unnamed was on a suspended sentence for stalking already, and I refrained from going to the police because I didn’t want to see her go to prison; I wouldn’t have been able to sleep at night (even when the panic attacks weren’t keeping me awake). Her pals that still remained in the team (ironically, some of whom complained about her in confidence to me – because bullies bully everyone, of course) undermined me and when I decreased their roles in the team they called for “greater squad selection transparency” and even more “democracy” before some finally left for a team where there was none of that: it was an old white cishet man in charge at the top of the hierarchy, bollocking them all, and they accepted it; one of them had complained to me that even when we lost to a vastly superior team, I had praised my players for succeeding at what they could control against the odds, when I ought to have instead been bollocking them. As though bollocking them makes them better players. Incredible.

And of course the system itself was continually resistant to our ethos. Jane and I were stunned when one FA representative hauled our asses in for a meeting because we were kicking out bullies who would complain about it, when we should have been applauded for it. But then, this representative happily went and played in goal for the rotten team that made false accusations about me and led to a case going on for nine months. That’s how far and deeply ingrained that bullying and prejudiced culture truly is in English football. They actually see it as the norm and I suppose were alarmed that I was daring to coach differently. Even one referee at a game called us “f***ing communists.” One of the referees’ top officials was a Nigel Farage supporter. And they were all constantly empowered, full of piss and vinegar, to speak and behave however they saw fit, up and down the touchline and occupying space, always without consequences; the system enabled them, encouraged them; even empowered them. When we had low numbers, we took responsibility that something had gone wrong for us as a team and a club; when our opponents had low numbers, they expected us to sacrifice our own players who had paid their money and showed up with a plan in mind that we’d gone over through the week. If we suffered a heavy defeat while our opponents cheered in rapturous applause, we accepted it, and analysed it to learn from and improve; but if we administered a heavy defeat we were told not to celebrate because it was disrespectful to these big mighty clubs. It was always one rule for them, and a different one for us.

By this time I was qualified to coach the team entirely by myself and we generally felt things begin to change culturally on a greater level within the club; a spirit of collectivism was felt throughout and I was simply transferring my skills from my facilitation, teaching, and youth and community work experience into football, now I had a card-carrying endorsement by the FA to actually coach. The course to achieve the qualification was almost all men, almost all white, and almost all full of toxic masculinity. The coaching videos the FA shared came across well, and whereas my coaching adopted “100% positivity,” the FA would later claim they “only do positivity,” at the exact same time as their darling national team coach Mark Sampson was ripping his shirt in foaming fury at a simple referee decision. It was all bullshit, of course; what the FA loved was that very toxic masculinity.

I saw one coach use social media to build up hype for a new signing, with teaser shots of what turned out to be himself wearing a wig (because, you know, all women have long hair, apparently…dickhead). I saw one coach considered amongst the top in the game liking explicit sexist tweets online and spouting transphobic views; I saw racist bullying coaches literally receive praise and even actual awards for their contributions to the sport. This was the disdain the culture had for diversity and women’s football itself, as meanwhile the national team rallied around Mark Sampson as he was being exposed as a racist asshole, speaking to BBC Sport about how much he’d done for them and their careers as individuals. Pure individualism. Pure Thatcherite. They wanted more women in sponsorship deals and boardrooms; at AFC Unity, we wanted to destroy the boardrooms and capitalism of the sport, entirely, because hierarchy and patriarchy oppress women.

One famous Sheffield football club came and sent coaches to “assist” some of our sessions, then scoffed at the very concept of a different, dynamic Solidarity Soccer programme for players of all skill levels outside of affiliated league football, then turned around with the audacity to ask if she could still come along to our training sessions and count our players as numbers on her books (we refused, of course – and meanwhile the Solidarity Soccer programme went on to receive several awards and much acclaim and started attracting more progressive players who were then progressing into the first team).

The statistics spoke for themselves; the demand we were faced with for our refreshing feel-good approach was something we couldn’t keep up with and we tried to create a second team in our third season, then condensed back into a single unit in our fourth season where I was determined to elevate team players over individual starlets who refused to play passing football, and while trying to settle into a cohesive unit, we weeded out such players by (mis)fortune of finishing bottom of our division in our fifth season and knowing for sure that the good eggs that remained were surely in AFC Unity because they were part of this mission. So in our sixth season, we went on to play hands down the best pure passing football in our division, climbed up the table, and went on a six game unbeaten run culminating in a game on International Women’s Day, coming back from 0-2 down (against some of the ugliest bloody long ball shit I have ever seen in my entire life) to draw 2-2, with a momentum where we needed just a few more minutes to almost certainly bang in a few more goals and take the full points. Perhaps sweeter was the fact it was Jane who scored both goals – after the initial seasons of taking a backseat for the good of the team, always last in line for my plans (because we’d seen teams where coaches had harboured favouritism for their partners, we went as far away the other way as we could), then missing most games across three seasons due to ACL reconstruction and recovery, she finally played with a freedom almost all our players were by now playing with; players who thought they weren’t very good at the beginning now believed they were bad-ass; players who thought they were good before now believed they were great. And they were. I invested in them. I communicated with players throughout the week, so everyone knew their part to play, and I always tried to explain my rationale if their role was smaller on any given Sunday.

Photo credit: Corinne Heritage

It took immeasurable, exhausting effort and dedication to achieve all this. Jane and I got hitched, yet flew 3,000 miles from our honeymoon to land back just in time to make kick-off in one of the AFC Unity games where I was of course coaching but she wasn’t even playing. We sacrificed every weekend, two nights a week, and numerous hours during the week – dealing with the FA, the league, officials, opponents, and the team itself internally. It made AFC Unity an unforgettable success story, at sacrifice of time, money, income, friendships, family, and health (both physical and mental). “For what?” you might ask. It’s a good question I’ll answer fully in a moment.

Running a non-league, grassroots football club in this way is not normal. Teams marvelled at our incredible laser-like focus in games, because we emphasised attention to things we could control, rather than things we couldn’t; they also marvelled at how every single player was happy to contribute on their own terms, fitting into a grand plan, for the good of a collective; we were never dependent upon single star players; I rotated the captaincy so that it was a team of leaders; we collectively drafted up a working document for this last season called the “2020 Vision” that I structured our training through, and then realised that vision with our undefeated run; we had team meetings and players elected to the board of directors, and announced plans to convert the club into a consumer cooperative so that the players had even greater say in how their subs were spent, what campaigns we were to focus on, and what direction the team needed to go in. I was not a “manager,” just the chosen Head Coach. That’s what I’d dreamed of for years.

We were still going, stronger than ever before, while the team we played on International Women’s Day promptly collapsed, along with the team we played in our opening game back on that fateful day in 2014 that led to a nine-month struggle with the system. These teams collapsed along with a bunch of other teams with taunting supporters and mouthy managers strutting like peacocks and players kicking and screaming and insulting and scratching and clawing their way to a single solitary Sunday victory so that they could vent frustrations after their working week of more patriarchal horseshit. Teams that were set up “just because.” Teams that didn’t believe in anything but the win, and when they didn’t win, they had nothing else left. We outlived a long line of them, no doubt much to the chagrin of the establishment that occasionally noted how we had such team harmony and played such beautiful football rarely seen at our level, but never asked how. Because they feared the answer: “Socialism. It’s socialism, dude.”

For all the stress and trauma of existing within that traditional system, and struggling to expand our counterculture outwards into other teams in that system, to no avail, I’ve seen women grow as players and as people, I’ve seen them become leaders when they once felt like forever followers, I’ve been moved to tears by the development and self-belief of some of them, and the fondness and friendship and sense of solidarity I’ve shared with many. I’ve seen a team of eleven retain the ball from front to back, and back to front; I’ve seen strikers defend and goalkeepers attack, and I’ve seen players contribute to campaigns when they couldn’t really afford time or money to do so, but did. I’ve seen football be something bigger than just football. It did have its rewards. We did prove that we could do it, albeit in our own way and against the brick wall of the system our opponents reinforced.

Then came something called COVID-19.

Our season cut short, we still had an Awards Night honouring each and every player, as we did every single season after our first one, but this time online via Zoom. At the Awards Night I borrowed a quote from an old favourite pro wrestling character of mine: “It took an act of God to stop a runaway train.”

Jane and I had been going to the gym regularly, and through my day job I’d been taking buses, trams, and trains, and coming into contact with dozens, even hundreds of people on community initiatives, little realising the risks at hand. The game on International Women’s Day where my celebrations caught attention and I ran along the touchline high-fiving the Unity gang? That might have been my last anyway, as Jane and I perhaps inevitably experienced coronavirus symptoms and had to isolate, as the league continued in the face of an emerging pandemic, and our opponents the week after merrily and mindlessly continued plans to play against us, even as our players were dropping like flies with symptoms and isolating, until finally clearer heads prevailed. It was threatening to be the first match I’d ever missed, after six years and hundreds of games, regardless of what ailment or illness or injury or stress or grief I’d experienced: I was always there…until COVID came along.

With arguably our best season ever ironically called off and the results of our six game unbeaten run expunged, I emphasised to the team – appropriately, on Awards Night – that external validation is always nice, but you can’t be dependent on it. (If I was, I’d have quit in my first season.) We know what we achieved, and we know how we did it, and we all experienced it. Some in the system shield their eyes from it, or look away from it, and refuse to acknowledge it, but it was an incredible achievement that pro-actively undermined every single thing that very system’s traditional culture had been about.

After Awards Night, in an overpriced glorified bedsit full of mould and no greenery for what seemed like miles never mind in walking distance, and with neither of us driving cars, Jane and I struggled with recovery from the coronavirus, sending a message to us that this was serious shit, as one of our friends and AFC Unity “Ultras” (paying supporters) worked as a nurse on the coronavirus ward with insufficient PPE, contracted the virus, and was bedridden for weeks, stretching into months. A long way from running rings around opponents on International Women’s Day, Jane was by now struggling to even get out and walk around our ugly, grey, city centre block, and went through x-rays and CT scans and was put on an inhaler as what is now finally acknowledged by an utterly evil and incompetent government as one of many long-term victims of the coronavirus. Having previously existed in blissful ignorance about the disease, to my own admission, I was forced to take notice, and see it for what it was: a killer, of anyone anywhere, though some more at risk than others, and if it didn’t kill you it tried its best to do long-term damage to you.

With a deadly pandemic in our society, the capitalist government, of course, had no plan, and COVID rates in the UK finally put our country at the top of the leaderboard for those nationalist wankers that like such rankings. Capitalism has no strategy for care, only consumption. Our odious Prime Minister, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, despicably calls “lockdown” a “nuclear deterrent” he won’t use again while people lambasted Jeremy Corbyn for not wanting to use the actual nuclear deterrent (as they scoffed at “broadband communism” many now seemingly accept as needed). In true Orwellian fashion, they call on people to get back out in places and circumstances of risk, saying “eat out to help out” capitalism, even if you get the virus or pass it to others who suffer or die. This is because our capitalist system is based on profit and endless growth, like a cancer, and it relies on finance and property where people – even the 37% who think their job shouldn’t even exist – have to dutifully go into work and therefore get their kids packed into schools where the virus can kill them or kill others they spread it to. What it doesn’t like is noncompliance, something my mother knows very well, from her days keeping me from school and facing imprisonment for it. She stuck to her principles. She instilled them in me, I’d like to think. Yes, I’m still a fan of noncompliance.

So back in the spring, while police were abusing their powers to pick on people in city parks practicing physically distanced yoga, it was a time when most of us accepted that the last season was right to be ended prematurely, but today the pandemic still exists just the same, and relies on people getting into close contact with each other so it can spread, and harm or kill people; it relies on the circumstances that existed in the first few months of 2020, that if we return to, will exacerbate the pandemic and make things worse when the prospect of a vaccine is merely months away, and New Zealand stamped out the virus even without one.

The idea of affiliated league football under the auspices of the FA being essential is an utter absurdity. It’s being brought back because it’s interconnected with, and embedded in, the economy’s norms and habits. Balls, bibs, cones, kit, subscription fees, sports facilities – all of these are part of the capitalist economy.

With people sending their kids to school and going into work “because t’government said,” I felt a great deal of pride when the democratic approach of AFC Unity actually meant our players with given the decency and respect of actually being asked if they should return to affiliated league football during a pandemic, while other teams were going back “because t’manager said,” and the Unity team settled on the decision that it was best not to. I was proud that while other coaches were asking me for pre-season friendlies for what I call “pandemic football” (motto: “We only do positive…if it’s your COVID test results!”), AFC Unity remained a) the first team to pull out of a match last season because of it, and b) the first team, as far as I know, to refuse to continue with affiliated league football because of this pandemic. And shame on all other teams and clubs who went back, blindly following one another like sheep, or rather like lemmings, under the weaponisation of mental health by claiming they cannot play football with family, or with friends, or with teammates in Mount Pleasant Park, or with teammates at proper facilities, no: it absolutely must be affiliated league football rubber stamped by a patriarchal authority like the FA (which are the sporting equivalent of the Tory government – a key sports advisor actually told Jane and I at the formation of Unity, “you’re going to be dealing with the most f***ing corrupt institution in all of sports”).

No matter whether cynics claimed that some players still stayed in Unity because of what they could personally get from it (positivity, investment, communication, development, game time, etc.) I always denied it, I always believing that actually after six seasons everyone was here because they bought into a different way of doing football; a better way; something bigger than just the individual but a collectivism where we prove Thatcher wrong and show society and community are alive and well, and we all stick together for the good of the collective, no matter what. The players even told me themselves: “I won’t be playing for another team,” “I owe this team so much, I could never leave,” and it absolutely broke my heart when pandemic football was announced to supposedly commence and some of those same players began to wander off to play for whoever, and for whatever. When the first of four (at time of writing) departed, I was already wondering what the hell I’d done with hours, days, weeks, months of my life, investing so much into someone only to find out they didn’t want to give back; that there perhaps was no such thing as society for them, only the individual. But maybe even worse than joining one of the plethora of meaningless generic cookie-cutter teams out there, three Unity players who for months criticised a specific club that contained two ex-Unity players they ridiculed regularly then actually turned around and joined those very ex players in that team, making me question what was ever real and what was fake, and leaving me sad that players I’d invested in could secretly be so contrary, and no doubt now say the same things about me that they said about those other players; the story surely changes to suit them at the time. It saddens me that people like that could be invested in, then go on to drink the Kool-Aid and sleep at night accepting that they don’t really believe in anything; no society, just the individual.

And I genuinely worry for their wellbeing – not just because of a pandemic, but because if football is only football to you if it’s under the auspices of the FA, and your mind is only at ease when it acts in accordance with the endorsement of an authority, you need to get help. And if you think being in a traditional footballing environment of such hierarchy and toxic masculinity is going to be good for your mind, then you definitely need to get help.

And that’s not me being passive-aggressive, either, I mean it. It’s a genuine concern. The pandemic has done strange things to people. I know it’s been hard. Jane and I essentially lived for football the last six years or so – it dominated our conversations, our spare time, even our work time, and Jane had missed out by standing on the sidelines injured for so very long – and when COVID hit we were stuck without safe access to travel, in the city centre, without greenery, unable to walk beyond our block, largely reliant upon friends and family to help us, and it took its toll on us mentally. It was hard. But it was harder for many others. With our income streams obliterated, we asked for rent relief for our mould-infested flat, and instead they hiked our rent essentially forcing us to move during a pandemic, but we landed on our feet by getting a cleaner, bigger, better, and cheaper place via a housing association. It can sometimes not seem like it, but we’re lucky. And never once have we thought football or any other part of the culture was more important than people’s health, or workers’ rights, or Black lives, or any of these bigger, more important, interconnected issues as the planet nears environmental collapse because of a capitalist system that relies upon our compliance and acceptance of the bullshit it calls “normal.” To protest is to act for others, not just ourselves.

For Jane and I, and many others in Unity, Thatcher was wrong, and there is still such a thing as society, not only individuals. Many in Unity are simply here because it’s Unity, not because it’s football. There’s either the counterculture of Unity, or there’s the culture of traditional football that you endorse, and reinforce, and perpetuate, and strengthen, by becoming part of it. Some now part of that will see Unity on the proverbial sidelines and say they won, as though it’s some sort of war when it’s just football. Let them. If that’s what makes them happy, let them.

Ultimately, history will slaughter so many of them: the UK government, the FA, the leagues, clubs, teams and players who have attempted to reinforce “normality” when the pandemic is still here just as it was earlier in the year when everyone accepted football needed to stop (“because t’government said.”) Normality, in society and in football, is the last thing we should be turning to at this time.

I think back to Solidarity Soccer and – unlike affiliated league football full of toxic masculinity and aggressive competition – of the hundreds of sessions I facilitated, I left every occasion feeling actually uplifted, with the best of humanity exhibited. It was all skill levels, with a group of first team Ambassadors supporting the session, driving it forward, with me facilitating it (and often paid for, something I value even more now given this year’s devastating effects). When coaching, you don’t want to be made to feel like a host (and I don’t mean a host like someone facilitating an event, but rather the kind of host that parasites feed off); you want to feel part of something mutual, and Solidarity Soccer was increasingly a safe space free of all that aggression and hostility and violence and just somewhere people could grow, albeit with the spectre of the expectations of joining the first team that not everyone welcomed; they knew that Sunday league was going to be a different environment to the safe space of Solidarity Soccer. And after all these years, I now realise they were right, and they had it all figured way before I had.

Beyond the pro-Palestine tournaments and tourneys where teams from around the country entered not via cash but with food contributions to local foodbanks, we tackled worker precariousness by promoting trade unionism, and called for Universal Credit to be scrapped. But this ethos was always far more naturally prevalent in Solidarity Soccer, and that multi award-winning programme (for those noting the examples of external validation!) has a name befitting that ethos: we need solidarity, not charity. Charity is top-down, hierarchical; what we need are horizontal systems and programmes, and Solidarity Soccer values everyone: its participants of all levels of skill and confidence; its ambassadors whether former or current players; even, yes, its coaches. We don’t need the rubber stamp of approval from the authorities, and I say we even push back against that and be antiFA like we always truly were at heart.

In our attempt to make AFC Unity about more than just the football, we helped the players as people, too; over the years some took credit for building a website, or for developing the Solidarity Soccer programme, or whatever helped their resumes or LinkedIn profiles. But again, we were wrong to do that: I’m far from caring about external validation or credit, but to gift recognition to people who have done nothing for it is charity, not solidarity; solidarity is based on concepts like mutualism. 11-a-side affiliated league football is a norm; therefore, despite its team sport concept it can attract people who want something for themselves, not others. And the entire culture of affiliated league football is reflective of the top-down institutions that govern it. To paraphrase Emma Goldman, if a left-wing club competing in affiliated league football changed anything, the FA would have made it illegal.

My remarks here, of course, are not only my own opinions and not those of AFC Unity personnel or players, but also my opinions as a person, not as an FA coach since I am on hiatus indefinitely. And I’d happily, here, now, declare that such institutions can go have sexual intercourse with themselves, to phrase it politely. Consider my hands untied, and the gloves are off; the gag removed.

I think Solidarity Soccer should be the future of football: one where everyone can depend upon each other, depend upon that safe space, no other teams or their players threatening to harsh the mellow, no toxic masculinity, and no cishet white men playing (or coaching, since I’m not quite strictly in that criteria, as anyone close to me is fully aware!) I already declared my intention to help usher in a programme for women, trans, and non-binary people to play, so the seeds are already sown for something very special indeed. Remember, Easton Cowgirls have thrived outside the auspices of the FA for years. There are so many tournaments across the country that reflect the Solidarity Soccer ethos in environment, if not the playing styles too, and so many opportunities for players to play informally with no commitment or pressure, but still be part of something formally (consumer cooperative for Solidarity Soccer, anyone?)

The revolution begins with care, and through making our own informed decisions based on factual information, not hierarchical authorities, as well as through mutual aid and pulling together as communities in a careful, considerate way that values all life, we can get through this together, and one day – maybe even one day very soon, at a time that will make all this feel like no time at all – we will look back, and see this experience as not only a light that shined on and exposed some of the stupidity and hypocrisy and selfishness of the system, and some people in it accepting it, but also a time where we were able to create something new in the shell of the old.

So when people I know look at everything I gave to AFC Unity and ask “For what?” I reply “This.” It’s a part of history; a message; I suppose it’s a time capsule or something; something buried beneath our feet. Maybe it’s been buried and stomped on this year. But maybe it was in fact a seed. Which means maybe it’ll grow back – bigger, better, stronger and safer than it has ever been before, with the right people there remaining to nurture it and help it grow. Healthy. Healthy for all of us. Good for us.