Signing Jordan Nobbs, keeping Rachel Daly a secret & shocking the Women's Super League: Inside Aston Villa's historic season
Carla Ward, manager of Aston Villa’s women’s team, remembers being told last summer that another coach in the Women’s Super League had tipped her team for relegation.
Almost a year on, Villa are fifth in the WSL table. They have taken four points off title-chasing Manchester City and beat the same opponent last month to set up a meeting with Chelsea on Sunday in the club’s first-ever Women’s FA Cup semi-final.
Ward admits that if GOAL had told her 12 months ago that the team would be in this position, “I would have called you crazy.”
But the progress made is a testament to the work behind the scenes, the way this group has come together and some brilliant transfer business, which has led to them grabbing headlines for all the right reasons.
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Daly, Dali and the summer's dazzling deals
Those headlines started last summer with Rachel Daly’s surprise arrival. Despite her having offers from top-four clubs, the Euro 2022 winner made her way to Villa Park.
“I still don't know how we kept it such a secret,” Ward tells GOAL. “There were only two or three of us that knew for the entire duration of it.
“We’re on a journey and I think she likes the idea of being part of something and helping a club like us and a manager, I guess, like me, who is early on in their career.
"I think that was probably quite important, just to have that sort of impact. If she goes to a top club, might she just be another player? Whereas if she comes to a club like ours, she can make a real difference in helping us move forward.
“It shows the type of person she is. She didn't just go to a big club for big money. She wanted to really come and be part of something special.”
"Rach has been absolutely unbelievable for us," adds Dan Turner, another of Villa’s superb summer signings. "She just won the Euros as a left-back, comes in and is absolutely firing on all cylinders as a No.9. That's just testament to her as a player and a person how well she's done for us. She's been pivotal, as many of the other signings and players have been, for how well we're doing.
“It’s a massive coup for us. She's a leader in the dressing room. Everyone has so much respect for her, as we do for everyone. She's a big character off the pitch as well and, bonus, she brings Dexi, her dog, in most days!”
As well as those Daly and Turner, in came France international Kenza Dali, New Zealand goalkeeper Anna Leat, the versatile Natasha Harding, Northern Ireland striker Simone Magill, Anna Patten on loan from Arsenal, and Kirsty Hanson on loan from Manchester United.
It didn’t click right away, with Ward describing pre-season as “dreadful”. But since it has, it’s been superb.
The thorn in Man City's side
It was the opening weekend of the season when it came together. Villa raced into a two-goal lead against Man City before half time, were trailing 3-2 before the hour mark, but ended the match as 4-3 winners.
“It's probably one of the best games I've ever been involved in as a player,” Turner says. “I think that win, it was like, 'Okay, we can really kick on from here and we've really got something in this group'.”
That belief was well-placed. Villa have since found consistency, taken points off City again and only lost once in 2023 - that to Chelsea. After a few transfer windows, Ward believes the squad is now tailor made for how she wants to play.
“We plan very strategically who we want, what we want, and how we're going to get there,” she explains. “It's not all about spending money. It's about identifying players that fit the system, fit what we want, fit the philosophy, fit the kind of environment we've got and then bringing those players in.”
Backing it all up with a giant January
That continued into January when Villa caught the eye again. Jordan Nobbs - a player with three WSL titles, four FA Cups and five League Cups to her name – joined from Arsenal. Three days later, Lucy Staniforth, another England international with huge pedigree, followed her through the door.
Villa's team was depleted with injuries at this point and reinforcements were more than welcome – especially ones as good as these.
“I think Christmas came at a good time for us,” Turner says. “A lot of us needed that physical and mental reset. Then when you come back in and there's quality added to the squad, immediately the quality and the standards in training go up because everybody's now fighting for the shirt that maybe wasn't as competitive before Christmas, because of the injuries.
“They're two exciting signings that I think have done unbelievably well since they've been in. Jordan is doing what Jordan does, scoring goals! Stan has been unbelievable controlling the middle of the pitch for us.
“When you hear those names are coming through the door, it just makes for a really exciting second half of the season.”
Putting it all together
It’s one thing to sign lots of good players, though, and another to put all the pieces together. Villa have certainly done the latter.
Turner believes that she is in the best form of her career – and GOAL agrees. Daly is in the hunt for the WSL’s Golden Boot. Dali deserves to be nominated for the league’s Player of the Season award. The list goes on.
“It's probably a number of factors,” Turner says, asked what is getting the best out of everyone. “I think the togetherness in the group is unbelievable. We're quite an open group, so the environment helps. Carla brings out the best in people, brings out confidence in people.
“Things have been thrown at us, decisions have gone against us this season, things haven't gone our way at times, but there's a lot of character in this group and you can see that.
“There's a lot of experience in the group now and there's winners. We're really starting to build a winning mentality. We're finding different ways to win games. We play some unbelievable football at times but it's not always pretty. That's how you are successful, by finding different ways to win.”
So, what is the success that Villa are building towards? The common thing for ambitious teams in the middle of the WSL table to do is to say they are targeting those European spots – then come up short. But Ward isn’t falling into that trap.
“I think it’s being progressive,” she says. “I think that's really important. We've seen clubs put loads of money in and hope for overnight success - in the men's and women's game. It just doesn't work like that. It's really important that you get the strategy right long-term.
“I know everybody wants that line of what we're going for. We are literally going for progression and, if we can keep progressing, who knows where that will take us."
So far, it’s taken them where no Villa team has been before - to a Women’s FA Cup semi-final. They’re almost certain to secure a best-ever finish in the WSL, too.
Given the steps that have been taken in such a short space of time, it’s fair to say those at the club are hopeful about the future, then. That excitement grows when you consider the impressive youth structure sitting below the first team which has already brought Laura Blindkilde Brown into the starting XI, with names like Olivia McLoughlin and Freya Gregory likely to follow.
“Aston Villa is the place to be!” Turner says. “There's no doubt about that. I'm sure our performances this year are only going to attract even more people.
“It's exciting and it's made me feel like it's the best decision I've made, joining Villa. The ambition of the club was one of the big factors and I've just seen that grow, even since the summer.
“I can only see us building and growing and pushing that top four in the next couple of years. It's a special group to be a part of and there's definitely bright times and a bright future ahead.”