When Carla Ward took over Birmingham City, they looked destined for relegation.
The club avoided that fate by the skin of their teeth last season, and four weeks before the new campaign they had no manager and not even enough players to put together a starting XI.
Even this season, injuries and the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has hit the squad hard, with Ward unable to name more than four substitutes in each of the last four games. Against local rivals Aston Villa in November, they had just two players on the bench.
But Birmingham’s story this season has defied the circumstances they’ve often played in.
The Blues currently sit eighth in the Women’s Super League table, eight points above the relegation zone. In September, they also reached a Women’s FA Cup semi-final.
As midfielder Christie Murray sits down to talk through the first half of the campaign, there’s a distraction in the background – it’s goalkeeper Hannah Hampton singing and dancing. It’s difficult to have imagined such a positive mood in the camp last season and even weeks before this season.
Murray was Ward’s first signing after her appointment in August and her presence has been key in driving Birmingham up the table.
“You can tell there's a lot of girls just enjoying their football, enjoying playing,” Scotland international Murray tells Goal.
“We've got such a good group here that just want to work hard. That's half the battle in football, when you've got people that want to work together for each other. It's exciting.”
A lot of that comes from Ward herself. Hampton, the 20-year-old who has been the club’s first-choice goalkeeper for the last two years, remembers her excitement upon first meeting the new coach.
“We went for a walk and she was just talking about her ambitions for the club,” Hampton recalls.
“Straight away, my first impression was she's got great plans, she's got great ideas and it's something that I want to jump on and hopefully succeed with.
“It was quite a tough environment to be in last year and in the summer. I don't think we had each others' backs as much as we probably should have.
“Say someone made a mistake, we probably blew it [out of proportion] to say they've cost us the game because we weren't gelling as well as a team as we could have.
“In the summer, it got harder only having eight players and it was just a case of everyone having to get behind each other.
“[Ward] just put an arm around all of us and was like, 'I can give you as much as you need, but at the end of the day, you need to fight with the person next to you on the pitch'.
“Everyone's just getting around each other and we're starting to win games and really have belief in ourselves as a team.”
After starting the season with three defeats, Birmingham have only lost two of their last six league games. For Hampton, that third loss in a row, against reigning champions Chelsea, was the turning point.
“We went into that game thinking we were going to be beaten by quite a few goals,” she explains.
“Just having that 1-0 defeat, being able to stick to a game plan and fighting for each other, we thought, 'yeah, we can do something in this league'.”
For Murray, the game that followed was a highlight, the Blues travelling to Reading, an established top-half team, and beating them at the Madejski.
The 30-year-old can’t settle on just one result though – victory in the local derby at Villa Park is another that is picked out, as well as the 4-0 win over Bristol City.
“For different reasons, different games have been really good and they have shown a different side of us,” she explains.
“I'm just excited to see how the next part of the season goes and hopefully we can pick up some more points early on.”
Birmingham’s first game of 2021 saw them pick up a point against Brighton, who beat them 2-0 on the opening weekend.
On Wednesday night, they host Everton, who beat them in that FA Cup semi-final, and on Sunday they take on Manchester United, who scored five against them in September. Since then, the Blues have conceded only five league goals in total, keeping a clean sheet every time they’ve won.
“There's always part of you that wants to prove a point,” Murray says, looking ahead to those reverse fixtures.
“We've grown as a team so, going into the games, we'll be more confident in what we're about.”
The turnaround Ward has overseen in the last five months has been nothing short of sensational.
But with half of the season still to go, her and her players will be the first to say the job is not done yet.