To continue disrupting the elite. After not merely consolidating their Women’s Super League status but finishing an unexpected fifth last season, Carla Ward’s team hope to challenge for European qualification this time.
Given the competition, it will not be easy but, with players of the quality of England’s Jordan Nobbs and Lucy Staniforth and France’s Kenza Dali in midfield Villa are not to be underestimated. Ward’s decision to convert the previously much more attacking Staniforth into a defensive midfielder following her arrival from Manchester United in January proved particularly inspired.
Villa also score goals; Rachel Daly, the WSL’s 22-goal Golden Boot winner last season will aim to retain that prize while forming a potentially exciting attacking partnership with her fellow England striker Ebony Salmon. Ward has recruited astutely this summer, most notably acquiring Salmon from Houston Dash and Daphne van Domselaar from Twente.
The 23-year-old Netherlands goalkeeper replaces Hannah Hampton, now at Chelsea, and looks an excellent signing. “Daphne’s some player,” says Ward whose side finished ninth at the end of 2021-22, her first campaign at the helm. “She’s sensational, absolutely brilliant. She had offers from 14 clubs on the table so we’re delighted she chose to join us. We want to close the gap on the top teams and we’re trying to build structurally and sustainably. A lot of people will write us off but we believe we can do it. We’re only going in one direction.”
Ward, a fan of 4-3-3, has both reinforced her defence and enhanced its distribution skills by signing the much coveted ball-playing centre-half, Lucy Parker, from West Ham. Like Van Domselaar, Parker turned down several other offers in order to work with Ward. Nobbs understands why. “Carla gives you a licence to play,” says the midfielder. “She allows you to enjoy your game.”
Carla Ward. The former Sheffield United and Birmingham manager took charge of Villa in 2021, leading them to fifth place and an FA Cup semi-final last season. Born on the Isle of Wight, Ward, 39, grew up on a Torquay council estate and began playing football on the street with local boys. She subsequently emigrated to Spain, beginning her career as a goalscoring midfielder in Alicante before returning to England for stints with Leeds, Lincoln, Sheffield FC and Sheffield United.
Former England manager Phil Neville once claimed that Rachel Daly “reminds me of me”. Yet despite his useful versatility as a player Neville was not a goalscorer. Daly most certainly is and emphasised the point by topping the WSL scoring charts. Two-footed, she is equally adept at scoring with her head. After being deployed at left wing-back for England during the World Cup a 31-year-old capable of excelling in assorted positions is set to revert to centre-forward for Ward’s side. So does she regard herself as a Neville clone? “In his dreams,” says Daly.
High-profile summer signing
The 22-year-old striker Ebony Salmon joins from Houston Dash where she scored 10 goals in 29 appearances last season. A product of Villa’s academy, Salmon subsequently joined Manchester United and Bristol City before heading to the US and impressing for Racing Louisville. She hopes a return to the WSL on a three-year contract will help her add to her current tally of four England caps. “Ebony has pace, power and the ability to change a game,” said Ward. “She has great potential.”
World Cup delight/heartache
Six Villa players travelled to Australia and New Zealand including England’s Daly, Nobbs and Staniforth. While Daly played an integral part in the Lionesses’ run to the final, Nobbs spent the entire tournament on the bench, while her fellow midfielder Staniforth was a stand-by player who flew home from Australia shortly before England’s first game. France’s Dali, the Netherlands Van Domselaar and Switzerland’s Alisha Lehmann were the other three Villains Down Under.
Social media status
Switzerland’s Lehmann has 12 million followers on Instagram – more than Roger Federer – and is on a mission. “Social media helps people see that women playing football is normal,” says the 24-year-old forward. “My account is to show the world that women can actually do it in football and that you can also be a bit crazy and show your personality to the world.”