As the Premier League season draws to a close, a new Women’s Super League campaign is rapidly approaching, and Aston Villa Women start pre-season training next week for our first year in the top flight. We have announced two signings with more to come, and the first games are scheduled for the first weekend of September, which will be our chance to establish ourselves at a higher level and set new benchmarks and targets.
It was really important that we kept the core group that got us promoted and before we brought anyone in we made sure that 13 of those players were retained. A number of them are from Birmingham and I think it was really important to maintain that DNA within the team, to have a squad that shows young girls that it is possible to reach the first team one day.
A lot of the coaching staff are Villa fans and it means a great deal to them to be working in the WSL, at the highest level with top players. We also agreed a deal to play home games at Walsall’s Banks’s Stadium, another big step. The ground has hosted international women’s fixtures – I scored my first England goal there, a big memory for me – and it will be the second-biggest stadium in the league.
It’s also only 10 miles from Villa Park, a huge advantage for us given that one of the consistent problems with women’s football in this country has been teams playing in locations inaccessible to the majority of their traditional fanbase. Our proximity to Villa Park and Birmingham means that we have a real opportunity to engage the club’s supporters, and we are within easy reach of 75% of them.
Ultimately our goal is to become the dominant team in the Midlands. We’re not just trying to make up the numbers next season – we want to be a team that compete. We look at what Manchester United and Tottenham did last season, their first in the WSL, in terms of standing shoulder to shoulder with the established sides, and we want to follow that path.
We have big plans not just for next season but also for the next few years: in 2022 the Commonwealth Games come to Birmingham and the European Championship will be held in England, and we want to have players involved and to be part of their legacies. We have a vision that we can show to prospective signings but we need to be a team that succeed on the field as well.
Our coach, Gemma Davies, is very meticulous and has a clear philosophy, and it has been enjoyable to recruit with someone who knows exactly how she wants to play, and how she wants players to contribute. Our first signing was Chloe Arthur, a key player for Scotland who has joined from Birmingham, already established in the WSL and obviously our local rivals. I think it is a real statement for us to get a quality midfielder and a key player from them in particular – she started 12 of Blues’ 13 games in the WSL last season – and start to really stake our claim to local supremacy.
Our second signing, Anita Asante, is vastly experienced. She has won 18 major trophies including the Champions League, has played in the US and Sweden, and more than 70 times for England. I’ve played with her and she’s also one of the best defenders I’ve come up against. Her temperament, experience and intelligence will be a real asset for us – we need that good head, that leadership on the field, to complement the younger potential leaders who need time to grow.
She has come from my former club Chelsea, and for me as sporting director this has been my first opportunity to put to use those connections and influence what we are trying to do. Those two signings hopefully indicate where we are trying to go.
The transfer market seems to be relatively unaffected by the coronavirus crisis. There will be an impact on spending and budgets, but fan attendance has not been a major part of the revenue stream in women’s football – that will hit the lower leagues of the men’s game hardest. But the way that transfer negotiations take place has changed in a world where face-to-face meetings, particularly with players based abroad, are difficult.
In my first week in the job in March I went to the Algarve Cup, one of the big international competitions. These were the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic – Italy ended up reaching the final but couldn’t play it because they had to go home before their borders closed – but I was able to have quite a broad scouting trip, to meet players and agents, which meant that there was already a rapport with some of the people I have been talking with in recent weeks.
But there have been some positives to having meetings online. Zoom has allowed us to meet players before we normally could, to spend a bit more time with them, and to show them a presentation we put together not just about their role in the team but also about the club and our ambitions. The nature of the market is that for every player you sign there are three who choose another club, but even when we present to players and they don’t decide to join us it is important that we make a good impression, which they will go on to tell their teammates about. Women’s football is a small world and I am pleased the word is spreading about Aston Villa and what we are trying to achieve.
The WSL is established as one of the best leagues in the world, and it is attracting its top talent. From this season there is a third Champions League place to fight for, which will add another dimension. Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City have occupied the top three places in each of the last five years but I think that others will break into that cosy cartel, and hopefully Villa will soon be competing for a Champions League place. These have been a strange few months, for sure, but exciting ones as well. Now I can’t wait for the football.