Carla Ward moved from Birmingham Women to Aston Villa Women in the summer; The manager is already targeting improvement with her new squad; Watch West Ham Women vs Aston Villa Women live on Sky Sports Premier League and Main Event from 11am on Saturday; kick-off 11.30am
Monday 27 September 2021 16:32, UK
When Carla Ward left Birmingham City at the end of last season to take up the position of Aston Villa manager, she always knew that the reaction would not be a wholly positive one.
"I still get some stick, but that's fine," Ward exclusively told Lynsey Hooper in an interview for Sky Sports. "I'm quite thick-skinned. I think when I lose my first game this season, I'm sure they'll all come out and I'll enjoy reading them and then I'll put it to bed."
It is no surprise that Birmingham fans were disappointed to see Ward go. Aside from the inter-city rivalry, Ward was widely praised for keeping Birmingham in the Women's Super League despite tricky circumstances. At Aston Villa, she already has three points on the board, coming from a goal down to beat newly promoted Leicester City 2-1 on the opening weekend.
"I didn't dress it up after the game - we weren't good enough," says Ward. "We've played better football in pre-season and we weren't particularly happy with the performance.
"We know we needed to be better. We just had to look after the ball better. We didn't utilise the space we had. It's something we addressed at half-time - it was better in the second half. But we certainly need some improvement going into West Ham."
Aston Villa head to East London this weekend to play West Ham, live on Sky Sports, in a meeting that sees two teams in claret and blue looking to establish themselves as mid-table sides in the WSL.
"If you take away the top four, and then you could potentially put Everton into that, I think you've got a league there in itself," explains Ward. "I think outside of that you've got another league that all of the teams, ourselves included, will be looking to finish as high up as possible.
"It's been up and down [for West Ham] of course, and I think they'll want to get things right this year. They've recruited fairly well. They've spent money to allow them to bring in some top quality players. They've had a really mixed bag over the past couple of years, so I think it will be a really important season for them."
Aston Villa themselves had a tricky time last year. Having been promoted from the Women's Championship, they quickly found themselves in a relegation battle, with manager Gemma Davies being replaced by Marcus Bignot halfway through the season. Part of Ward's job has been helping the players put last season behind them.
"I think a lot of the players - whether that's the players who have come in or the players that are here - probably finished the season in difficult circumstances," says Ward.
"Ultimately it was about getting the group together, about believing that they're good footballers, that they're here for a reason. Trying to get them to play with a smile on their face again."
While Ward will foster that environment on the pitch, she also believes it is important that the group feels like a team outside of football, saying: "I've just heard that they've all been out to a water park together yesterday! So you know they're starting to develop good relationships. It's up to them, away from football, to look after each other, and it sounds like they're doing just that."
Ward has also brought in a number of experienced players to boost the squad with both Emily Gielnik and Gemma Davison joining the club. Both have previous WSL experience with Gielnik having played for Liverpool in 2012, while Davison has over 100 appearances in the league.
"What she brings isn't just on the pitch," says Ward about Davison. "Her experience off the pitch has been unbelievable. We've got some really young players and you can see they feed off her. She sees things that others don't, and it's priceless, it really is.
"She [Gielnik] is athletic. She's got an abundance of talent. You know you can put the ball into the box and nine times out of ten, she's going to get her head on it. She's got a lot of quality in and around the box, something that we lacked in pre-season, so we're delighted to get her over the line."
Ward's opportunity to integrate her new signings will be interrupted by the international break after only two rounds of WSL fixtures. It is something that Ward finds frustrating.
"I'm not going to lie, the international break drives me mad at times. You get a little bit of momentum and then you have to have a few weeks without a game.
"I love sending players off to play for their country, but it is frustrating as a manager and a coach because naturally you want to build momentum, and it's very difficult to do that within this division. But look, it is part and parcel of the game. You just have to set your sights on the next five games and go again."
Ward has also been frustrated by the refereeing. After a number of controversial decisions in the opening round of WSL fixtures, managers like Emma Hayes have called for the introduction of VAR in the league. But Ward believes the focus should initially be on full-time referees.
"The visibility that Sky is going to give [the WSL] now is huge. I keep saying, don't underestimate how big that is. But with that, we need to get up to speed in other areas. I think making referees full-time is something so small, and I can't believe that we're here in 2021 still discussing that.
"It's not the referees' fault. They're part time, they have to go to other jobs. It's a cry and a call to the FA to actually bring these officials up to speed, for the sake of the game."