Following the exploits of England’s female footballers at last summer’s World Cup, where they defied expectations to finish third in the tournament and capture the nation’s hearts in the process, there was a spike of interest in the women’s game.
People embraced the story of the England Ladies team and the fight they showed in the tournament. They certainly did more justice to the supposed Three Lions spirit than their male counterparts in recent years.
Attendances in the top English woman’s league WSL 1 certainly benefited and saw an overall rise of 48% in the 2015 season compared to 2014, with record crowds after the World Cup. There were also record attendances at the last two Woman’s FA Cup finals at Wembley too.
When it comes to gaining recognition, whatever the team, winning always helps. Aston Villa’s own ladies team had also earned a profile boost themselves after winning the 2013 FA Women’s Premier League Cup Final and have fought gamely in attempting to achieve their dream of promotion to the top tier of woman’s football.
Currently in the second tier of the Woman’s Super League (ala the Villa men’s and U21’s teams), Aston Villa Ladies part-time status, presents a very grassroots feel to the team. There’s an immediacy between players and fans, and a trip to see them at Coles Lane in Sutton Coldfield is a good old school experience, far from the increasingly sanitised and commercialised men’s game.
Aston Villa Ladies Origins
A name that polarises Villa fans, Doug Ellis, is synonymous with establishing the women’s team. They were licensed by Aston Villa as their official woman’s side in 1996, having been called the Villa Aztecs before that from 1989. They originally started in 1973 as Solihull FC.
Villa began properly funding the women’s side in 2004 before taking full control of it in 2007, with the club’s progress culminating in the aforementioned FA Women’s Premier League Cup win in 2013. What is more astonishing about the cup triumph was that it was achieved with the players wearing that lime green Macron kit!
In terms of the team’s development in recent years, a lot of praise has to go down to the efforts of current manager Joe Hunt, who has pushed on the development of Aston Villa Ladies during his 10 years or so with the club.
Coles Lane is not as emphatic as Villa Park by any stretch, the devotion of the regular supporters and the quality of football inside the ground cannot be questioned. From Katie Wilkinson’s towering headers to Bethan Merrick’s jinking runs, you are guaranteed to leave the ground feeling pleasantly surprised with the stylish, competitive football that the women produce. Following the cup clash with Manchester City Women at Coles Lane, MOMS asked Joe Hunt why more fans should come down to see the Ladies play.
“If they come down and watch, they’ll be surprised at how good the ladies are,” said Hunt.
“I think there’s still that old fashioned thing were people think that the women aren’t as good. You can watch them in training and they’re frightening.”
The Season So Far
So far this season there’s been a mixed bag of results. After ten games, Aston Villa Ladies sit sixth in Women’s Super League 2 with 11 points. Their season got off to a flying start with fine run of three wins (Portsmouth, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton) in the FA Cup, taking them all the way to the quarter-finals. However it wasn’t meant to be as they drew Chelsea Ladies, the current WSL 1 champions, and lost 6-0.
However, they couldn’t carry their form into the start of the WSL 2 campaign, as they fell to an opening day defeat against Everton despite leading through left-back Hannah George. There have been notable wins over Oxford and Sheffield, before an enthralling victory at home to previously undefeated Durham.
Aston Villa Ladies 2 Durham 0
The game against Durham was my first visit to Coles Lane of the 2016 season, and I did not leave disappointed. As I drove up to the ground, a single fan dressed head to toe in Villa kit strolled along the pavement headed to the game (his and other Villa fans chants at the game will no doubt make you chuckle). It was cold and wet day and it certainly wasn’t the weather for wearing shorts.
His bravery was reflected in Jade Richards and Elisha N’Dow, the two Villa centre backs’ performances during the game. There was no cowering out of the way, wandering out of position or tweets containing pictures of flash cars.
Aston Villa Ladies 1 – 1 London Bees
Since going to the game against Durham, Villa Ladies suffered back-to-back defeats against Everton (2-0) and Yeovil (4-2) before my next trip to Coles Lane for the visit of the London Bees.
The first half carried on the frustration for Aston Villa, which they finished 1-0 down, before Katie Wilkinson came to Villa’s rescue with a beautiful goal. Standing 25-yards out, Wilkinson stepped up and fired an absolute peach into the top left-hand corner – her eighth goal of the season – cancelling out Popadinova’s opener for London Bees.
In the match that saw fifth versus sixth, both sides will rue the number of missed opportunities which left the Villa faithful questioning just how the game ended 1-1.
Aston Villa Ladies 2 Bristol City 2
After a frantic final quarter of an hour, in which four goals were scored, Villa drew with an injury-time equaliser against second place Bristol City. Merrick was at the centre of all Villa’s best play and was crucial to the claret and blues picking up a point in the evenly contested game. Glancing a powerful header home, Merrick sparked wild celebrations around the ground, as her last gasp equaliser secured a well-deserved draw.
Villa certainly put in a performance that if replicated in every remaining game could give them an outside chance of promotion still.
Aston Villa Ladies 0 Manchester City 8
When you draw a team in the Continental Cup cup who top the WSL 1, who haven’t lost and only conceded one goal all season, your chances aren’t great. Manchester City also boast a host of England internationals including Jill Scott and captain Steph Houghton.
Even though this was the first time any Villa team had worn the new Under Armour kit, when you give away a penalty in the opening minutes and go down to 10 players after 16 minutes (after giving another penalty away), it’s best to just write the game off.
The match certainly highlighted the gap between Manchester City’s full-time professionals and Villa’s part-timers. There has been an improvement to women’s football, particularly in the investment side across the whole game. However, Villa Ladies are still a long way away from teams like Manchester City Women who have been able to give their players full-time contracts, and allow them to play in the new purpose built Academy Stadium.
Post-match, Joe Hunt emphasised the difference in the two teams, “It’s like the Aston Villa men’s team playing against a Conference side… that is the difference.”
Durham 3 Aston Villa Ladies 0
Perhaps the death blow to Villa Ladies’ outside promotion chances. A couple of injuries to Villa players during the game certainly didn’t help against the Wild Cats who now move up to third place in the league, five points ahead of Villa, with two games in hand.
One to Watch
Despite being a Wolves fan, the 20-year-old playmaker Bethan Merrick will always give her all in the Villa shirt. She was one of Villa’s standout performers in 2015 as they finished fifth in the league.
Merrick, who can play on either flank or as a number 10 has a pinpoint delivery, which when you consider the quality of the men’s team’s set plays last season, could persuade Roberto Di Matteo to ask Merrick to pull on a shirt, just to take the corners.
She scored six goals in all competitions last season, and has already got herself two goals this term.
In the opening campaign of the newly formed WSL 2 in 2014, Merrick went down in the club’s history by scoring Aston Villa Ladies’ first ever goal in the league. It was a stunning goal to say the least. The academy product struck the ball home from 30 yards, as Villa gained a point against Watford. The rest is history for the girl born in Lichfield as she still chases her ultimate goal of promotion to the WSL 1 with Villa.
“The aim has always been promotion and you can see this year it’s an open league that could be won by anybody,” said Merrick earlier in the season.
“We’ve come close but there has been a lack of a clinical edge in the last couple of years and that’s what we have been trying to work on this year.”
The Villa ladies have since had back-to-back wins versus Millwall and Watford. Leaving them in fifth place in WSL 2, seven points off promotion with six games to play.
A home tie with top of the table Yeovil Town Ladies at Stratford Town’s DCS Stadium.
The address is: DCS Stadium, Knights Ln, Tiddington, Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 7BZ
For directions check out the Aston Villa Ladies site.
Ticket Prices – Adult – £5.00 & Children/OAP’s – £1.00
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