Ward: Why taking Villa to sixth would be biggest achievement yet

Carla Ward sums herself up in one word. “Resilient”. It’s a trait which has certainly been tested this season.

Her Aston Villa side have come a long way since a run of five straight defeats to start the campaign left them rock bottom of the WSL.

Though she believes the club overachieved on its way to finishing fifth last season, and those defeats included each of the top three, it was still a bruising mental blow.

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Another 11 matches on, and they are eyeing up back-to-back top-half finishes. Sixth spot would surely represent a significant achievement given the significant recovery on the pitch, as well as mentally, that Ward has drawn out of her players.

Though speaking exclusively to Sky Sports ahead of welcoming Arsenal to the West Midlands on Sunday, she has little interest in caveats.

“It would be a massive achievement no matter how we started,” she says. “No one’s done it after finishing fifth. People look at the here and now, and people compare – let’s look at the history of the WSL, the reality of it.

“Nobody has finished top six after finishing fifth, you’ve seen teams completely drop off after finishing fifth. I said in pre-season, if we could finish top six, after finishing fifth, that would be a massive achievement.”

There is a curious oddity to finishing directly behind the two Manchester clubs, Arsenal and Chelsea – who have occupied the top-four spots in each of the last four seasons.

The closest any has come to repeating the feat is Reading, who managed seventh in 2020/21, though they never reached those heights again and were relegated last season.

There was never much belief Villa would suffer the same fate even when they did sit bottom in early November. Villa’s squad had too much quality. But to now sit on the coattails of sixth-placed Tottenham, who are three points ahead with six games to go, needed something more than that.

“You work every day like it’s your last, you squeeze every ounce out of everything you’ve got,” Ward explains. “We’ve tried to install that in the group, and they’re the same.

“We’ve had many bad moments this year and managed to turn them into good moments. We’ve had to do a lot of learning this year, I’ve learned an awful lot. Tough times and moments allow you to grow, and we’ve done that.

“The start was tough, the toughest moment I’ve gone through certainly. But you have to maintain a work ethic, you have to maintain a focus, you have to continue to wake up each day and give everything you’ve got.

“You have to give every bit of everything you’ve got. It takes its toll, of course it does, but if the players can see you giving everything you’re likely to give it back.”

They have shown it all season, but most recently in the 2-1 win at Everton last weekend to give them some breathing space ahead of the teams below them.

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Highlights from the Women’s Super League match between Everton and Aston Villa

That came in the wake of back-to-back thumpings by Arsenal and Liverpool, which inspired a change in shape from Ward which even she admits was a risk.

“A few of the players probably scratched their heads with what we were trying to do,” she smiles. “But after two defeats, shipping eight goals, we knew we had to change something.

“I’m a bit stubborn, I must admit, in terms of the way I want to do things. I’m a big believer in sticking to your beliefs, but there has to be a moment of trying something different, taking risks.

“It was something I believed in but we knew something needed to change, and we did that. Like I said, I was delighted come the end of the game.”

There won’t be revenge on the cards when Arsenal visit Villa Park on Sunday, despite the controversial manner of the last-minute 2-1 defeat earlier in the season, which formed part of that five-game barren run.

Villa led 1-0 at the Emirates going into added time but were stung in the final moments with a quickfire one-two from Katie McCabe and then Alessia Russo.

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Highlights from Arsenal’s last game, a 3-1 defeat at Chelsea

Ward received an apology from the PGMOL after the game admitting a foul directly before McCabe’s equaliser was not spotted by the match officials, without which she feels Villa would be eyeing up a league double over the Gunners this weekend.

Instead, she sounds a word of caution about an Arsenal side still smarting from last Friday’s 3-1 defeat at Chelsea, with three early goals all but ending their title chances by half-time.

“They’ll be hurting, so it’s the worst time to play them I think,” she says. “I know it myself, when you have a game like that, there’s only one thing you want to do in that situation, you want to get straight back out there and put it right.”

You might say Ward is well-placed to predict the resilience Arsenal may show in Birmingham on Sunday.

But given the amount her side have produced this season, Villa could yet have another surprise in store for Jonas Eidevall and his team.

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