We’re delighted to welcome author Freya Taylor and former academy player Lyndsey Bissell as our exclusive Aston Villa Women experts. Each week they’ll be collaborating to give their views on the biggest talking points at the WSL club…
Aston Villa Women made the trip down to a packed-out Meadow Park to face Jonas Eidevall’s Arsenal in their last fixture of the 22/23 season. While neither team were fighting for silverware this afternoon, there was still an important trophy on the horizon – The Golden Boot. It was Rachel Daly’s for the taking, but would she add any more to her tally? Or would Khadija ‘Bunny’ Shaw have a final flurry of goals in City’s match against Everton? Only time would tell.
Only 50 tickets were allocated for away fans for this fixture (although we had purchased tickets in the North Stand months ago. But, asked security nicely if we could sneak through and join the other Villans, luckily the lovely security man let us through, so if you ever read this kind sir, thank you!) But you couldn’t have asked for a more vocal, passionate group of travelling fans (big shout out to the Aston Villa Women’s Supporters Group) and if possible, there were so many other members of the claret and blue army that would have loved to have been there, but simply couldn’t get tickets. After some research, for fixtures usually played at Borehamwood, regardless of the team, there is usually a 600 max capacity ticket allocation for away supporters, so it’s a shame Arsenal chose to release such a small amount for the travelling fans only days before the match was due to be played.
As the team lists were announced, it was a flashback to the beginning of our season, with only two outfield players named on the bench (due to either injuries or resting for the World Cup) and on paper, it didn’t seem like this could be a team who could stand up and challenge this North London side. But as Daly and Carla Ward have both said in the past, this is not a side to ever underestimate and they truly are a force to be reckoned with. It was also a pleasure to see Remi Allen captain the side for what was to be her last game in claret and blue as the teams made their way onto the pitch.
As the match began, Arsenal seemed to be on the back foot, giving Villa a lot of time and space on the ball and it was causing them problems. Due to doubling up on their players, Villa were able to close down any attacks (including a very dangerous ball from Jodie Taylor within the first 10 minutes) and it was making it harder for Arsenal to get the ball into the box. Before, Villa have almost given the ‘top four’ teams too much respect, but this time, there seemed to be a sense of confidence and belief within the team and they were ready to challenge the red and whites for those three points.
As the game settled down around the 20-minute mark, Frida Leonhardsen Maanum had the first clear-cut chance of the match, but luckily our number one Hannah Hampton was able to punch it out for a corner, which Maanum herself took. The ball glanced across goal and Katie McCabe wasn’t able to tap it home, mainly due to the tight defending of Maz Pacheco. Maybe if Arsenal had managed to put that one away, it might have been a very different outcome.
Laura Blindkilde Brown and Kirsty Hanson were the standout players from the very start of the match. It seemed like Hanson had most of the wing to herself and was able to cause a lot of trouble for Arsenal. We thought either Steph Catley was giving her too much space, or had Kirsty found the perfect pocket of space due to Katie McCabe playing so high up. Either way, Kirsty was free to show off her phenomenal skill and proved yet again why she should sign for Villa permanently. Remi Allen also stood out for us in midfield, the pocket-rocket who can put in a blinder of a tackle; she’s going to be huge miss to this Villa side and we personally think it’s a mistake letting such a hungry and influential player go.
Lucy Staniforth was a fantastic influence on the pitch, clearly commanding and guiding her team like only a player of her calibre can. She is one of many players now in this Villa team who can step up in these big games and deliver that presence and leadership needed in this team. Especially as a fantastic example to some of our younger players on how to progress to the next level of the game.
However, we wanted to also comment on the difference in match quality to earlier in the year as it seems as though because Arsenal have nothing to play for, the match seems to be lacking urgency on their end. Even though Laura Blinkilde Brown and Kirsty Hanson are the ones finding the gaps in Arsenal’s defence and challenging, the red and whites are the ones consistently getting to the balls first. Could this be due to a very tired, depleted side pushing the very limits of their fitness? Or, is it merely due to Arsenal possessing a higher level of fitness and aren’t suffering from the same fatigue as much as they’re able to rotate more often?
This will be very interesting to see how Ward chooses to move in the transfer window. Will she go for younger international talent who we can develop, and also won’t be cup-tied (for example Kirsty Hanson with parent club Manchester United and Anna Patten with Arsenal) meaning we won’t have to miss out on having some of our strongest, reliable players playing in the big matches.
As the first half was drawing to a close, the visitors were the first to break the deadlock, as a scramble in front of goal saw Villa’s star signing of the season, Daly, put one past Sabrina D’Angelo. This goal officially equalled Miedema’s goal-scoring record of 22 goals in a single season, another achievement to add to Daly’s first season back in the WSL.
The whistle blew finally blew signalling the end of the first half, and the incredibly vocal travelling fans were in full voice cheering on their winning side. Laura Blinkilde Brown, we’ve already mentioned had a fantastic game and it’s brilliant to see her playing so well alongside experienced Rachel Corsie (returning from injury) and it shows how having players of that quality and calibre can really influence the younger talent.
After a well-earned break, the players were back out on the pitch and it’s clear to see Villa are ready to go again. Not only to secure a more comfortable cushion against the north London team they have yet to beat, but the need to secure Daly’s ‘Golden Boot’ too. In the stands, we were checking the live scores feverishly, having one heart-stopping moment in particular when Shaw scored for Manchester City (but luckily it was just the one).
Within minutes, cheers of “ALISHA ALISHA ALISHA” rung out in the South Stand at Meadow Park as in the 49th minute Alisha Lehmann shot a low ball through the legs of D’Angelo. Doubling the visitors’ lead. Even though there were still 40 minutes to play, could this be the perfect end to a long 22/23 season?
At around the hour mark, Arsenal seemed to step up a gear and come back into the game and ultimately dominated for large parts of this half. But they just couldn’t find their rhythm to push our defence or indeed Hampton. Villa knew they had a strong chance of taking these three points with a clean sheet, so they dug deep, played tight and managed to see out the remaining time without many dangerous moments from the Arsenal forwards.
When nine minutes of extra time was announced over the speakers, a groan of annoyance emanated from the fans, but it was nearly 10 more minutes of getting to push the Arsenal defence. Even in the 98th minute, Kirsty Hanson was still pushing to get her name on the scoresheet too. Daly and Chaney Boye-Hlorkah kept the ball in the away supporters’ corner as much as they could in the dying moments, the former even dancing a little to our chants of ‘SHE’S GOT THE GOLDEN BOOT IN HER HANDS” much to the delight of all of us there.
The final whistle finally blew a few moments later and as the travelling fans pushed forward to the barriers; the loudest chant of the afternoon “CARLA WARD’S CLARET AND BLUE ARMY” was the perfect anthem to welcome the squad over to the South Stand for the final team photo of the season.
As always, the players spent time signing autographs and getting photos with our phenomenal supporters’ group before celebrating Daly being honoured with her ‘Golden Boot’ officially.
Our only wish would have been if Daly had been presented with this award in front of the travelling fans, as all of the Arsenal accolades (including presenting Jordan Nobbs and Manuela Zinsberger with a commemorative shirt) all took place in front of the North Stand with the majority of the Arsenal supporters, so it would have been nice for us to have been a part of that moment with Rachel and the rest of the squad.
Interestingly, Arsenal gave player of the match to departing defender Rafaelle. Who, yes can absolutely agree is a great player and will be missed in the WSL, but we truly believe any of the Villa players who were on the field today should have earned that title instead.
On reflection, we know Arsenal didn’t play their best football, however, Villa certainly took their opportunity and made it clear they’re certainly contenders and can challenge the top four for certain next season. This squad have shown how determined, passionate, hungry yet humble they are and any new players we do sign, have to fit into that dynamic and be willing to graft for their place in the team. Lehmann and Hampton are also out of contract this summer, however, as all of the other departures have been announced, there is a strong likelihood that the pair will stay although nothing has been confirmed.
In terms of the future, we would love to see maybe Emma Mukandi come and support our defence from the now officially relegated Reading, or maybe a young talent like Jess Park who has pace and confidence on the ball. Whereas internationally, I personally (trying to get Lyndsey to agree too) would love to see Martina Piemonte – who currently plays as a forward for AC Milan and is out of contract this summer – sign and be another strong player in front of goal alongside Daly.
Since 2011, only 4 players (including Beth Mead and Ellen White) have won the Golden Boot outside of the ‘top four’ teams, so if that doesn’t reflect how far Villa have come this season. Then we don’t know what will.
This has been an outstanding season for Aston Villa. Their highest-ever finish, the most goals scored, the most games won and ultimately, Ward is building a hungry, confident and competent team full of star quality. So next season, top 4? We’re coming for you!
In other Aston Villa Women news, the Villans have been caught off guard over Anna Patten.