By Freya Taylor and Lyndsey Bissell

5th Oct, 2023 | 8:18am

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…

Goals, red cards, rain. Villa Park was alive with the sound of 12,533 fans and what a season opener it was! With so many exciting summer signings and international breaks galore helping to develop players further, we waited with bated breath as to how the quality on paper would transfer onto the field. And our new Villans really didn’t disappoint.

After consultation with members of the Villa Women Fan Club; we’ve come to the following conclusions about, not only the match, but what we’re hoping for the rest of the season too.

Standout players included last season’s Golden Boot winner Rachel Daly, new Canadian international Adriana Leon, the muscles of Scotland’s Kirsty Hanson, one of our own Sarah Mayling and of course world-class keeper Daphne van Domselaar to name a few. Lucy Parker, the young England international (who signed from West Ham this summer) also showed her incredible work rate and impressed with the amount of times she got knocked down, but got straight back up again. She definitely surpassed any expectations we had and we can’t wait to see how she develops for the rest of the season.

However, the squad was clearly missing the likes of Maz Pacheco and Kenza Dali who were out with illness and injury respectively. Laura Blinkilde Brown was brilliant and it was great to see her in the starting lineup, but she was easily muscled off the ball in most situations.  Moving forward, it would be great to see Adriana Leon starting with Alisha Lehmann used as a super sub instead; we reckon they would both make more of an impact that way. However, Lehmann did have some very good scoring chances and, in fact, had the best chance of the match in the 38th minute. After a lovely run and some great footwork, she just couldn’t keep the ball down as it skied over the crossbar. 

We’ve seen in training just how powerful Alisha’s right foot can be and we’d love to see that more consistently on the pitch. Another chance saw Lehmann with the ball in the box but she just couldn’t get her feet right to see the shot off. The ball was then only cleared as far as Lucy Staniforth who sent a powerful shot straight at Mary Earps who, luckily for United, saw it early and punched it away to safety. Daly also had some early opportunities. It was as if Villa couldn’t catch a break in their league opener.

The midfield at times looked absent, either pushing too high or dropping too deep which meant there was no one to be that through ball player that was sorely needed in the game. It’ll be interesting to see how the forward line will change over the coming season. Will Daly and Ebony Salmon play together up front? And if so, how will that impact the rest of the starting line-up?

For the visitors, Lucia García and Geyse were constant threats down the wings as Manchester United really built into the game, but Villa’s defence stood firm. Ultimately, this did see both Rachel Corsie and Dan Turner receive yellow cards for their strong defending against the Spanish and Brazilian players, with Geyse receiving one in return in the second half. The amount of yellows shows just how physical, fiery and high-pressure this game was, brilliant for the fans and neutral alike. However, we also saw yellow cards given for dissent, such as the one given against Leon, (when there didn’t seem to be much in that one), which is also becoming more common in the men’s game.

It was 0-0 going into half-time and everyone watching could tell that a goal was coming, but who would be the first to break the deadlock? With Daly having a chance at 66 minutes and even captain Corsie trying her luck in the 70th minute, it seemed that Villa were the closest to finding the back of the net.

The next few moments were the turning point in the game. As Hanson surged forward to get the ball in the 74th minute, she unfortunately went in with a high knee towards Hayley Ladd, and it was right in front of the referee. This was deemed as dangerous play and she was shown a straight red card. For us personally, you could see there was no intent, but yes she did go in with her leg raised and within the rules of the game it will always be a red.

Carla Ward was understandably infuriated on the sidelines as the camera panned to her in a heated discussion with the fourth official. Consequently, Hanson left the field in tears and our hearts went out to her as we know it wasn’t reckless and she was genuinely trying to win the ball. She has since apologised on social media to Ladd, the team and the fans, who have reassured her she has nothing to apologise for.

Following on from this, the quality of refereeing not only in this match but across the board has been very inconsistent. For example, letting play go on when it should have been stopped and especially not giving clear shoulder barges (Le Tissier on Salmon) a second glance. Watching the incident in real-time was bad enough, but watching it again after the fact shows very clearly that Le Tissier had no intention of playing the ball and shoulder barged Salmon which could have led to a serious injury. It also didn’t help matters that Le Tissier was laughing while Salmon was being treated by medics for possible concussion, which left a bad taste in the fans’ mouths. She was very lucky not to be shown a card for that one.

Overall, the inconsistent officiating at Villa Park and in the rest of the league just exhibits why referees in the WSL need to be full-time, highly-trained officials. We rated Rebecca Welch at the World Cup, but she was just poor this time. It felt at some points it was 12 against 10, the amount of decisions going against Villa.

On the plus side, Hanson is a phenomenal player and we truly believe if she’d stayed on it would have been a different game and maybe got the 2-2 equaliser we predicted. The fact that we were able to keep the final score so tight in a high-pressure, high-quality game shows just how far Villa have developed since the beginning of even last season. It also begs the question, how will we set up for Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham in her absence?

In the aftermath, it would have been very easy for United to dominate and completely annihilate Villa. However the home team, if anything, looked even more dangerous. Lucy Parker found herself in possession of the ball and drove forward with power and precision. A lovely pass to Leon (whose positioning was phenomenal during the game) saw the Canadian create a great pass into the box for Daly. Her first touch allowed her to control the ball, turn and shoot, even as she was losing her balance. Villa Park exploded as the ball rippled the back of the net and last season’s Golden Boot winner opened her account for the season.

United weren’t going to take this, of course, and three minutes later García found the back of the Villa net herself. Not the prettiest of goals and quite scrappy as Villa couldn’t clear the ball. Van Domselaar who had been brilliant all match, unfortunately didn’t have a chance to save this one. We had predicted a 2-2 result and with 10 minutes plus stoppage time still to go, the game was anyone’s to be won (or lost).

From the 85th minute, both teams seemed to up the tempo as they were striving for that winning goal. A fantastic 89th-minute save by Villa’s new Dutch keeper kept the home side in the game as the regular 90 minutes came to a close.

As the board flashed with a red eight, a sense of disbelief, confusion and anxiety washed over the home fans. How is there eight extra minutes to play? Could Villa hold on for a point? Or even get the win? The answer came moments later in the 92nd minute as late substitute Rachel Williams’ header, (after a well-placed Nikita Parris cross) found the back of the net. 

Again, van Domselaar couldn’t have saved it and every Villa heart broke at the slumped bodies of the Villa players, sinking to their knees in disbelief that they’d held the draw for so long to just be beaten in added time. But, there were still six minutes to go. Six minutes to make some magic happen. Both teams were starting to look absolutely shattered, a clear knock-on effect from the Nations League, and Villa seemed to lose a bit of their spark for a few minutes after the goal.

However, in true Villa style, a fresh-faced Jordan Nobbs came on in the 95th minute and breathed some life into the team. Although she definitely should have been brought on earlier, Nobbs made the most of her time on the pitch and instantly plugged the gaps in Villa’s midfield that had been their all match, using her position to better link up play and force the ball forward in the dying moments. Leon again showed fantastic skill as she won the ball back and showed the fighting spirit right until the very end.

As the dying moments of the game loomed, Villa earned two corners and were so close to equalising, but as the ball was cleared too far out of United’s box, the final whistle sounded in the 98th minute and that was it. Villa gave everything they had, but it just wasn’t enough. Another defeat to Manchester United.

Our player of the match, however, had to be the phenomenal Turner. A fantastic, experienced yet underrated defender who is back to playing in her best role at left-back. Her interceptions in the game ultimately stopped many dangerous United attacks and she needs more praise.

In her post-match interview, Carla Ward commented on how they changed their shape continuously after going down to 10 players, from 4-4-2, to 5-4-1 and more throughout the rest of the game in an attempt to keep pushing against United. The gaffer also commented on how some big calls ultimately went against them, and even pundits Fara Williams and Ellen White thought Le Tissier was very lucky to come out of that challenge without being carded.

Most importantly though, Ward also began her interview by saying how immensely proud she was of her players, and even when they were down; they showed true spirit and character and that’s exactly what she wanted to see. She also added that she’s not worried for the rest of the season as United are a top team and they were pushed by Villa right until the end.

Finally, the widely talked about issue with the kits was evident for all to see too. We sincerely hope Castore can come up with a solution soon, as neither team should be worrying about anything other than the game while they’re playing.

Aston Villa women are on the road for their next two fixtures. First up, a trip to Merseyside to face Liverpool (who won their opening game against Arsenal) on Sunday 8th October, followed by a trip to the Emirates to face Arsenal on Sunday 15th October. If this opening match is anything to go by, we are so proud to be part of the pride and can’t wait to see how this season unfolds.

In other Aston Villa Women news, one player has spoken out amid the Castore kit controversy at the club.