Aston Villa women were flying high at the top of the Championship last season. They were unbeaten in the league, promotion was set in stone and they looked very much like a club on the rise.
Then the world came to a stop.
Almost a year has passed since the UK went into its first national lockdown in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and life is still considerably far away from normality as Britain remains at home under strict social distancing guidelines. Sport up and down the country was put on hold, and for Villa, the prospect of playing in the Women’s Super League seemed to be slipping away, through no fault of their own.
“We hoped we could continue to play and finish the job on the pitch, but the pandemic carried on to the point that wouldn’t be possible,” said Nadine Hanssen, speaking exclusively to 7500 to Holte on her team’s journey over the last year.
“Then it was based on one decision from the FA as to what would happen, we did everything we could on the pitch, but it was down to an off-the-pitch decision which was a really big moment for us all.”
As the rest of the country was learning to adapt to the new restrictions, the experience for professional footballers was no different. They too had to continue working from home and maintain their fitness, hanging on to the slim possibility they’d return before the end of the season.
“We did loads of Zoom calls to keep fit because we didn’t know what could happen,” Hanssen continued. “The league could’ve started again after two weeks, three weeks, a month, we didn’t know.
“If the league was to have carried on, we needed to be fit and ready as there was everything to play for and I think we managed to stay fit very well, we had fitness plans from the physical staff for strength and endurance.”
After three months of waiting, it was clear the remaining fixtures would not be played. The Villa squad were then left waiting to hear how the season would be concluded, and whether their efforts would earn them the promotion they deserved.
On June 5 2020, the squad were informed they would be playing in the Women’s Super League from the start of the new campaign.
“I went upstairs because I wanted to do it on my own at first, my family was downstairs, and we had the meeting where Gemma told us that we were going to get promoted.
“We were full of emotion, so happy, and for a lot of us it was a dream come true to get promoted to the WSL and play in the top league in England, it’s one of the best competitions in the world.
“It meant everything to us.”
With the heavyweights that dominate the WSL, the jump from the Championship was always going to be a big one, but the midfielder had no doubts over the team’s readiness for the big stage.
“We had to adapt, it’s completely different in this league but technically and physically the coaches have done everything to prepare us for this level and I think as a team, we are adjusting really well.
“We’d played a few cup games and friendlies last season against WSL teams, we played Liverpool in the cup, we played Brighton too and I think we showed then that we were ready for that level and we were ready to compete in the WSL.
“Of course, the technical and physical ability from the league is higher if you compare it with the Championship, but I think even last season we showed already that’s where we needed to be.”
Life in the WSL is by no means easy for a young squad and results so far this season haven’t always gone Villa’s way.
With a defeat to Manchester City on opening day, the reality of the challenge before them became clear.
“It’s a massive learning point for us and also mentally, we know we are on this journey together, we all trust the process to level up our playing style and start picking up points, which will 100% come.
“There is a belief and trust that we have in each other and in the team that we are able to compete against these teams and pick up good results along the way.”
The Villans earned their first league win of the season against Brighton on November 8, then a huge 4–0 victory away to Bristol City came a month later.
The beginning of 2021 saw Japanese international Mana Iwabuchi join the squad while interim manager Marcus Bignot has overseen an upturn in form since his appointment in January.
A draw against Reading and a crucial win over Tottenham in February saw Villa pull further away from the bottom of the table. The team are in a strong position as the battle for survival intensifies.
Speaking on Iwabuchi’s influence this year, Hanssen said, “Mana is first of all, just sick! She has unreal technical ability and she makes it all look so easy!
“Also, she is a World Cup winner so it’s really nice to have her in the team now, and she’s a lovely person so it’s nice to have her at the club.”
The absence of supporters has been felt this season as football remains behind closed doors. The WSL will finish before fans can be welcomed back to stadiums at the end of May. The absence of fans at the end of last season was also difficult to handle.
“It was unfortunate we couldn’t celebrate the promotion with the fans who have supported us for so long,” the Dutch international expressed. “To not have them with us in the WSL is difficult, but we’ll do everything we can to give them that experience with us next season.
“It’s definitely given us that boost to stay up so we can play in front of them in the WSL next year, to have them with us next season would be great, they are very loud as well so it will give us that extra boost to get results over the line!
“We’re massively looking forward to seeing them again.”
After joining the club in 2018, Hanssen has been on an incredible journey with Villa as they’ve propelled themselves into the WSL. There’s still all to play for in the latter stages of the season as top-flight survival is within touching distance.