It has been a summer of change at Aston Villa Women as they build towards their second season in the Women’s Super League.
The Villans ended the previous campaign on a high with a 0-0 draw against Arsenal on the final day, which secured their status in the top-flight.
It was by no means an easy ride for Villa, who finished 10th last term. Just three points separated them and Bristol City – who were relegated to the FA Women’s Championship.
As the curtains closed on what was a testing debut season in the WSL, the days that followed kick started wholesale changes both on and off the pitch at the club.
Marcus Bignot’s term as interim manager came to an end and many expected Gemma Davies to assume responsibility once again, but she too was among the coaching staff to leave Villa this summer.
Davies had been at the club since 2018 and coached the team to promotion in the 2019/20 season, but after a difficult start to life in the top division, it became clear more experience was needed to ensure safety.
Assistant manager Jenny Sugarman also left, but most surprisingly, Eniola Aluko stepped down from her role as sporting director, a little over a year after she joined the club.
And so, the search for a new manager began and so did several changes on the pitch as a fresh squad was assembled ahead of the new campaign.
A new-look Aston Villa
The club confirmed seven players were set to leave as contracts expired at the end of the season.
The long-serving Amy West, Caroline Siems, Diana Silva, Nadine Hanssen, Ella Franklin-Fraiture and Emma Follis saw out their deals.
A huge blow was the departure of Mana Iwabuchi, who signed for the club in December 2020 and was a standout performer in the second half of the campaign.
The Japanese international spent six months in the West Midlands before she joined Arsenal this summer.
Villa appointed their new manager just a week after the departures of Bignot and Davies, as Carla Ward took the reins after she left rivals Birmingham City.
“It’s a club going in the right direction,” Ward told Villa TV following her arrival.
“From top to bottom, the culture’s fantastic. I’m honestly so excited to be here.”
Striker Stine Larsen was next to depart after her contract expired at the end of June, but the club were quick to fill the void with the signing of Alisha Lehmann from West Ham.
The forward had spent the second half of the 2020/21 season on loan with WSL rivals Everton, before making the permanent switch to the midlands club.
And that was just the beginning.
Remi Allen was next through the door, the midfielder joined the club from Saturday’s opponents Leicester City, who earned promotion to the WSL last season.
Sarah Mayling returned to Villa Park after four years with rivals Birmingham City.
Mayling also told Villa TV in July: “I’m excited. I’m a Villa fan. I feel like I’m coming home.
“I grew up at this club. It will take a while to sink in, but my heart’s at this club and I can’t wait to get started.”
Attacker Chantelle Boye-Hlorkah signed a two-year deal with the Villans, the 25-year-old progressed through the ranks with Everton and made 57 appearances for the club.
Meaghan Sargeant joined from relegated Bristol City, the 27-year-old also played for Birmingham City between 2014 and 2019.
Goalkeeper Hannah Hampton was next to put pen to paper on a two-year deal and she followed manager Ward from Birmingham City.
A notable departure was Asmita Ale, who turned down a new deal with Villa in favour of a move to Tottenham Hotspur.
The 19-year-old was voted by teammates as Villa’s Player’s Player of the 2020/21 season after a positive start to life in the top division.
The defender was a standout performer and recorded the most interceptions of any WSL player last term, she’ll be a huge miss to Ward’s side this term.
Her exit was closely followed by goalkeeper Lisa Weiss, who returned to Germany to join VfL Wolfsburg after a mutual termination of her contract at Villa.
Emily Syme has also joined Championship side Sheffield United on a season-long loan.
There were more arrivals though, Mayumi Pacheco joined from West Ham for an undisclosed fee, whilst Ruesha Littlejohn signed on a short-term contract.
Deadline day was a busy one for Villa, as Australia international, Emily Gielnik, is a new addition from Swedish club Vittsjo GIK.
Gemma Davison was the final arrival and she signed a short-team deal having spent the previous two seasons with Spurs.
Player outgoings: Amy West, Caroline Siems, Diana Silva, Nadine Hanssen, Ella Franklin-Fraiture, Emma Follis, Mana Iwabuchi, Stine Larsen, Asmita Ale, Lisa Weiss, and Emily Syme (loan) – TOTAL (11)
Player incomings: Alisha Lehmann, Remi Allen, Sarah Mayling, Chantelle Boye-Hlorkah, Meaghan Sargeant, Hannah Hampton, Mayumi Pacheco, Ruesha Littlejohn, Emily Gielnik, and Gemma Davison – TOTAL (10)
A must-watch season you won’t want to miss
Last season was a challenge, one the players rose to in exceptional fashion, but this season is set to be an even greater test with standards constantly raised.
Leicester City, Saturday’s opponents at the Banks’s Stadium, may be a newly promoted side, but they mean business in the WSL.
Jonathan Morgan’s side moved into the Foxes’ old training facility in December and the team have been heavily backed by ownership - they truly are one of the teams that best represent the ‘one club’ mentality.
Villa are well-placed to maintain their top-flight status once again, but it will take an even greater effort than last term with those around them only getting stronger.
Defender Anita Asante told Sky Sports this week: “Being a Villa player, I think the signings we’ve made in Pachecho, Lehmann, Littlejohn have been exceptional.
“It’s been exceptional for us in terms if building our squad.”
Earlier this year, it was announced that Sky and the BBC were set to invest up to £24 million in the women’s game over the coming years with a landmark TV deal.
WSL games will be shown by the UK broadcasters, with between 35 and 44 matches to be shown on Sky Sports and 18-22 games will be shown on the BBC.
The appetite for women’s football is growing and Villa women are right in the centre of it all.
Kick-off against Leicester City is at 12:30 BST on Saturday, September 4th.