Football is now the biggest female sport in England, as girls all over the country are determined to dispel those traditional myths that football is a man’s game. But, while there has been exponential growth in women’s football as a participation sport, it is still yet to really take off as a spectator sport.
While attendances are on the up, there’s always the slight disappointment visiting Coles Lane to watch Aston Villa Ladies, that more people aren’t watching and enjoying the lionesses play.
However, on Sunday 6th November, comes a chance for the Villa Ladies to gain more of a spotlight, when Villa Park hosts its first ever Women’s Super League Two fixture as Aston Villa Ladies take on Watford in the final game of the season.
With a number of Villa fans within the Ladies squad, many are looking forward to gracing the hallowed turf. Villa Ladies midfielder Maddy Cusack (see below) is thrilled to play at Villa Park.
“I’ve played there once before and it was unreal,” said Cusack to MOMS. “The pitch is like a carpet!”
It will certainly provide the Villa Ladies something to look forward to, as the reality is now the team will have to settle for a mid-table finish, after recent results have dented their remaining promotional chances.
Aston Villa Ladies 3 Millwall Lionesses 1
Following defeat to Durham Women which dented Villa Ladies’ promotion hopes, Hunt’s side were looking to bounce back quickly against Millwall Lionesses.
There was a change in formation for the claret and blues as a result of regular centre-backs Elisha N’Dow and Chloe Jones both injured and serving a three match suspension respectively. Instead of the usual back four, Amy West, Maddy Cusack and Hannah George made up the back three in the hope of shutting Millwall’s strikers out.
Tash Baptiste lead the line, as top scorer Katie Wilkinson spends time on the physio’s table after suffering an ankle injury in training.
The afternoon didn’t get off to a great start, with the Ladies going 1-0 down in the first minute of play. However, they did claw back the score line to level pegging three minutes shy of the half hour mark thanks to a trademark free kick from Beth Merrick.
Merrick was at it again, scoring Villa’s second goal of the game. And what a goal it was. Playing a delicate one-two with Alys Hinchcliff – recently signed from Cardiff City – and receiving the ball back 20 yards out, Merrick fired the ball into the top right-hand corner leaving Millwall’s ‘keeper with no chance.
17-year-old Grace Smith sealed the deal for Aston Villa Ladies whilst making her senior debut. She took no time to make an impact, giving Villa a comfortable two goal cushion and ensuring the win.
Watford 0 Aston Villa Ladies 2
After a priceless three points against Millwall, Villa Ladies looked to record back-to-back victories. Goals from Merrick and Baptiste were the difference, as Villa ran away 2-0 winners.
If you thought Merrick’s goal from the previous game was something special, Tash Baptiste’s stunner against Watford will certainly be rivalling Merrick’s for goal of the season. Showing her strength in the build up to the goal, she collected the ball on the edge of the box before unleashing a powerful left-footed shot into the back of the net.
The victory set up the Ladies nicely for an appetising game against league leaders Yeovil Town back on home soil.
Aston Villa Ladies 0 Yeovil Town 2
Unfortunately Villa couldn’t extend their winning run to three matches, as they suffered defeat at the hands of league toppers Yeovil Town.
Goals from Hannah Short and Annie Heatherson proved to be too much for Villa, as Yeovil capitalised on what opportunities they had, showing just why they are flying high at the top of WSL 2.
London Bees 2 Aston Villa Ladies 1
Beth Merrick got herself on the scoresheet yet again; however her late strike wasn’t enough to beat London Bees at the Hive, providing only a consolation.
Jade Richards returned to the Villa back line to resurrect her solid centre-back partnership with Elisha N’Dow who was also returning from injury. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a clean sheet on their return as Evie Clark and Jo Wilson punished the Ladies, who couldn’t take their chances.
Tash Baptiste, Richards and Sarah Mayling could have bagged themselves a goal in the game if it wasn’t for the brilliant saves of the Bees’ ‘keeper Davies.
The result leaves Villa in fifth with four games to go on 17 points, seven behind fourth place Durham Women who have a game in hand over the Villans.
Brescia Women 2 Aston Villa Ladies 1
It was a new country and a new stage for the Villa Ladies as they travelled out to Italy following defeat to London Bees. They faced Brescia Women, who won the treble last season, in addition to reaching the Champions League quarter-finals, in a friendly before their next WSL 2 game.
The result didn’t reflect the game as Villa Ladies produced a display they could be nothing but proud of. In the match streamed live on Facebook, Villa were not short on chances with Lucy Shepherd going close after good work from Beth Merrick down the right.
Unfortunately, Brescia took the lead against the run of play on the half hour mark before quickly doubling their lead five minutes later.
Looking for an answer to the quick fire double, the Ladies continued to work hard and reaped their rewards on 41 minutes. Merrick was at the centre of all Villa’s hard work once again as she captained her side, leading by example. Her eagerness and determination to get the ball down and crave out chances was evident to see. Merrick’s willingness paid off as she unleashed a curling shot from 35 yards out, firing past a helpless Brescia ‘keeper.
Head coach Joe Hunt was pleased with his team’s performance post-match, saying that “We may have lost the game and we know it’s all about winning but the level of performance from my squad was nothing short of sensational.
“We had great variation of play, we competed all over the pitch and our fitness levels were exceptional.”
One to Watch – Maddy Cusack
Central midfielder Maddy Cusack is no doubt a fan favourite, with her name ringing around the ground most weekends. As a disciplined all-rounder, Cusack has been an ever present for Aston Villa Ladies’ first team in recent years.
Known for her crunching tackles, the combative midfielder has also showcased her versatility in the last few weeks after dropping into the heart of defence, a trait admired by head coach Joe Hunt.
In what was a maturing performance against Millwall for the 20-year-old, you’d have thought that Cusack had always been playing centre-back thanks to her confident, assured performance in front of Irish international Grace Moloney.
Aston Villa’s number eight does the dirty work in the middle of the park, breaking down opposition play, before turning defence into attack with driving runs and incisive passes. You are guaranteed a committed performance from the East Midlander, who gives 100% in every match.
During the recent month’s break before Villa embarked on their final five games of the campaign, MOMS spoke to Maddy Cusack, who gave us the lowdown on the season so far.
“It has been full of ups and downs. We’ve been inconsistent at times, playing really well one week and then not so well the next,” said Cusack, who noted that their comeback against Bristol City, where they gained a 2-2 draw, was her standout performance to date.
“As a team I thought we played really well against Bristol at home. It was a big game for us and we had to get something from it.”
Yet for Maddy and the majority of the girls who play for Aston Villa, it is not just football that they have to worry about. Despite growth in the women’s game, the ladies are only part-time players, unlike WSL 1 teams such as Chelsea and Manchester City.
“Sometimes I would leave the house at 9am for university and not be back until 10:30pm at night after training,” says Cusack, of fitting in her commitments to Villa. “It’s like that for a lot of us though, so you just have to plan ahead as much as possible.”
“Going full time and playing professionally is definitely the aim,” adds Cusack, an ambition shared by all at the club and new Villa chairman Dr Tony Xia has hinted there are plans afoot.
Xia has been no stranger to Twitter, but in amongst all his ‘entertaining’ tweets, the new chairman has been dropping hints about Aston Villa Ladies.
In July, in response to Joe Hunt’s praise of the team, Dr Tony tweeted that he hoped to take the ladies on a tour of China and India next season, where he can see women’s football booming.
When MOMS asked Cusack if there would be more opportunities for the girls with the new owner coming in, she remained tight-lipped about it, saying she couldn’t disclose anything at the moment. This led MOMS to believe that maybe Xia has plans to evolve the Villa Ladies team. This could include giving the girls full time contracts, playing more matches at Villa Park and training at Bodymoor Heath permanently.
Full-time contracts are found mainly in WSL 1, where the top players can make around £60,000 a year, notably City and England captain Steph Houghton. It is unknown how much part-time players are on, however, most have second jobs suggesting the pay is not enough for them to sustain a decent living.
Follow Molly on Twitter at @m0llyfaith