Aston Villa Ladies enjoyed a successful Spring Series campaign as they finished in fourth with an unbeaten home record.
Following their sixth placed finish in Women’s Super League 2 (WSL 2) last season, they were looking to improve while building foundations for the start of the new season in the one-off campaign – used to build the gap between the change from a summer to winter format.
In the closed season there was a flurry of activity, as 10 players signed contract extensions to keep them with the club, including captain Katy Moran and young goalkeeper Chloe Beattie.
Full-back Alice Hassall also signed from Notts County in time for the first game against Watford.
The format of the Spring Series meant that each team only played each other once, with Villa being granted five home games.
Although cliché, home was where the heart was for the Ladies as they picked up all five of their victories on home turf at their new ground The Lamb.
After their move from Coles Lane for the start of the Spring Series, Villa quickly found their feet on the 4G pitch as they dispatched Keith Boanas’ Watford side.
Goals from Tash Baptiste, Beth Merrick and Jade Richards set the tone for the claret and blues’ free scoring campaign.
They found the back of the net 19 times, with 15 of those in front of their army of loyal supports at home.
There were notable wins over newly promoted Brighton and Hove Albion and a dramatic comeback against Durham on the final game of the season.
However Villa fell short to WSL 2 Spring Series champions Everton and runners-up Doncaster Rovers Belles on their travels.
Their two draws came early on in the season against Millwall – despite leading after just one minute through Elisha N’Dow – and away at Oxford where neither team could find the back of the net.
Tash Baptiste finished the season as Villa’s top goal scorer with four goals, while Maddy Cusack and Jade Richards notched three a piece.
★ Kerri Welsh’s Return:
After struggling with injury, Welsh made her long awaited return to first team action against Brighton.
Linking up top with Baptiste, she bagged the first goal of the game, fitting right back into the swing of things as if she’d never been away.
Since her return she has been a key figure up front, scoring twice.
★ Grace Smith:
The 18-year-old made the step up to the first team during the Spring Series and impressed in a back three alongside Richards and Elisha N’Dow.
Despite being one of the youngest on the pitch, it was never evident as she showed maturity beyond her years – keeping calm and composed in the heart of defence. She was confident was the ball at her feet, playing it out from the back with ease.
Unfortunately for Villa, Smith is off to America to join the West Virginia Mountaineers this autumn following the completion of her A-Levels.
★ Villa 5-4 Durham:
Despite consistent performances from Baptiste, Maddy Cusack and N’Dow, it was Jade Richards who claimed the star player award for me.
The towering defender is not your average centre-half.
Forget Micah Richards, it’s all about Jade.
Leading from the back, Richards is one of Villa’s most experienced players in what is a relatively young squad and she shows maturity beyond her years.
Although Villa only kept one clean sheet during this campaign, not many strikers have been able to get past Richards. She is prepared to stick out a leg, make a last-ditch tackle and hold off a charging centre-forward.
However, she brings more than just a defensive mind. Whenever Richards has a chance, she is willing to get forward – often starting attacks. She has proven this in the Spring Series, scoring three goals.
Maddy Cusack has been vital to Aston Villa’s midfield during the Spring Series.
She has provided energy in the middle of the park with driving runs and crunching tackles.
Cusack has been the engine room as she has protected the defence, while scoring three goals in the process.
Moment of the Season:
There is no doubting that the moment of Villa’s Spring Series campaign was there enthralling, dramatic comeback against Durham Women on the final day of the season.
A record 403 fans witnessed the fight back that saw Villa come from 4-1 down after 60 minutes to clinch victory from the claws of defeat.
Goals from Lucy Shepherd, Cusack, a brace from Richards and a winner from Alys Hinchcliffe sealed all three points to send the Villa faithful home happy.
After Ron Mellor stepped down at the end of the Spring Series, Villa have welcomed a new head coach to the set up.
Dave Stevens will take over the team and lead them through pre-season into the new campaign which kicks off in September.