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Carla Ward looks back ahead of her 50th game as Blades boss

1 December 2019

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Sheffield United Women manager Carla Ward celebrates her 50th game in charge against London City Lionesses on Sunday afternoon.

Almost two years on from her first game in January 2018 after replacing Dan O'Hearne as manager after originally joining the club as his assistant, Ward has led the Blades into a new era and the step up from tier 4 to the FA Women's Championship where United currently sit second in the table, just 15 months into their time in the league.

The team was in the regional FA Women's Premier League North Division 1 when Ward took over, but the ambition of the club to apply for a licence in the second tier that summer made her decision to leave that division as a player with Sheffield FC much easier.

"That sold me coming here," said Ward. "I had a long chat with Lee Walshaw and Kevin McCabe and we spoke about where the club wanted to go. I was probably in a position where I didn't want to retire from playing but it was an opportunity knowing I had probably six months left of playing in me.

"It was a chance to go into a club where they wanted to back the women's team. They wanted to drive forward within the game and I knew it was a risk because if we didn't make the Championship it would have been a tough step down. A lot of people told me I was brave stepping down two divisions but I believed in what the club wanted to do and for that reason it became a decision I made quite quickly. It's been unbelievable."

With the Blades one of many clubs to apply for a tier 2 licence when the Football Associated reopened the licencing for the 2018-19 season, there was an anxious wait within Bramall Lane itself after the Blades hosted the FA Women's National League play-off final, with club representatives being told one by one who had and hadn't made the cut.

"I always talk about that day. We had no idea but you see other people from other clubs going into the boardroom and you wonder what's being said.

"We'd always planned to go out that night and by the time we found out I was so mentally drained, we went for food and I was in bed asleep by half past eight on a bank holiday Sunday! But it meant to much, it was draining, but it was worth it."

The granting of a licence meant the Blades stepped up two divisions automatically and meant Ward had little more than two months to put together a squad experienced and talented enough to compete in the FA Women's Championship.

With a handful of current players at the time kept on with the first team, Ward recruited players such as Sophie Barker, Sam Tierney, Jade Pennock and more to bring her squad up to standard for the new era.

"I had a long list of players from probably six months before that and we had our targets, some of which came through the door and are still here now and some who didn't. From the day it was announced, the following week I think I worked 24 hours a day and we managed to sign players quite quickly. On the first day of pre-season we had 20 players in the squad.

"It was testing and it was tough because you're battling with other clubs, negotiating money and that was all a massive learning experience for me. I learned a lot about being in the professional end of the game, it was challenging but then so exciting at the same time."

Perhaps understandably, the Blades endured an on and off start to the campaign, winning their first game in the Continental Cup game at Aston Villa but losing their first three leagues without scoring a goal.

A 4-1 win against Villa at Bramall Lane got Ward her first points on the board and further wins against Crystal Palace, Lewes and Leicester City meant there were promising signs heading into the second half of the season.

But sitting in the bottom half after a difficult end to 2018 where United's squad was stretched to its limits and beyond, Ward admits she had to believe in what she was trying to do moving forward.

"Any manager will tell you, you question yourself. You sit and ask yourself if you're right for the job, are you right for this level or out of your depth? I kept believing in what I was doing, kept working hard and I believed if we kept implementing what we were trying to do that we'd get there.

"I had to remind myself we were a brand new squad, but you do feel the pressure, you just have to believe in what you're doing. You do have to adapt too and we did that in a lot of areas but we started getting results and it becomes a lot better and also a lot more enjoyable when you're winning!"

Despite recruiting several new players, United's form after Christmas was still dipping after defeats to Tottenham, Charlton, Manchester United and being knocked out of the FA Cup by Aston Villa, but a 2-0 win at home to Crystal Palace sparked a run of seven wins which would last until the end of the season.

A week after the win against Palace, the Blades travelled to promotion-chasing Tottenham and bagged a result which would prove a turning point thanks to Jade Pennock's stoppage time winner.

"That was huge. We were weakened squad wise with a few knocks but we stuck together and the attitude and togetherness they showed that day was unbelievable. That was very much a 'we're not going to be turned over anymore' day."

United finished fifth in their first season, best of the rest behind a runaway top four, but it gave Ward a "platform" as she describes it to build for this season.

With a young squad, the manager set out in the summer to add some experience to her squad, eventually recruiting almost a dozen players to add further quality but also depth ahead of hopes of a promotion challenge this season.

"We had one or two experienced heads but we needed more, so to bring in Kasia [Lipka] and Leandra [Little] was huge, and Wilko [Katie Wilkinson] comes with experience and that was very important to help the younger players. We've got so many talented young players who just need a bit of guidance."

Every player now at the club was recruited by Ward and the manager and her staff are bearing the fruits of their hard work with the Blades sitting second in the league table having lost just one league game this season.

With only one team going up, United still face a tough challenge ahead but are in a good position and Ward believes her players are buying into what everyone is trying to achieve.

"I brought these players in and they're all buying into what we're doing. It's a good time and going into this weekend I said to the girls that we're in a position where people are going to start taking us seriously.

"We're learning still, we're always learning. We're learning as a squad, we're up against some full-time teams but I've got players in there with the belief and the talent to go and win football games."

Ward admits the team has risen to the top end of the table quicker than she might have expected when she arrived less than two years ago to a team still in the fourth division, but also now knows she has a squad capable of fighting at the very top.

"We looked at top four for this season and that is still the aim but we want to be better than that. Anybody who knows me knows I don't like losing and I was at a club for many years where we won a lot of leagues and cups at the level we were at.

"So, maybe it's surprising, but then is it? Because you look around our dressing room and we've recruited a lot of winners, a lot of players who have won this league. It's been a massive credit to this football club because we wouldn't have been able to do that without this backing.

"Every department is backing us and without that we wouldn't be here. 80% of it is down to this football club..."


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