My crazy, challenging first year at Aston Villa has ended on a high

Last Monday Aston Villa Women announced the signing of Mana Iwabuchi, the 27-year-old Japan international and World Cup winner. This was a statement signing for a club in our first season in the WSL, the culmination of a process I’d been working on since the summer, and the moment the deal was concluded has to go down as a highlight of my short career so far as a sporting director.

Villa’s head coach Gemma Davies and I share an admiration and respect for Japanese women’s football and its players past and present. I was fortunate to benefit from the footballing artistry of Japanese legends when playing with Aya Miyama at St Louis Athletica in the USA and Yuki Nagasato during my time at Chelsea, players who, like Mana, displayed the precision and grace that are part of the DNA of Japanese women’s football.

We first tried to sign Mana in the summer, but it was before the Tokyo Olympics got postponed and she chose to stay in Japan. We never gave up, though, and having worked with Mana’s European agent during my playing career when the opportunity came up again to have a conversation about bringing her over, I was at the front of the queue.

I knew we would be competing with other top clubs, but Gemma and I were able to deliver a Microsoft Teams presentation to Mana about our long-term ambitions, our playing and training environment, and how she would fit into our team. Fortunately that was a great conversation, and then it was about trying to construct a deal. This time I presented to Christian Purslow, our CEO, about the benefits of signing Mana, both on and off the pitch; not only will she improve our side, she will also boost our profile in women’s football, and in Japan. Constructing a unique deal with our CEO is something I’m really proud of. It feels like a great way to end what has been a crazy year transitioning from the pitch to life on the other side of the white lines.

Mana Iwabuchi (second right) in action for Japan against the USA in March.

Mana Iwabuchi (second right) in action for Japan against the USA in March. Photograph: Jeffrey McWhorter/AP

This time last year I had just left Juventus, and I announced my retirement in January before being appointed by Villa later that month. The team were unbeaten, looking all but promoted, and starting to plan for potential life in the WSL with lots of player recruitment decisions already made. Then my first week in the job coincided with the beginning of a global pandemic, which brought challenges I could never have foreseen, including game and league cancellations, Covid testing and establishing bubbles.

I was confident in my ability to do this job, because I’ve played the game at the highest level, I’ve qualified and worked as a lawyer, I have developed my own personal commercial profile, and I’d studied through Uefa for a masters in sporting directorship. I felt ready to make the jump, but to transition so quickly from being a full-time professional footballer to working in football administration during a global pandemic has been a challenge.

In many ways, even without the pandemic it was a tricky time to arrive – the team were successful and there was a massive high in the group, so I came into an established culture that I wanted to try to shape moving forward. The season was cancelled – submitting a letter to the FA in support of our promotion was nervewracking to say the least – but thankfully the hard work of the players and staff was deservedly rewarded. My message then was that what it took to get us promoted might not enable us to be successful in the WSL, the most competitive women’s league in the world.

Naturally people in successful environments sometimes resist change, and it was inevitable that not everyone would welcome a high-profile ex-footballer coming in and talking about improvements, but a sporting director has to be objective, to drive standards and have the courage to have new ideas.

I have had to get used to a different way of working to the one I was used to. There’s a special atmosphere in a successful football team, created by everyone working together and sharing in their achievements. As a striker it used to be my job to score goals, but even if I did not get on the scoresheet if the team won we celebrated together. There was no disguising where individual credit lay – it’s perfectly obvious who has scored, or assisted, or made saves, tackles or good runs – but the priority is collective success.

In football administration, and probably most corporate jobs, the lines are more blurred and people demonstrate their ambition in different ways. It can be harder to know where responsibility lies, and I have found it tricky and sometimes isolating to get accustomed to that side of my new working life. It took me a little while to accept that the on-pitch bonds with teammates, forged from winning trophies and creating timeless memories, are almost impossible to replicate off the pitch.

Having won promotion Villa Women haven’t had the best start, and we sit 11th in a 12-team league, so our work of trying to secure points, developing as a group, building the brand, continues. Though they are a bigger club, the fact that Manchester United, in their second season in the WSL, are top shows us that we don’t have to limit our ambitions. I have to look two or three years ahead, set realistic goals and work with the multi-disciplinary team behind the team to develop the environment we need to achieve.

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I am excited about the year to come, continuing to develop and learn as a sporting director and as a person, while also continuing the punditry work that keeps my mind sharp – I can analyse Premier League games, players and managers and use that knowledge to assist our technical coaching team.

I am hungry to keep learning and plan to start a course with football finance modules in the new year. I have been listening to a lot of podcasts on leadership, reading up on other sporting directors and managers and learning how other people have transitioned from successful playing careers into other roles within the game. I am excited continue along the journey we are on as a group, and I am convinced that Aston Villa Women are on the right track for 2021.


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