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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Anita Asante

Battling relegation can feel suffocating – but it made me a better person

Anita Asante (right) takes on Arsenal's Beth Mead
Anita Asante’s Aston Villa stand firm against Arsenal and save themselves from relegation in 2021. Photograph: SPP Sport Press Photo/Alamy

We talk a lot about pressure at the top of a league but the stress involved at the bottom is on a different scale entirely.

It’s something I learned after joining Aston Villa in the summer of 2020. Villa were newly promoted to the Women’s Super League and, at the age of 35, I had just left Chelsea after two seasons interrupted first by a serious knee injury I sustained playing for England and then the Covid-19 pandemic.

I’d been lucky enough to play for some leading clubs in different countries but I didn’t really know what being in a relegation battle felt like. I soon discovered it is suffocating. As a senior professional you’re concerned about your own performances but also feel responsible for the futures of not only your teammates but the club’s off-field staff who often face redundancy if you go down.

When, thanks to a 0-0 draw at Arsenal, Villa ensured survival on the final day of the season the sense of relief was immense. It is a feeling I’ll never forget. With hindsight I realise everything we went through made me a better person and is helping me now in my job as a coach at Bristol City but, at the time, it was tough.

As we enter the final two months of this season with no side in the bottom half of the WSL free of relegation worries it is perhaps a good moment to reflect on the really difficult moments that – to varying extents – players at Leicester, Brighton, Reading, Tottenham, Liverpool and West Ham will be experiencing. The only consolation this season is that at least the clubs involved don’t have to contend with Covid-related restrictions.

Team bonding is so important but, at Villa in 2020-21, the rules meant we couldn’t have normal interactions in training or socialise with each other. We also had to play behind closed doors and really missed the lift fans give you. There was too much personal isolation and far too little fun. The other Villa players often looked to me to be a leader but, although I was experienced, I didn’t necessarily have the tools to guide them through a relegation battle.

When teams lose lots of games immense mental strain is placed on players. I certainly felt self-doubt creeping in and my confidence was affected. It also didn’t help that I was struggling with an achilles injury and, like some teammates, needed painkillers to keep going.

Anita Asante in action against Fran Kirby of Chelsea during Aston Villa’s 2020-21 run-in
Anita Asante in action against Fran Kirby of Chelsea during Aston Villa’s 2020-21 run-in. Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

One of Villa’s big problems was our lack of goals, which placed extra pressure on defenders such as me. Consequently it became imperative that we were hard to beat and the level of sustained concentration required was often exhausting. One of the reasons I expect Tottenham to stay up this season is their signing of the England striker Beth England from Chelsea. I’m sure England will score some vital goals.

As she is no doubt discovering, the pressure at the top of the WSL is real but different; when you’re chasing titles and trophies, you gain so much energy, team spirit is good and winning games gives you constant boosts.

Fortunately, and despite both the Covid-19 rules and a change to a more pragmatic playing style accelerated once Marcus Bignot was brought in to work alongside our then-manager, Gemma Davies, the Villa squad managed to stick together throughout. We didn’t fall out with each other on or off the pitch and, even when performances weren’t great, we never capitulated.

Without that unity which, even now, is reflected by some enduring friendships, we wouldn’t have stood a chance. When I watch Villa today I feel proud of our class of 2020-21.

I hope to revisit my old club wearing a Bristol City coaching staff tracksuit next season but, first, we have to win our Championship promotion race. Staying out of the second tier will be the only thing on the minds of the WSL’s bottom six right now but I expect the relegation battle to go right to the wire.

It is never a good sign when teams have three managers in a season but, having sacked Hope Powell in October and then her successor, Jens Scheuer, earlier this month, Brighton now have Amy Merricks as their interim manager. Spurs also have an interim manager at the helm, Vicky Jepson, following Rehanne Skinner’s sacking. Merricks must make Brighton harder to beat but, unlike Jepson, she doesn’t have England up front.

If, like Spurs, West Ham and Liverpool should be good enough to stay up, Reading have arguably made the mistake of treading water and allowing themselves to be overtaken by clubs such as Villa and Everton this season. Nonetheless, I believe their stability and longstanding WSL experience could well save them.

Which leaves us with Brighton and Leicester. Leicester are two points adrift at the foot of the table and have played two games more than second-bottom Brighton but, in Willie Kirk, they have an experienced and, despite last Sunday’s 5-0 thrashing at Aston Villa, very capable manager.

Much may hinge on Leicester’s WSL meeting with Reading this weekend but don’t be too surprised if nothing is decided before 27 May when Kirk’s side visit Brighton.

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Lucía García demonstrated just what a valuable signing she has been for Manchester United with two goals in the 4-0 romp against West Ham, the first – beautifully crafted by Ella Toone – a particularly fine example of her control and finishing ability.

Have a question for our writers – or want to suggest a topic to cover? Get in touch by emailing or posting BTL.

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