Sheffield United: ‘What they’ve achieved in that building is unbelievable’
Carla Ward, manager of Sheffield United Women, tells James Shield how the achievements of Chris Wilder's team have inspired her own players.
Carla Ward is busy charting Sheffield United's journey through the inaugural FA Women's Championship when suddenly, without prompting or warning, our conversation veers off in a different direction.
"What he's done up there, well, it's nothing short of remarkable," she says, glancing over her shoulder and peering out of an office window which provides a panoramic view of the Steelphalt Academy. "It's done so much for everyone associated with this place. Really, it's unbelievable."
Ward is referring, of course, to her fellow manager Chris Wilder who has just led United's men's team back into the Premier League. After delivering two promotions in his first three seasons at the helm, so great is the 51-year-old's influence that even an interview to explore a seemingly unrelated subject prompts a mention of his name.
But before returning to the point of the exercise - discussing the progress of her own exciting young squad - Ward tells a story which, despite taking place 160 miles away in London, explains why the two are actually intrinsically linked. It begins, she reveals, at the Grosvenor House Hotel where some of the sharpest minds in the coaching business had gathered to celebrate Wilder's achievements.
"I was at the LMA awards on Tuesday, I'd been invited there to represent our division and the Sheffield United table was actually next to us.
"Chris swept the board and after he'd got up to collect the big one - manager of the year - he came over and shouted to me 'Carla, you've got to get in this picture.' A lot of the people I was sat with were, like, 'Wow. is that really happening?' But this club is really integrated. The girls have been invited by Chris to all the celebrations for what the men have done and that's brilliant of him, it really means a lot. It also makes us even more determined as well."
Forty-eight hours after returning from the capital, Ward is sat behind her desk and catching-up on some paperwork as she talks about the events of the past 12 months. It has been a demanding and at times challenging period, which started with United securing a place in the second tier of the English game and ended, following a run of seven straight victories, in a more than creditable fifth placed finish. Fair to say, as she reflects upon the highs and lows of a gruelling 27 match campaign, that Wilder's team was not the only success story at Bramall Lane last term after Ward's players also proved that big reputations and even bigger budgets are not always the best barometers of how a league will pan-out.
The similarities between the two sides do not end there. Ward, still at the beginning of her own managerial career, subscribes to Wilder's theory that character can be as just as important as calibre.
"When we recruited in the summer, we got offered some players who were damn good players but probably weren't the right people, we thought, for here," she continues. "We want players who have the right attitude and are prepared to get their heads down and work hard.
"We like to enjoy ourselves and it's important to do that. But there's a line we use here and it's 'when the hard work stops, the fun stops.' That's something we try and live by."
Just over a year ago, when United's application to join the revamped competition was approved by the Football Association, it illustrated the wisdom of bringing Ward's squad under the official Bramall Lane banner. But the move, which had impressed the governing body throughout the interview process, means extra pressures too.
After forgetting a photographer is due to attend our interview, Ward spends the next five minutes fretting about the fact she is not wearing a club-branded t-shirt or another piece of United apparel. Choosing the right clothing, however, seems pretty inconsequential when she outlines the psychological demands of the job.
"When we went on a run and had three or four defeats on the bounce, that was tough," Ward says. "Management is a lonely place. Going into it, I'd heard people telling you that but this year, I really got it. You have sleepless nights and you're constantly mulling things over. When we drew with Millwall away, I was travelling back thinking 'what am I doing?' But I'm not someone to give up.
"It takes over your life. Football has always taken over my life but there are times when you almost feel you've got no one to turn to. You're in a group of staff but they aren't accountable like you are. You know if things don't change, you might be out of a job. If you're not producing, then you know someone else will."
Smiling, joking and trading banter with a colleague when he bursts unannounced into the room, Ward is now in a much better place than when United were held by the Londoners following what she describes as an "awful, simply awful", performance. After losing their opening two games - a run she attributes to the fact they had jumped from regional to national level almost overnight - United secured their first win at Crystal Palace in October and signed-off the campaign with a remarkable sequence of victories over the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City.
"The girls have done brilliant," she says. "They've shown what they're made of and I'm proud of them. I've told them that.
"We were talking the other day, a year ago we'd just been promoted into this division and we had to recruit seven members of staff and a load of players. How far we've been come, it's amazing. It's been tough but enjoyable, even though I've got a few more grey hairs now."
Although this is Ward's first management posting, she is a respecting figure in the women's game after representing Bristol City, Sporting Plaza de Argel, Lincoln and Sheffield FC as a player.
"Other teams had to recruit squads, Manchester United," Ward says, remembering the difficulties United faced ahead of the new season. "But they could do it with their name and a budget that is probably more than all our houses are worth. So to do what we've done, to finish where we did, I think is brilliant.
"I had to delve into my contacts through playing, I've relied on a lot of them. The tough thing is, you're asking players to move and to try and find a job in this area to play for this football club. There's players who travel from Birmingham and Liverpool. That's the commitment you've got to have, in the women's game."
"The challenges were getting the team playing and working together," Ward continues. "We lost our biggest signing, Fran Kitching, who went to Liverpool on the last day of the transfer window and then we got some ACL injuries. It was a case of getting through to January and then doing something. I relied on my old pal at Manchester United quite a lot."
Ward's old pal is former England international Casey Stoney, who took charge of Old Trafford's women's team in June. Their friendship led to Ebony Salmon, one of United's most prolific scorers, arriving on loan midway through last term and could see more players follow in her footsteps over the summer months after Stoney's charges reached the Super League.
"We used to play against each other," Ward says. "You always wanted to get the better of Casey but that was tough because she was a damn good defender. Then we had a short spell together at Lincoln before I moved on.
But her partner and I go back a long way, I've known her a long time and I've got a good relationship with Casey through that. I'll definitely be making sure I keep in her good books now."
"When Ebony came in, it was quite funny because I wanted to bring her in but didn't want to mention her by name," Ward adds. "We knew Manchester United had a big squad and that not all of their players would be getting a game so I rang Casey and asked if she had a centre-forward who needed football. She replied 'What about Ebony?' I laughed and then told her I was delighted she'd said that because that's who I'd had in mind."
Salmon and the equally free-scoring Jade Pennock were both on target when, earlier this month, United beat Millwall 6-0 in their final match of the season.
"The girls have been invited to join in all the celebrations with the men by the men," Ward says. "But we can't join in properly unless we've had success ourselves and, given they've done, I think the girls have. We just want the whole club to be successful.
"We'll be looking for a top four finish next year. Is that a big ask for only our second year at this level? Maybe it is. But we've come fifth this year and, if we keep the core together and improve, why not?"
She can laugh about it now but Carla Ward still remembers the moment she feared Sheffield United co-owner Kevin McCabe might be summoning her for a chat in his office.
McCabe, a long-standing champion of Bramall Lane's women's team, sent Ward a message following the first match of the new FA Championship season.
It was, as the 71-year-old reminded her, a landmark moment after United had secured a place in the revamped competition. But, because they had lost 2-0, Ward's temper got the better of her as she broke one of texting's golden rules.
"I remember Kevin sending me a text saying 'delighted to get the first game under our belt," Ward smiles. "The trouble was, I was feeling pretty furious and sent one back saying 'thanks, but we were absolutely disgraceful.' I realised then that, sometimes, it's probably best to wait before you reply to something on your phone. I was in a foul mood that night."
Both Ward and her team have been on an amazing journey since that defeat by Durham in September. The players, who finished the campaign with a run of seven straight victories, developed in stature as the campaign unfolded. Ward, still at the beginning of her coaching career, believes she has grown as a manager too.
"It's taught me a lot," Ward says. "You think you know what you're stepping into when you become a manager but you only realise what it's really about when you're doing it.
"This is my life and this is my career. The staff are brilliant, absolutely brilliant, but the bottom line is this is the be all and end all for me. I want to be here for years to come, I want to be here for a long time. But you've got to deliver.
"You almost have to be two different people. At home, I'm not to boss but the people here probably wouldn't think that. You see it with other people too, they have to do that.
"You've got to be selfish and single-minded at times. You've got to take things on the chin. You listen to what others are telling and take it on board but you've got to make the decisions."
The vastly experienced Mick Wadsworth, previously Sir Bobby Robson's assistant at Newcastle, has been a
constant source of advice as Ward, the former Sheffield FC midfielder, continues her transition from player to manager.
"The good thing about Mick is that he comes up to me and says 'let me give you a bit of advice.' When he says that, when someone like him is saying that to you, you listen. Everyone here respects him so much.
"The biggest thing is going from playing to managing. I know how selfish you've got to be as a player. But thankfully I've got a good group around me.
"I've learned an awful lot. I've done things wrong, probably still do, but there's so many things next season is that we know we are going to change."
After finishing fifth last season, Sheffield United have already begun the process of preparing for next season as Carla Ward's side look to build upon their impressive start to life in the FA Women's Championship.
"The contacts are key," Ward says. "We had Manchester United over last week and they were impressed. This is why I always say if we're trying to take someone on loan, to try and get their staff over as well. If they come here, they know their players are going to be well looked after and they can see the ambition of this club."