It has, once again, been a challenging season for Leicester City. Managerial changes, injury problems and a lack of confidence has seen them flirt with relegation once again. Propping up the table with just seven games left, they cannot afford to put a foot wrong as the season draws to a close.
Settling into WSL football is never simple. The standard of the league and the teams within it grow year on year and as Leicester have found, it is a significant step up from the Championship. Last year, they only narrowly avoided the drop, with Lydia Bedford coming in halfway through to guide them to safety.
This led to plenty of optimism over the summer. Bedford was confirmed as full-time manager, back-room staff were appointed, and they had a full pre-season to develop the squad. There was, however, a question mark over recruitment. The experience of Aileen Whelan and Josie Green was brought in while Wales’ young prospect Carrie Jones was secured on loan, but there was a lack of a real statement signing. With Jess Sigsworth destined to be out for most of this campaign with an ACL injury, it was a particular surprise that there was no real move to find a recognised striker.
For any club, avoiding relegation is crucial. For the Foxes, after the significant backing from the owners, survival is critical. As Emile Heskey, Leicester’s Head of Women’s Football Development, told 90min, work behind the scenes has provided the stage for them to perform. “From where we’ve come…to where we are now, we’ve taken massive strides,” he said. “The club has backed us – training facilities, players, everything that is needed they’ve given us. It’s been a phenomenal growth to where we are now.”
“We’re very lucky that they’ve backed it that way,” he continued. “We have a facility just for us; we have three pitches that are very nice, and we get to choose which one we want to go on. We have a fantastic gym, so there is no corner cutting…At the end of the day, they can’t point any fingers at anyone else. It’s now down to us as coaches and players to go out there and perform.”
It is, therefore, perhaps a surprise that this campaign has been so fraught with difficulty. Leicester’s poor run of form saw them sit seven points adrift with zero points at the Christmas break. The club acted decisively in November, relieving Bedford of her duties and appointing Willie Kirk, then Director of Football, as manager. It is a move that has started to pay off.
Form under Kirk has improved dramatically. Performance levels and commitment are high as they have tightened up across the pitch and goals have started to come. Where three months ago, many would have considered them down and out, there are signs that things might not be so set in stone. Recruitment in the winter window has helped – the addition in particular of Janina Leitzig in goal has caught the eye – and two wins and a draw since January have seen them narrow the points deficit to just one. Kirk this week pointed to his team’s mentality as key to their change in fortune.
“I was speaking to someone the other day and they were saying how positive it is every time they come in here,” he said. “That’s been a real feature since January. It’s about maintaining that because that can get you through some tough times and tough moments.”
Defeat to Tottenham ten days ago was perhaps the only blemish on their record under Kirk. The manager himself described it as a “missed opportunity” in a game where Leicester were the better side but could not take their chances. It was a blip that they just cannot afford to happen again.
Aston Villa pose an even stronger challenge on Sunday. Carla Ward’s side are one of the in-form teams in the division and possess multiple threats. A result of any kind for Leicester would give them a substantial platform to build on with relegation rivals Reading to come the following week. While points this weekend would be a bonus, a result in that game is crucial. Failure to do so and that battle for survival will get significantly more difficult, perhaps almost impossible.