What is going on at Sheffield United Women?

As former Blades boss Carla Ward moves on to Birmingham City, Sheffield United Women are still without a head coach at the most important juncture in the club’s history, writes Finn Ranson.

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When Sheffield United Women announced on July 7 that Carla Ward had “parted company” with the club, speculation was rampant. It seemed preposterous. Since her promotion from player-assistant manager in 2018, Ward had helped United make a successful application for Championship status, secured a fifth-placed finish after the two-tier jump, and then – in just her second campaign – taken the club to second in the Championship, their highest-ever league position, before the season was curtailed. For this team, founded in 2002, Ward was a history-maker; and then, suddenly, she was yesterday’s news.

Ward was linked with the England and Birmingham City Women vacancies, but as the weeks drifted by it was clear she had not been prised from United’s grasp. Only last Thursday, five weeks on from the 35-year-old’s departure, was she unveiled as Birmingham’s new head coach on a two-year deal. Of course, City is an upgrade, having preserved their Women’s Super League status by the slimmest of margins. But with Ward’s strong roots in Sheffield – she was at Sheffield FC for six years before joining the Blades – surely, she would have wished to complete the transformation she had masterminded. 

After losing one of English football’s brightest young coaches, United’s proclaimed designs on the top flight looked flimsy. A week after the announcement, it was reported that several Sheffield United players had lost faith in the club. A call with the general manager and a member of the board to explain Ward’s departure yielded more questions than answers and players subsequently asked for a staff member, who was believed to be under furlough, to return to work as they needed someone to communicate with. The departure of first-team regulars Sam Tierney and Olivia Fergusson at the end of July compounded the gloom. 

But a winter of discontent has been waylaid by an extravagant summer. United have signed former Bristol City defender Ellie Wilson, experienced midfielder Sophie Walton, Northern Ireland international Nat Johnson and – most notably – Aston Villa’s star striker last season Mel Johnson. She scored 11 goals in 14 league appearances, meaning that, along with Jade Pennock and Katie Wilkinson, United boast the Championship’s three top scorers from 2019/20. Their goals will most likely carry United to the title and promotion.

And yet, a month on from their return to Shirecliffe after four months away, United’s talented side are without a coach and confidant. Carla Ward’s skills as a communicator were fabled. As she put it upon her signing at Birmingham: “I’m a people person with a holistic approach that is very much based around the player.” With new players to bed in and a new normal to adjust to, United and teams across this unforgiving semi-professional league need that approach now more than ever. As well as these new signings, who knows how influential Ward was in securing the 10 recent contract renewals. Players will be wondering now what future they signed up for.

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Sheffield United have aspirations for their women’s side, but they do not appear to have a plan. According to the job advert for a new head coach, applications closed on July 24 and interviews were due three days later. Writing for the Yorkshire Post, Sue Smith tipped Neil Redfearn and Gemma Grainger for the spot, who both live in the area. Since leaving Leeds in 2011, Grainger has been working throughout the England youth set-up and would match Ward’s distinct charisma. But with just weeks before United’s opening fixture against London Bees on September 6, the wait drags on.

Birmingham have lost eight players this summer – including Kerys Harrop and Lucy Staniforth – while the Blades have strengthened. But City have Carla Ward and United are still inexplicably scrambling in the dark at the most important juncture in the club’s history. Last season could be the springboard to great things, or a short-lived apotheosis. As things are, perhaps these sides, relegation favourite and promotion hopeful, may not be swapping places quite so soon. 

Follow Finn on Twitter at @finnbrranson

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