Aston Villa star Kenza Dali recalls meeting with Carla Ward that transformed her career

  • Kenza Dali joined Aston Villa from WSL rivals Everton in 2022
  • The midfielder had previously struggling to adapt to the league
  • She was set to leave England but one conversation with Carla Ward changed everything
Kenza Dali was close to leaving England prior to her move to Aston Villa
Kenza Dali was close to leaving England prior to her move to Aston Villa / Warren Little/GettyImages

Upon the conclusion of the 2021/22 season, Kenza Dali was about to make one of the biggest decisions of her career.

The France international, who emerged from the academy of eight-time Champions League winners Lyon, made the move to England in 2019 at the age of 27. However, after two seasons in London, she was released by West Ham and completed a move to Everton, where she spent just one campaign.

By Dali's own admission, she had struggled to adapt to life in the Women's Super League and in England in general. While living up north, the midfielder scored just one goal in her 27 appearances for Everton and was finding it difficult to settle into a team.

"My first few years in England were complicated for me in terms of adapting to the league," Dali said. "Everything was so different for me and really hard."

It was for that reason Dali had all but decided to continue her career abroad. She was in discussions with a club in Italy and was ready to revive her career elsewhere. That was, until Aston Villa boss Carla Ward insisted on meeting with her.

"It was in June [2022] and I'd made the decision to leave [England], but [Ward] kept calling me to have a chat," the midfielder continued. "I respect her as a coach and as a person, so I agreed to have a coffee with her at a hotel in Manchester, three days before I was supposed to leave the country.

"She changed my mind."

Rachel Daly, Kenza Dali
Kenza Dali and Rachel Daly struck up an almost telepathic relationship on the pitch for Aston Villa / Visionhaus/GettyImages

Ward believed Dali's experience at both Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain, as well as her experience at international level with France, made her an ideal fit for the squad she was building at Villa. It was a squad also boosted by the arrival of England's Euro 2022-winning star Rachel Daly the same summer.

Dali agreed to give things a further six months. If, by December, she was still struggling to adapt, the decision would be made to move on.

"[Ward] told me to trust her and that she'll give me the freedom I need," Dali explained. "I accepted because I like a challenge, then I spent my best season at Villa. One of the best of my career."

The notion of leaving wasn't even fathomable by the time the transfer window in January 2023 rolled around. Dali had struck up an electric relationship with Daly and the pair were unplayable at times.

Villa were flying in the WSL and Dali's five goals and eight assists were crucial to them securing a top five finish and progressing all the way to the FA Cup semi-finals, knocking out Manchester City in the process.

"I've really enjoyed it," Dali beamed. "The way we played, the confidence [Ward] gave me. I'm really grateful to have worked with her, but really sad at the same time that she's leaving. She needs the time away and we'll see what comes next, but I'm always thankful to Carla for keeping me in England."

In June last year, 12 months after initially making the move to Villa, Dali penned a new deal with the club to extend her stay until 2025, with an option of a further year. Despite a difficult first half of the 2023/24 season, Ward was still able to guide the team to a mid-table finish and Conti Cup semi-final.

As senior dressing room figures, Villa will no doubt be relying on Dali and Daly to ensure the team remain competitive in the WSL under a new manager. But, two years under Ward has allowed the midfielder to rediscover her best form and become one of the most influential figures in the league.

Kenza Dali will be attending the House of WePlayStrong event in Bilbao on the morning of the UEFA Women’s Champions League final. UEFA’s WePlayStrong campaign is dedicated to celebrating and advancing women’s football across Europe. The House of WePlayStrong will include variety of activities, speakers, and interactive experiences throughout the day.