Next week it will be two months since my last game of football, and in that time my life has changed significantly. I have left Juventus and moved home to London from Turin. I have announced my retirement, and this week I joined Aston Villa as their sporting director for women’s football. It’s a full-circle moment for me: I grew up playing football in Birmingham and now I will start the next phase of my career in the city where I met the game.
I always had a niggling feeling that this was going to be my last season in football. When I was first approached by Villa I was still at Juventus, and I thought it was something I would consider at the end of the campaign in Italy. But the more I thought about it the more excited I became, and in the end I felt my decision was between a role that can launch me into a second career on the executive side of football that might last for a decade or more, and at best another one- or two-year playing contract with Juventus or another club. In many ways, this opportunity pushed me into making the decision to retire.
Then it was about how serious Villa are about investing in the women’s game, how ambitious they are, and whether that ties with my own ambitions both for myself and women’s football. Obviously it’s a big club with a rich history, a club that I think everybody in football respects. But they have very committed owners with a lot of resources, and in Christian Purslow they have a chief executive who is keen for Villa to have the dominant women’s programme in the Midlands, which has traditionally been at Birmingham City.
Villa are three points clear at the top of the Championship with a game in hand and well placed for promotion, but if we get into the Women’s Super League it’s about building towards establishing ourselves as long-term members of the top division.
Part of my job will be to make sure there is a professional set-up that attracts not only the best local players – though they will be a big part of the project, as Jack Grealish is in the men’s team, and with players such as Asmita Ale and Emma Follis there are already lots of them involved – but also talent from around the world. I think we are still in a phase in women’s football where if you can provide a professional set-up that allows elite players to blossom, that will attract people, wherever they are from.
As in the men’s game, if your financial resources and your training resources are both strong it often translates into success on the pitch. I really want to introduce some new ideas for the fan experience and create a loyal fanbase for Villa women, and to use my profile to raise that of the club.
I’ve been watching the team pretty closely for the past couple of months, hopefully without making it too obvious that I was going to be joining. I’ve seen both the women’s side and the men’s, a hard-working, resilient team that I really enjoy watching. I followed games online, and the players on social media – some of the girls were probably thinking: “Why is Eni Aluko liking our Instagram posts?” It’s good to get it out in the open and to get to know the people for real; I was in Birmingham for a day last week, and learned so much in only 24 hours. Now I’m looking forward to being able to really get under the skin of the club.
This is an opportunity that I have been working towards for years. Last year I completed Uefa’s master’s for international players, a two-year programme, and I got a law degree in 2008 and spent time working for sports and entertainment law firms. I always balanced my playing career with other interests, whether it was media or legal work, and people would ask me whether I would become a lawyer when I stopped playing, or go into coaching. This though is a hybrid career where I can use what I know about football and the law, and help to drive the women’s game forward. I think it’s quite a creative role, one that can look completely different from one club to the next, depending on the character of the people doing it. I hope I can open the door for other women to follow me in working on the executive side of the game, and I hope I will be able to express my passion for football without the daily grind of training.
The truth is that since I last pulled on my boots, I haven’t missed playing – although it has only been a short period. One of the things footballers miss when they retire is the emotional high that is attached to the game, the feeling you get from playing and winning and scoring, but to be honest I hadn’t been feeling that excitement for a little while. I think if you still love being a footballer, if you wake up every morning and feel on top of the world, you don’t retire. You find an opportunity that will let you keep playing. I felt my mission in Italy had been accomplished by winning three titles with Juventus, and when I found the opportunity that Villa were offering me more exciting than continuing there, I knew the time had come. I’m definitely ready for difficult days ahead when I’m missing training, or I’m at a game and I want more than anything to be on the pitch, but so far that has not been my experience.
I spent a lot of time talking to Karen Carney and Claire Rafferty, two mates and former England internationals who retired at the end of last season, and they both encouraged me to have a bit of a break after leaving the game. Since I came back to England I have done a bit of media work, and have found time to get away for a holiday. I needed it, I fully utilised it, and very soon I’ll be ready to get back to work, and express my passion for football in a different and really exciting way.