Rachel Daly: The making of the Aston Villa striker hoping to spearhead the Lionesses’ attack at the Women’s World Cup

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Rachel Daly started her career at Leeds and played in the WSL with Lincoln before leaving for St John’s University, New York; the 31-year-old returned to England with Aston Villa last summer and will go toe-to-toe with Alessia Russo for the central striking role at the Women’s World Cup

Rachel Daly has had quite the year.

Last July, she played all six games at left-back as England won Euro 2022. In August, she left Houston Dash of the NWSL to join Aston Villa. In May, she won the WSL Golden Boot after a record-equalling haul of 22 league goals.
This month, she will go toe-to-toe with Alessia Russo for the central striking role in Sarina Wiegman’s Lionesses team for the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
The response to whether she thinks she can lead the line for her country as a result of her brilliance throughout the season is well rehearsed now – she insists she will play wherever she is needed.

Her versatility is her unique selling point, after all.
But how did it come to be that the 31-year-old became adept at playing at both ends of the pitch?

With help from those she has worked with throughout a career that has taken her from Leeds to Lincoln, from New York to Houston and back to the UK, we take a closer look at the making of Rachel Daly.
Daly the Leeds, Lincoln left-back
Daly had progressed from the Leeds United centre of excellence to the first team by the time she was 17 and was part of Lois Fidler’s England U17 side that finished fourth at the 2008 World Cup in New Zealand.

She was named on the bench for the Premier League Cup win over Everton in February 2010, too. That triumph – Leeds’ first and only major trophy to date – came one month after it was announced the club had ended their interest in becoming one of the founding members of the WSL.

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Daly joined Lincoln from Leeds in 2011
Their patrons, Leeds Metropolitan University – now Leeds Beckett University – were “unable to commit to the substantial increase in budgets proposed”.

Lincoln City Ladies, however, had already secured their spot in the historic campaign – which started in March 2011 – and stepped in to sign several players from Leeds, including Jess Clarke and Sophie Bradley.

“We signed Rachel from York College,” Glen Harris – who took over as the Lady Imps manager in October 2011 – recalls.

“One of her tutors was Gordon Staniforth, dad of Aston Villa’s Lucy Staniforth, who I already knew through football. We spoke about his structure and setup and then decided to sign her.

“She was 18 or 19 at the time and such a character! We used her primarily at left-back and she was very tough on herself if she made a mistake, so her confidence could take a dip quite easily.”

Harris is happy to admit he did not foresee such drastic development.

“Rachel was very much a marauding full-back that always wanted to get forward, but I wouldn’t take credit and say she was always a centre-forward at heart. We were just happy she could play left or right-back and get up and down the pitch really well.

“We didn’t want to lose her and some thought she’d last six months and be back. When she started scoring goals at college level, I wondered if she could do the same at international level – and she’s proved that she can. From what I’ve seen, going to America was the making of her.

“I’ve seen clips from when she played in the States – and now in the WSL – and some of her movements are brilliant. Yes, she has been coached to make those, but now they seem pretty natural to her.”

Sue Smith
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Sue Smith played with Daly at Leeds and Lincoln
“When she started training with us at Leeds, nothing seemed to faze her. She was one of the younger ones, but she just played as she had always played,” says Sky Sports’ Sue Smith, who played with Daly at both Leeds and Lincoln.

“Looking back, you could see the potential, even though I wasn’t really looking at things like that when I was playing.

“We formed a good relationship because, if I wasn’t playing in the centre, she was playing behind me on the left. She was always quite flexible and versatile, so if you needed someone to go into the midfield area, she could.

“You could see that she was an attacking full-back who wanted to get forward and I often had to pull rank and tell her to stay back!”

Transformation in the States
After two seasons in the WSL, 21-year-old Daly was getting restless.

Speaking to englandfootball.com in June, she said: “I thought to myself that it was make or break time really – I’ve either got to go and make something of myself or stick with what I was doing.

“I wanted to continue my education and football and experience something new, so made the choice to leave Lincoln and go to college in America.”
She enrolled on a sports management degree at St John’s University in Queens, New York – from where rapper J. Cole had graduated five years earlier – and became part of Ian Stone’s St John’s Red Storm team.

In an article from 2020, ESPN wrote that Stone – an Englishman who played for Bristol Rovers’ youth team as a teenager and has worked full-time at St John’s since 1996 – recalled “it took him all of one afternoon’s practice to feel confident that ‘this kid’s probably the best player that has ever or will ever play for St. John’s University.’

Yet due to the fact Daly had already played in the WSL in 2012, college sport regulations stated she could not play during her freshman year.

When she did return in 2013, she had been transformed from a full-back with attacking intent, to a striker who looked as though she had played up front forever. She started all 21 games that season and set a new St John’s record of 23 goals.

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