‘Empathy and caring for people are really strong attributes for a manager’
Gemma Davies, at just 28, is drawing on past struggles as she prepares Villa for their WSL debut against City tomorrow
As Aston Villa steamrollered to promotion last season, undefeated in the Championship with 13 wins from 14 fixtures, it was difficult to remember a time when they had struggled. That is testimony to the steep trajectory they have been on under manager Gemma Davies who, at 28 years old, becomes the youngest manager in the Women’s Super League.
The results have not gone to her head though, she remembers just as clearly the 12-0 drubbing at the hands of Manchester United in their previous campaign, and first ever game in the Second Division. “It was a challenging period. Behind closed doors, I perhaps didn’t deal with it very well,” Davies says.
She has none of the overt confidence of a head coach who masterminded such a turnaround. She talks freely about the big issues, but balances that by revealing the reality of buying her first house at the same time as building a WSL team: “It’s terrifying,” she says. “Now I’m going to have to be a real adult, and do real adult things.”
It is a striking reminder of her youth and rapid rise, for a person who became a coach “by accident”, starting as a 16-year-old filling in for someone over the summer at her sister’s football club in north Birmingham. She built a reputation at different clubs in the Midlands before she was appointed head coach at Villa at just 25.
But there have been moments of doubt. Their WSL debut at Villa Park tomorrow against Manchester City will mark almost two years to the day since that nightmare game against United, when they leaked 12 goals and went on a six-game winless streak in the league.
“There’s a general stereotype or assumption that is made at this level that you need to be this very dominating and aggressive figure that is quite vocal,” Davies says. “I was challenged with that perception in my first three or four months in the role, because I’m the opposite of that.
“Sometimes, the assumption is if you’re a nice person you’re a weak person, and I would completely argue the opposite. Having empathy and caring are really strong attributes in this role. Sometimes, especially [in the case of] women, society says you have to be something else to be successful – that you can’t be nice.
“The biggest reflection that I had in that period was to remain my authentic self – I just needed to be me, and me was good enough.” She proved that, by elevating her team to the top division for the first time.
She has spent the summer readying her team for the step up to the WSL – ousting eight players, including last season’s top scorer, Melissa Johnson.
Davies insists her side’s identity remains the same, just with more experienced players thanks to a recruitment plan that started in November. She says the contribution of Eniola Aluko, the new sporting director and former England player, has been “pivotal” in attracting former Lyon goalkeeper Lisa Weiss, as well as WSL talents Chloe Arthur and Anita Asante.
Asante has won everything there is to win in European club football in her time with Arsenal and Chelsea. She is also eight years Davies’s senior, and the manager says her experience means she has already become a “fundamental” part of the squad. “A large majority of our group have not played in the Super League before, players and staff, and ‘Neetz’ is able to share that.” With kick-off looming, Davies, a lifelong Villa fan, is in new territory; they are facing league giants City live on BT Sport. What is it going to feel like on that sideline, hoping her vision plays out – and that history does not repeat itself?
“It’s making my heart go a little bit faster as you said that,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s going to be difficult. The objective is simple, that’s to be competitive and to establish our identity in the league. We say it’s about daring greatly and being in the arena together.
“I think that’s often more powerful than any game strategy you put forward.”
New goal: Gemma Davies believes Aston Villa can compete in WSL