‘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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Football - By Molly McEl­wee

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

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