Gemma Davies’ Aston Villa Women’s side became the first FA Women’s Championship team to remain undefeated in a season en route to the club’s first top-flight promotion.
Prematurely curtailed yes, but deserved even more so – the sacrifices both players and management staff took to achieve the once seemingly impossible goal proves the club’s investment in the growing women’s game.
“The ultimate goal has to be to go full-time and be competing in the Super League. We have the ability and the capability as a club to do that,” explained Davies to VillaTV back in 2018.
27-year-old Davies set out the blueprint for Women’s Super League promotion only weeks before suffering a 12-0 defeat to Manchester United Women, drawing an early line in the sand, and since, significant strides have been made in achieving the long term goal.
Sacked in the morning…
Chants of ‘you’re getting sacked in the morning’ from the visiting United fans and social media trolls questioned the attitude and character of Davies at a time where she was juggling jobs, balancing personal relationships and earning a living away from the game.
She remembered: “At the time, that was a really difficult pill to swallow. I got everything wrong. As the goals kept going in, I lacked the experience of how to salvage the situation at the time.
“I want to take the flak for that because the players never stopped, never gave in and they dealt with the situation really well.
“I had numerous instances of coaches and friends sending me messages to make me feel better about the situation.“Those messages meant everything in that moment because I was so inside my own head about what was going on.
“You naturally ignore the positives and look at the negative messages you were receiving. Those positive messages were critical for me to want to get up the next morning.”
They believed in me
A week later and Davies’ Villa would demonstrate the grit and application to bounce back and wipe away the cobwebs of a sobering loss that opened the 2018-19 campaign. A 1-0 victory over Leicester City in the League Cup was the first win under her watch, with more than enough time on her side to build towards a promotion plan with her side improving with every passing week.
“For whatever reason, they believed in what we were trying to achieve, and they believed in me – you could feel that,” Davies reflected.
“You go on that kind of losing streak and questions are asked. That can be from staff or players, but at no point did I feel that – other than what I put on myself.
“Whenever anyone asks me what my greatest challenges have been, I will always go back to that time. It was my first experience as a manager and I’d been chucked into a league I’d never worked in before at a young age, but I learnt from it and I’m better off for it.”
It was the experience – whilst Davies may not have known it at the time – that would equip her team with the spirit and determination to better United’s FAWC title-winning season points per game total of 2.75. Villa were promoted with a PPG of 2.86 after a single draw to Durham skewed an almost perfect promotion as Davies’ girls won 13/14 games, scoring 39 goals in that time.
Throughout Davies’ brief tenure there’s plenty of evidence to highlight a winning mentality balanced with a humble approach to the game that she’s worked incredibly hard to break into.
Four miles north of Villa Park and Villa’s women have settled well into life at the Boldmere St Michaels FC stadium, and with one campaign already down, Davies’ side are well acclimatised to their new Sutton Coldfield home.
Marquee signings Emma Follis and Melissa Johnson both started for the opening game against Sheffield United Women, and their impact over the course of the season would be huge, too the application of the Villa squad that simply didn’t know when it was beaten.
22 minutes into the 2019-2020 season and Sheffield had taken a two-goal lead to test the sturdy resolve and the quality that wasn’t in short measure amongst the Villa ranks. Having netted five times in pre-season, Johnson, on her debut halved the deficit before half time.
In front of a vocal home support, Johnson went on to score a hat-trick on her competitive debut which included a fine long-range effort against Blades ‘keeper Becky Flaherty to level the scores after the interval. An opening day 3-2 win was the start Davies and her staff would’ve dreamt of in the long lead up to the new campaign.
Gelling up to nine new faces was a task for Davies, but with four successive wins on the bounce, Villa led the way at the top of the Women’s Championship, setting the pace at the second division summit.
Blackburn and Crystal Palace Women were both swept aside with eight goals scored after completing another frantic comeback against London City Lionesses. In the first month, the season Johnson took her second match ball which took her early season tally to seven, whilst Emma Follis netted her first for the club with Amy West and Marisa Ewers also amongst the goals.
LMA Manager of the month
Despite Durham Women nipping at the heels of Davies’ side at the top of the league after the opening games of the new league season, the Villa boss scooped the first LMA Manager of the Month, for August.
She said: “This award is recognition of the hard work that all staff and players across our team put in every week to ensure we have the best possible platform to succeed. This is truly for them.”
It was the first individual honour Davies received after taking over at Villa at the age of 25 in June 2018.
Chair of the League Managers Association panel Marieanne Spacey-Cale MBE said: “The work Gemma and her team has done over the summer, bringing in new signings and technical work on the training pitch has shown in the results of their first two games.
“Sheffield United and London City Lionesses are both competitive teams in the FA Women’s Championship, so for Gemma to have six points on the board already, represents a great start for her and Aston Villa.”
Maintaining a 100% record in the league campaign wasn’t in doubt between two tricky ties against Villa’s closest challengers Durham, as girls in claret and blue once again hit three or more goals in the league – this time against Charlton Women. Johnson’s exceptional start to the season continued, adding another hat-trick to her impressive start in a Villa shirt.
Come to the end of the season, Durham would eventually fall by the wayside with Sheffield United in pursuit of Villa, but in the League Cup, Lee Sanders’ Durham would get the better of a weakened Villa team.
Losing 3-1 at home wouldn’t disturb Villa’s league momentum with a respectable 1-1 draw in a tie against Durham once more – a side that boasted Elizabeth Hepple and the meanest defence in the league. Conceding only ten goals all season was narrowly better than Villa’s 11 goals against.
A week later and if Davies’ perfect league record was blotched somewhat, her side’s belief and desire certainly wasn’t after putting on a performance worthy of the brewing excitement and expectancy at Bodymoor Heath.
Villa topped Women’s Super League founding members Liverpool at the start of November. The game got off to the perfect start when Emma Follis scored within the opening six minutes, and whilst there was plenty of football left to play, Villa got the job done.
Substitute Emily Syme capped the memorable victory over the Reds by netting Villa’s second, and the winner on the night. It was a moment of realisation for Davies who only 12 months ago was in awe of pulling up to Villa’s training facility.
“When I drive into the training ground and I’m going along the gravel path to the building, I see the big Aston Villa badge and I have to pinch myself and think ‘this is brilliant’,” Davies said.
“All of the time, all of the sacrifices, all of those long hours in the evenings and busting a gut to make sure you go on all the courses, travelling up and down the country to games – it’s all worth it the moment you arrive at the training ground.”
At 27, Davies could be forgiven for lacking experience or the respect of her dressing room that she shares with players older than herself. Such remarks couldn’t be further from the truth for Villa’s boss who is a mature, humble and importantly an overqualified asset to Aston Villa Football Club.
“I started out at 15, so it feels like a lifetime ago,” began the Villa boss.
“Because I started out at 15 with no qualifications, I had to work very hard to get those qualifications and get onto doing my UEFA Licences. As every coach knows, you spend many hours out on the pitch and most of those are voluntary.
“You have to take whatever opportunities are there and you spend many long nights out on the pitch practising your trade, having conversations with coaches and watching coaches.
“My work ethic and passion for coaching have helped get me to this point. The people I’ve surrounded myself with along the way have also contributed to where I am now. I’d say it’s been a long journey, and I know that sounds ridiculous because I’m 27 now, but it’s definitely felt lengthy.”
Davies is one of only 500 or so women to hold a UEFA A license – a coaching badge she earned in roles at Birmingham City Women, Derby County Ladies and Coventry United Ladies over the past decade.
Having become the youngest head coach in women’s football when she was appointed aged 25, finishing sixth in last season’s campaign was no failure for a young coach with big plans.
When Christmas came around, Davies’ Villa had won every game since Halloween in the Women’s Championship, taking a maximum of 15 points from five massive games that propelled Villa into an unassailable lead at the top of the table.
Eleven goals scored and a clean sheet to boot – Villa’s title charge was in full swing. Follis’ late winner at The Hive Stadium won a tricky tie against a plucky London Bees side who’d finish fifth come May.
During the hustle and bustle of Christmas football, title aspirations are often realised and the table is often shaped around it’s eventual conclusion if form is continued – which for Villa it would.
With the winter months posing more problems to the women’s game than the men’s, Davies was quick to highlight the influence of her staff that helped make her players’ life easier despite Villa women competing at a high level on a part-time basis.
Villa appointed an all-female coaching group of staff including assistant Corrinne Mitchell and first-team coach Carly Davies.
“One of the biggest things I believe in is giving the players ownership and making them feel part of this project – and not just the stuff we do on the pitch,” Davies said.
“We’re trying to create a family unit. Me and the staff aren’t dictators. The players are a part of it and they have a say. One of the beautiful things about a football pitch is there are no doors – it’s all open.
“Players can come in, ask questions, put their opinion across and I think that’s really important in building trust and respect among us all.
“They’re people first, not players. It’s about them, their hobbies, their family life and their personal life. If we as coaches understand that, we understand the person and we’re able to get the best out of them as a person.”
Creating the optimal conditions to excel in an environment that requires maximum effort under a motivating and astute Davies was necessary for the coach who would oversee her eighth league victory after a winter break – and possibly the most important one yet.
Follis’ capture was one that demonstrated Villa’s aspirations and pulling power, and for the midfielder, returning to the club she calls home was an equally fantastic coup by the club.
Her winner at the Sheffield Olympic Legacy Stadium extended Villa’s gap at the summit to six points over title rivals Sheffield United Women just as the race for WSL football was heating up.
Combining with Shania Hayles after Davies’ half-time rally cry, Follis secured all three points from close range before Villa put bodies on the line to preserve the all-important win.
Last season, Villa had drawn the most games in the league, at eight, but in their promotion campaign, Davies’ side simply didn’t settle for anything less than three points in pursuit of FAWC glory.
Relentless in search for perfection, Davies has carried the lessons learned at a young age into a professional, elite football club. It all started with humble beginnings for the former Erdington Ladies coach.
John Carter gave her the opportunity to make her name at Erdington Ladies before the late Bernard Day helped her at Sutton Coldfield Primary Schools District girls team and Jenny Sugarman, who Davies coached alongside at Derby, recommended that she apply for a post at the University of Birmingham after departing that role.
Recognising that her aspirations can be achieved at an early age would ultimately be the motivating factor for Davies, who’d wake up at the crack of dawn to race up the A1 to Wearside to further her career, often at the expense of her social life.
“That’s always been a difficult one for me: the personal sacrifices that I’ve had to make to get to this point,” she reflected.
“There are a few people who’ve been fundamental in allowing me to do that. My family are wonderful to me. They give me the support and the time to be able to continue to do this. It’s not a full-time job at Villa – I have to earn my full-time wage elsewhere.
“They allow me to live at home so that I can still coach – that takes a financial hit off me. I don’t think I’d be where I am now without my mum. She’s supported me, encouraged me and lent me a tenner here and there to help me get to places when I couldn’t afford the petrol money.
“I have very, very patient friends. When I can’t or don’t go out on a Friday night because I’m up early on the Saturday to go to Sunderland, Northumbria or way down south, or I miss weddings, parties and so on.
“I have really patient friends that are really good with me. They get it and they understand it.”
There have been countless tests of Davies’ character on the way to becoming a WSL manager.
“I’ve definitely encountered negativity along the way from people who thought that coaching wasn’t the right profession for me or that I wouldn’t be able to make a career out of it. Just people who had an opinion on my ability as a coach and thought that I wasn’t good enough to do it.
“That’s always quite tricky to navigate in your own head, when you’ve got people telling you that it’s not the right career choice, you shouldn’t do it or you’re not good enough to do it.”
Successive defeats to superior opposition followed the crucial win over Sheffield United, with eventual WSL champions Chelsea and Brighton offering good learning curves for Davies’ young side.
Back-to-back wins again followed with two home games proving to be the premature party piece for Aston Villa Women, so deserved of their top-flight status after years outside the big time.
Charlton and Coventry succumb to more heavy defeats at the hand of Davies’ prolific, confident and unplayable side with more goals coming from Johnson who’d earn the club’s top scorer status. She managed 12 goals in 14 league games, two goals shy of a league-high 14.
Hayles ended the season as her strike partner Johnson started it, clutching the match ball at the end of a 4-0 victory over Coventry on home turf. Without knowing it at the time, that’d be the crowing performance for a Villa Women’s side boasting numerous homegrown players, that with the help of some new faces helped reach incredible heights this season.
Curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Davies’ side didn’t manage to set even more club records but their deserved invincible label will be one remembered and cherished for years to come by all involved. Preparations for life in the WSL had already taken place before the league’s suspension.
“We’re ready now. We’ve done a lot of work over the pre-season planning stage and throughout the season to prepare us for that transition, and that’s in all aspects,” said Davies in March.
“That’s across the operation, as a women’s department, that’s within our training logistics – when and where we train, and future-proof planning around our recruitment going into what hopefully will be a Super League season.
“We’ve been planning for a quite a while now. We are ready to make that transition and it’s really exciting but it’s come from planning week by week and the ability as a group of people to think slightly further ahead – I would comfortably say we’re ready now.”
It’s testament to the job Davies and her team has managed to achieve, with there being a clear difference from when the eager coach took the reins two years ago.
“I know it sounds really cheesy but when I picked up the group in that first summer they were at a low point.
“I tried to create an environment initially where everyone felt valued, that was the first objective for me, I needed people who felt wanted and worked hard.
“We had setbacks, the first game of the season against Man United and we went on a six or seven-game losing streak, that really tested us and myself an awful lot.
“But coming through it we developed a natural resilience that has really carried us through to this point now, you don’t forget those experiences!”
In typical fashion, hours after knowing the club had been officially promoted through a PPG calculation, Davies claimed her desire to reach top-flight status would’ve come on the pitch.
She said: “We wanted to finish the season on the pitch and win the league by showcasing the work that players and staff had put in to get us to this point.
“We put so many hours, so much hard graft and so much passion into this season that it’s fantastic to have been rewarded for that.
“For every player, staff member and supporter, promotion to the Super League is the realisation of a dream that we’ve all worked so hard to achieve.”
General Manager Amber Wildgust has monitored Villa’s growth over the past three years and praised the club’s hierarchy for their continued support.
“Since Christian Purslow arrived at Aston Villa, he has provided the support that we needed to make the club a force in the women’s game,” said Wildgust.
“We have come such a long way in a very short space of time and promotion to the Super League is a reward for the strides that have been made.
“As a club, we’re ambitious and we want to kick-on again and compete with the biggest clubs in the women’s game.”
New Women’s Sporting Director Eniola Aluko is also excited to see what the future holds for Aston Villa Women’s Team following WSL promotion.
She said: ”I am delighted with the news that we have been crowned Champions and achieved promotion to the WSL.
“After joining the club recently as Sporting Director, I am very proud to be working with such a committed and hard-working group of players and staff who went an entire season unbeaten up to this point, who deserve the positive news today.
“I thank Christian Purslow and the ownership group for their continued and sustained support of Aston Villa women and I’m looking forward to further progress and success for the club in the WSL.”
For lifelong Villa fan Davies, competing in the WSL is just the start. There’s always more to be achieved with an ambitious boss.
“I’d love to go to Wembley in the FA Cup final – that’s something I actually dream about, walking out with Villa at Wembley,” Davies revealed.
“You want that, as any fan would, but because I’m the manager and I could do that, it’s something that dreams are made of.
“Champions League and European football is something that’s only a dream at the moment, but it’s something that all of us aspire to do.”