Gemma Davies is so unused to life in the slow lane that the process of buying her first house has opened a window to an alien new world where things move at sometimes glacial pace.
“It’s been slow progress but I think we’re finally trying to set a completion date now,” Aston Villa’s 28‑year‑old manager says with a sigh. “I’m looking forward to moving in and getting on with the decorating.”
The youngest head coach in the Women’s Super League is most definitely not the type to put things off until tomorrow. In little more than two years in charge, Davies has led Villa into the top tier for the first time in their history while also securing her A coaching licence.
As she chats, via Zoom, from the gym at the Bodymoor Heath training complex Villa share with Dean Smith’s men, she initially looks far too youthful to be a manager but appearances can be hugely deceptive. It quickly becomes apparent that she speaks with the poise, maturity and authority of a woman obsessed with honing her craft since picking up a whistle almost by chance 13 years ago. Male peers know better than to patronise her.
“I started coaching at 15, at a local grassroots club called Erdington Ladies, 10 minutes on the bus from our home in Birmingham,” she says. “It was more of a favour, if I’m honest. My sister played there and I’d go and watch. One summer holiday they were looking for coaches for the under‑12s and under‑10s and the chairman asked me to help out.
“That six weeks has turned into a lifetime. I loved every minute. There hasn’t ever been a moment since when I didn’t want to coach.”
Along the way she would turn a hobby into a profession but making an undoubted talent pay took time, sacrifice and emotional bravery. “To be a full-time, professional football coach was always a massive ambition, a dream,” says Davies, who until four months ago was also head of women’s football at Birmingham University. “To not be doing two jobs any more is a novelty which hasn’t quite worn off.”
Reaching the point where she will lead out her team against upwardly mobile Everton in front of live television cameras on Saturday has involved Davies holding both her nerve and some awkward conversations. “Without the financial support of my parents and grandparents I’d never have been able to do it,” she says.
“Until now, I’ve never really had a stable income but I was able to live rent free at home and when my car broke down or I needed a new pair of boots they helped. My family have been wonderful – although we definitely had conversations about ‘getting a proper job’. We’ve had those ‘are we getting to the point where you maybe need to consider a slightly more stable income’ talks. But we’re OK now!”
After giving up playing at 19, Davies gained a “mind-broadening” MA in sports science from Loughborough University but proved an atypical student. “I’ve had to sacrifice a fair amount of nights out,” she says. “I’m surprised I still have friends but, fortunately, they’re very patient, very supportive.”
At work, she is bolstered by Villa’s sporting director, Eni Aluko. “I like to be out on the grass so someone of Eni’s calibre, with her experience and contacts, has a large commercial and strategic remit; she supports me with player recruitment, with signings like Anita Asante.”
Now 35, Asante is not only seven years her manager’s senior but has defended at the highest level in England, Sweden and the United States. “It’s a real privilege to work alongside Neetz,” says Davies. “As a kid, I watched her play for England. Neetz supports me and we pick each other’s brains – but my age isn’t an issue.”
Even so, eyebrows were raised when her Villa tenure began with a 12-0 second-tier thrashing by Manchester United at the outset of a six-game winless run. “It was a stark awakening,” she admits. “A tough start but it’s definitely shaped me.”
By the time Villa cantered to promotion last season they were fully integrated with the men’s setup and Davies’s career was back on fast forward. “We train next to the men’s under-23s,” she says. “It really is a one-club approach. There’s a lot of crossover, a lot of shared facilities and medical support.”
That impressive infrastructure could prove vital in a WSL suddenly awash with high-profile overseas imports. “The bar’s definitely been raised, the quality’s fantastic,” says Davies as she seeks her first WSL points at Everton’s expense. “We know it’s going to take time to establish ourselves but we have trust and belief. Our future’s bright.”