It has been a whirlwind few years for England U19s manager, Gemma Davies. From being handed the Head Coach role at Aston Villa back in 2018 to now being fully immersed in international youth football, it has been a learning curve for the young manager as she looks to establish her career in the sport.
Sitting in the England hotel in Ostrava on the eve of the Young Lionesses’ second match of the tournament, Davies reflects on her career so far. As a player both for Aston Villa and the Birmingham City, she always had an interest in coaching and completed her Level One and Two while at college. But it was a six-week period one summer that literally changed her path. “I picked up a grassroots team that my sister played for,” she remembers. “I used to catch the no. 33 bus down to the local fields where they trained just to watch my sister, and a guy called John Carter just said, “Would you mind just looking after the U10s team over the holiday?” I did it for six weeks and it’s that six weeks that has quite literally turned into a career.”
Aston Villa came calling when she was just 25, a move that would force Davies to push herself and develop. A heavy opening defeat to Manchester United in the Championship clearly still stings but it was “a very, very quick learning experience”. It worked as Aston Villa dominated the Championship the following season to earn promotion to the Women’s Super League. Disappointment came in January 2021, when Villa decided on a change in direction, a move that shocked many in and around the game.
Many coaches might choose to stay in club football as they look to build their career, but not Davies as England’s youth setup came calling. The move to international football comes with its own pressures and style but she seems to embrace these challenges. “I would say [it has] really stretched my management capabilities,” she says. “I spent a lot of time at Villa probably out on the grass and coaching a lot, living day by day and week by week, because that’s how club football worked. Whereas here, you’re looking at the long-term development of a player and that requires a particular skillset that coming into the role, I probably didn’t have. I think that’s an area that I’ve definitely had to adapt to and I’ve got better at. I believe I’m a better manager than I was 12 months ago.”
Friendly and unassuming, it is easy to see why Davies has earned the respect of her players, both for club and country. She places a huge emphasis on kindness and considers it “a characteristic that’s undervalued in performance sport.” She loves the connection with people that her job gives her as well as, perhaps surprisingly, the more its more stressful parts. “I thrive off building relationships. I like to help people to improve and just like to think that I can contribute to somebody’s development,” she says. “I also like the pressure, which seems an odd thing to say. But I just like the pressure of the game. I like the pressure of having to win and the expectation around that.”
This European Championships is the first international tournament experience for both Davies and her young side. It requires a lot of work off the pitch as well as on it to be able to provide them with the tools to succeed and progress. But she also has an intrinsic understanding of the personalities of her players and that balance is key. “I think, particularly with this age group…I don’t know if this is the right phrase to say, but you’ve got to let them colour outside the lines. I think that you have to let them do that. Particularly with the dynamic of the group that we have, I think if we try and keep them colouring within the lines, it stifles them because they are very creative and very fiery individuals. I think by virtue of letting them do certain things, you get the best out of them and it brings them closer together, and closely connected to the staff group as well.”
Tuesday’s victory over Norway was a fine example of this balance. Conceding a sloppy goal just before half-time could have phased even the best of sides, but staff and players regrouped to find the answers and push on with an impressive second half performance. Sweden will provide a sterner test in transition – an element of the game Norway exploited well – and it has been an aspect England have been working on since. When asked about what we can expect from her side this time out, Davies held her cards close to her chest. “It’s going to look a little bit different, which I think we’re quite excited about,” she muses. “But I think if we can just get that element, right, it will nullify some of Sweden’s threats.” An intriguing answer ahead of a vital game. A win would go one step further in seeing them stay in the Czech Republic for another week and qualify for the all important semi-finals.