Birmingham City boss Ward and Aston Villa gaffer Davies may be rivals in Saturday’s big showdown but together they are inspiring a new generation of female coaches in the top flight. By Jessy Parker Humphreys.
Three years ago, there were only three women managing in the top two divisions of women’s football. This weekend marks a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of female managers as two of the youngest face off in the Second City derby.
It will not only be the first time that Aston Villa and Birmingham City have faced each other in the Women’s Super League but an intriguing battle between two bright young managers.
Carla Ward, 36, and Gemma Davies, the youngest head coach in the league at 28, followed very different paths when it came to their journeys into management.
Birmingham City manager Ward spent more than a decade playing football at the highest level, at Lincoln Ladies and Sheffield FC, among others. She began coaching at Sheffield, even while she was scoring more than 100 goals. This culminated in a local move to Sheffield United, where she started out as an assistant before taking on the full-time gig in 2018.
Her success at Sheffield United, finishing as runners-up to Aston Villa in the second tier last season, meant that it came as a surprise when her and the club parted ways. Despite rumours it was because she was in the frame for the England job, she said that she left because her and the club “wanted different things”.
Sheffield United’s loss was Birmingham City’s gain as Ward has quickly made an impact, having stepped up to the WSL. Birmingham have already picked up almost as many points as they managed last season (6 points in 6 games, compared to 7 points in 13 games).
Who knows if things might have been different, though, if Sheffield United had not been pipped to the post by Davies’ Aston Villa last season.
Davies began coaching when she was 16 years old, teaching the younger age groups as a favour at her sister’s club. She went on to work at Birmingham’s Centre of Excellence, Coventry United Ladies and the University of Birmingham, before being made the head coach of Aston Villa at 25.
“There hasn’t ever been a moment I didn’t want to coach,” Davies said earlier this year.
Despite their combined age of just 64, Davies and Ward are very familiar with each other. Saturday’s match will not be their first time meeting.
“Me and Gemma have had our own derbies for the last few seasons, so it’s quite nice to have a proper derby,” said Carla Ward, speaking ahead of the game. “We always called them derbies because they were always at the top end of the Championship.”
Davies got the better of Ward twice last season but both have found the step up into the WSL tricky. “The two leagues just aren’t comparable – in every aspect,” says Davies. “On a personal note, I found that transition difficult. It has been a big jump for me personally. I’ve had to learn very quickly. I’ve had to learn from a lot of mistakes.”
“It was a reality check,” agrees Ward. “Being thrown in at the deep end, you have to adapt and react quite quickly. I actually picked up the phone to Gemma on my drive on my first day in. And I said to her ‘What’s been your biggest challenge?’ Because me and Gemma were in a very similar boat last year.”
It is testament to the relationship between Davies and Ward that, despite managing at rival clubs, they can still reach out to each other. Yet it is unsurprising from someone like Davies who has previously emphasised that she sees being kind and empathetic as a key part of her role.
“There’s a lot of respect between me and Carla,” says Davies. “We’ve known each other for a very long time.”
It was not so long ago that you would be hard-pressed to find a woman managing in the WSL. Back in March 2017, there were only three women managing across both the WSL and the Women’s Championship. Currently there are 11, with eight of those being in the WSL. What is even more astonishing is that five of those managers are under 40.
“We are starting to see a new generation of women’s managers,” says Davies. “A lot of that for me has come from greater opportunity, greater exposure.
“When I was a young coach starting out, the opportunities were few and far between really. You had to work really hard to knock down doors to get those opportunities.”
Recently, the FA has focused on supporting female coaches as part of their ‘Gameplan for Growth’. As a result, the number of FA-qualified women coaches has grown to more than 34,500, an increase of more than 18 per cent in just the last 12 months. At the very top levels, the number of women holding UEFA A Licenses has also doubled to 82 in the last three years.
“There are more and more things going on all the time,” explains Ward. “Despite the fact that we’ve got our A Licenses, we’re still on another course for female coaches in the game. It allows for coaches like ourselves to develop and grow. It’s a great time for young coaches to come into the game.”
When asked what advice they would give to young women wanting to become managers, both Ward and Davies emphasised the same thing: hard work.
“You have to watch a massive amount of football,” says Ward. “You’ve got to do everything. You’ve got to read books, you’ve got to watch people, you’ve got to learn from other people. The biggest one for me is you’ve got to sacrifice your time and give everything. There’s no such thing as a day off in football.”
“Carla’s probably answered this better than I could!” chimes in Davies. “Perhaps the only thing I would add is to not underestimate the importance of the time spent out on the grass. At all age groups. Don’t underestimate the importance of repetition and working with players consistently.”
Ward and Davies see that kind of hard work as crucial to their success in the WSL. Both Aston Villa and Birmingham see staying in the division as their main priority this season, and their managers are confident they can do it, despite their budgets.
“It is hard to keep up with [the top clubs],” says Davies. “But I think one thing that perhaps is often missed, and certainly I see as our bread and butter, is to go and coach. To work with players.
“Ultimately, we earn our money working with players on the pitch. For us, it’s about bringing our game model to life, squeezing the extra percent out of players. That’s where I get a lot of my joy from.”
“I quite like the ‘underdog’ tag,” adds Ward. “I want the girls to go out there and be fearless. To have a mindset of no matter who you play against, be fearless.”
What she says next would fit perfectly into a team talk ahead of Saturday’s derby.
“Go and give everything, and leave everything out there.”
Follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph