The Villain’s move is a smart solution, combining age and experience with youth and potential, writes Rich Laverty.
At first glance, Aston Villa’s decision to demote head coach Gemma Davies this week may have raised a few eyebrows.
In a rather surprising and shocking turn of events, it was announced that former Birmingham City manager Marcus Bignot will take over, with Davies returning to a coaching role.
The confusion about the switch – Davies was not completely sacked, but replaced – wasn’t helped by Villa’s own lack of clarity in their club statement. Sporting Director Eni Aluko had to jump in and clarify that the “buck will stop” with Bignot, who will be in charge of team selection and tactics.
While many looked at the decision with consternation, the more the days have passed, the more the “non-sacking” of Davies actually appears to be a win-win situation for the club. Delve deeper, and Villa have secured themselves the best of both worlds.
They have gained a vastly experienced coach within the women’s game, while also not losing out on an extremely talented young female coach. Davies can continue to learn and develop away from the spotlight and scrutiny that has come with a difficult start to their debut FA WSL season.
In truth, miracles should never have been expected from her, given how quickly the club has grown in very little time. At the time of the league restructure in 2018, Villa were being left behind badly.
They had at least consistently been a mid-table side with a smattering of quality players, but a 12-0 defeat to Manchester United in Davies’s first game in charge in 2018 showed how far they had fallen.
I work for Sheffield United, and we got our first league win against them a few weeks later at Bramall Lane. The match ended 4-1, but it could have been more – and we were a brand new team to the league with a whole new squad.
Being honest, if you’d told me then a year later they would be our main promotion rivals, I’d have laughed. Ok, they invested a lot, which allowed them to put a certain amount of players on full-time deals and let them sign the likes of Emma Follis. But Davies was already doing a superb job before that.
Before the investment came, by the end of the same season which started with a 12-0 defeat, Villa were one of the form teams in the league – despite having similar personnel to the start of the campaign. For that you have to credit Davies and her coaching staff.
One of the youngest coaches in the game, she guided Villa to an unbeaten – albeit curtailed – campaign last time out, earning promotion to the FA Women’s Super League.
Perhaps the team has grown quicker than she was able to keep up with, suddenly now being tasked with handling top internationals like Stine Larsen and a World Cup winner in Mana Iwabuchi. It has been difficult for Villa and despite a few wins, there have been games where they’ve very much looked out of their depth.
To that end, to take Davies away from that and allow her to solely coach once again is no negative, allowing her to do what she does best and letting Bignot come in to offer sturdier guidance to safety.
To new fans of the game, a coach coming from the lower leagues of the men’s game may have raised eyebrows even higher. But that would tell nowhere near the story.
When you look at this CV, Bignot is actually once of the most experienced coaches in the women’s game.
His first spell at Birmingham City stretches all the way back to 1998, leaving in 2005 when the club fell into financial difficulties.
Under his leadership, the Blues won promotion twice in his first few seasons, moving from the regional third division to the FA Women’s Premier League, and reaching the Premier League Cup final along the way with a shock win against giants Doncaster Rovers Belles.
Bignot returned to the club in 2011 when the FA WSL began and forged a successful partnership with manager David Parker. Combining their knowledge, Birmingham were regular title challengers during the early seasons. They could have and should have won the league on at least one occasion.
They did get their hands on silverware by beating Chelsea in the 2012 FA Cup final, and four years later guided the team to the Continental Cup final, losing 1-0 to Manchester City in extra-time.
Bignot hasn’t worked in the women’s game since leaving at the end of the 2016 season, but the experience he has of the league and the sport over a 23-year period is bigger than almost any other coach in the game.
For Aluko and Villa to bring him in to lead the team, while also having Davies back on the grass as a coach, is truly the best of both worlds – even if it is perhaps only a consolation prize for the latter.
Villa have big plans going forward and their signing of Japanese superstar Iwabuchi has only emphasised that. Aluko herself is a born winner who won’t want to settle for 10th or 11th in the league, knowing the club’s ceiling is so much higher.
If they had parted company with Davies completely, it would have been somewhat of a travesty given her age and the fact she still has so much to give as a coach. The fact they haven’t let her go shows they rightly still have faith and belief in her for the future.
Bignot’s first game against Chelsea will likely offer little opportunity in way of points, but there’s a bigger picture at play. While the road ahead remains unclear, it does feel like Villa have made what could be a very sensible decision to benefit everyone.
Follow Rich on Twitter @RichJLaverty