Gemma Davies on growing Aston Villa's fanbase
Credit: Getty/Aston Villa/Neville Williams

Gemma Davies on growing Aston Villa's fanbase

Villa boss talks about the improvements in her side ahead of their clash with Leicester City at Villa Park

soppysophs
Sophie Lawson

Going strong in the Championship after some early wobbles this season and looking forward to a clash with Leicester City at Villa Park this weekend, Molly Hudson spoke to Aston Villa boss Gemma Davies.

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Not having played at Villa Park since 2016, the Villainesses will be back on the not-so familiar turf this weekend, the solid relationship that runs through the club, paramount for making such occasions happen.

We have a very good backroom staff with our general manager and media team that work tirelessly behind the scenes, but then we also have very good support from the men’s club that make these kinds of things possible to achieve so we are very thankful for the club making that happen and supporting the women’s section. The work that goes on behind the scenes that makes these occasions come to life, it’s a fantastic experience for staff coaches and players alike to play at Villa Park so we are all thoroughly looking forward to it.”

An occasion for all involved on and off the pitch, the clash against the Foxes marks another opportunity for Villa to grow their fanbase and pull more people in.

It’s really important to our overall programme. Amongst our players we have lifelong Villa supporters, players that have come through our youth set up and been at the club since the age of nine so it means an awful lot to the players, and to us as staff to experience playing at Villa Park and of course the wider aspect of the game to increase our crowd and promote us as a club and the women’s game in general.”

Having seen an increase in gate receipts this season already, Davies is hopeful that Sunday’s match will keep their attendance figures on the rise.

It is a fantastic opportunity to do that. Our average attendance is up over 100% this season and hopefully playing at VP we can increase that average.

Having ground-hopped a little over the years, Villa spend most of their season playing at Boldemere St Michaels, a little way North East of Villa’s Aston home.

We are really fortunate to be at Boldmere. In terms of accessibility to the ground, we have really good transport links in Boldmere, a train within a five-minute walk, good value for money and advertisement from staff working behind the scenes has increased our fan base and we will continue to push that. From a wider stand point the locality of the ground itself is critical, we are fortunate to be close to Villa Park and attract local fan base.

One club

Varying what they offer at the ground as well as the football has only helped grow their identity in the community, the connection between the club and their fans and those in the wider community integral for Davies.

The promotion you do around the game and attracting that wider audience might be girls that have never experienced or played football before. I know a lot of clubs do it, but we do family days and BBQ’s and Wildcat sessions pre-match. We did something recently where we had grassroots coaches come to our Conti Cup fixture against Manchester City, to give them an experience of a day in the life of a Championship coach. Myself and a member of my team would discuss the strategy before a game and then they would be set some tasks after the game do a debrief and a Q and A around the game.”

She continued, “It’s being open and accessible. Not being afraid to show the club in all areas. Sometimes football has a tendency to be quite zoned off and isolated, and I do think generally as a club we are very open and happy to let people in.”

Very much with the “one badge, one club” mentality, it’s clear to see the integration in the team, fans invited to support each and every facet of Aston Villa.

We are one club, we both wear claret and blue regardless of gender. We want all of our games, from men’s first team to women’s first team to U23 to disability, to youth sections to be open and accessible to Villa fans. We play for the same club so if you are a villa fan you have access to the club and watch different formats of the game.”

Giving fans a free taster to whet the appetite has a paid dividends for the team who have seen their attendance figures grow throughout the season, just as the team have grown on the pitch, the team happy to challenge tired stereotypes about women’s football.

You are trying to attract different members of your fan base and some of those members perhaps haven’t been to a women’s game before. It’s about how to make it accessible and easy for them so that once they do come to a game, a lot of the perceptions around the game can be eradicated and hopefully by that point they can become the consistent fan base or at least add to it. It’s about changing mindsets and perceptions, and one way to do that is to allow members to come in for free for their first fixture so they can get a taste for the game.”

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On the rise

Humbled in their first match of the season when they were hit for 12 by Manchester United, things fast started to look gloomy for a team who’ve found themselves in a slump or two over the last few years. Slipping further and further down the table each season, the team has seen more than one managerial departure in the last two years as for long-term boss Joe Hunt left his role before replacement Iain Sankey left after a dismal 2017-18 campaign.

Following their first day loss this season, many feared that Villa would go one worse this season and finish dead last but with one loss in their last six league outings, Davies impact has fully been felt in the Midlands.  

We have made huge progress over the last six months. It would be fair to say that a lot of people wrote us off very early on in the season, probably wrote myself off as a coach but as a new manager coming into a new team it’s not something you can change overnight, it’s a process you have to learn and buy into with engagement from players and staff.”

The pieces not always swift to fall into place but the bigger picture certainly a clear one for the team.

It’s taken a while to implement some of our concepts and our philosophy from the coaching staff for the players to bring to life on the pitch. We are in a position now where you can see our identity as a team and now that’s matched with points on the table. I’d like to think our realistic target at the end of the season that we can achieve is certainly midtable, pushing 5th is our aim and is doable. We have come a long way and I would like to think people watching us now can see progress and what our identity as a group is.

Still a growing side, and one that has seen more than its fair share of player departures since their first days in WSL 2, the team is again looking more like the side that finished in a respectable fourth in 2014. All eyes now looking to the biggest prize available in the Championship.  

If you look back across our fixtures, it’s small details that have let us down where we could have nicked three points or taken a point, had those games gone differently and with luck on our side our position could be very different. Going forward of course as a club we have ambition to get promotion and play in the Women’s Super League and go full-time. It’s most critical for us that we make our club sustainable first, that we grow our programme organically which is critical for longer term success. It’s walking before we can run, small steps in the right direction, with big strides in the last six months.”

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