Driving the club forward: first on the pitch, now in the office

Marisa Ewers is General Manager of Aston Villa FC Women, having previously been Head of Women’s Recruitment. She was a player and captain of the club as it won promotion from the Championship to the Women’s Super League (WSL) and has represented Germany at Under-20 and Under-23 level. Marisa studied the MSc Sports Directorship with VSI Executive Education, and graduated in September 2022. You can find Marisa on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Going from a player to General Manager at Aston Villa FC is an interesting transition. It’s nice to still be part of the club, and I still see players I played with, and I see the manager every day. It’s nice to have conversations with her around other bits than just football! I’m grateful for the opportunity the club has given me, I think it’s rare that athletes can go into a role like this, straight from playing. I do miss playing, but it’s really nice to still be in the game and help the club to grow off-pitch. As a captain on-pitch, I helped to push it forward. We came from the Championship, and I helped them to get promoted, and then stay in the WSL, then challenge in the top half. And now I’m helping them off-pitch to really push forward again, which is great to have as a mission.

When I was coming to the end of my playing career, I did a Masters in Sports Management, but I wanted to develop myself further which led me to VSI Executive Education’s MSc in Sports Directorship. They had an agreement with the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) and that’s how I found them. I had a good chat with Tony from the VSI team and it sounded just right. You’re required to fulfil two days of attendance every six weeks, which makes it easier if you’re still playing or have work commitments.

I wasn’t sure if management was something I wanted to go into. I did some analysis and operations, and was previously working in recruitment at Aston Villa, while I was playing. And I thought the management side of things I need to get to know more.

Now I think that Sporting Director would probably be my ambition, because I realise that this is a way you can have a lot of impact in building something special with good people, in the game, and that’s my end goal.

As sportspeople, doing educational qualifications is massively important. You can get injured any time, and I would say to every female footballer who wants to play professionally, you have to look at building another part of your life that you can fall back on if you’re injured, or you stop playing, so you can plan your transition. It can be quite daunting if it all stops immediately.

The best thing about this course was networking with people from different backgrounds and sports. We had someone from the NFL, as well as a range of Olympic sports which was really nice. One of my favourite speakers was Damian Hughes, the psychologist and author, and his talk was so memorable; but we had so many speakers who would talk about their practical experiences.

We also looked at case studies highlighting for example how to manage a budget, how to build good relations with the media.

Every day in my role now, I draw on what I learned from the course. For example, it gave me an idea of what should go into a budget. As a player you don’t look into those things – why would you? Why would you know staffing or facilities costs? That was helpful, but also learning how to network, how to negotiate, and be open with people.  Because in my role I must talk to a lot of agents and new players, and really practice my skills – not being shy, going up to people and talking to them and having open conversations.

As a player, you have highly developed people skills. You speak to different people and get the best out of them. As a captain, we had challenging times: we were in a relegation battle and I had to really keep the group united; we had a management change but the old manager was still there. I felt I had to steer the group through the season. And in terms of communication skills, I had to communicate a lot between people – the players and management team. Communication, leadership, being respectful, open and honest, how to conduct yourself in front of others: I learned all this as a player, and I now try to implement in my job.

I couldn’t really say whether playing or being in a management role is easier! If you’re happy as a player, it feels easy, and fun, and it’s great. But in terms of the management, when players have a break you are still trying to get a competitive team together, and look at the numbers and the budgets, and there’s pressure from above.

In this role it’s more like a long-term pressure, whereas as a player you have pressure every day to perform. It’s very different.

As General Manager I am under long-term pressure; whereas as a player, every training session is evaluated and judged. As a manager there isn’t really a way of understanding how you’re performing every single day.