Manchester United Women: the biggest club in the world can make up for lost time

By Kathryn Batte 

Fourteen years ago Manchester United abandoned women’s football.

It’s the 21st February 2005. In three months’ time the Women’s Euros will be held in the north-west of England. The hosts will play their first group game against Finland at the City of Manchester Stadium. This is the biggest moment in the modern era for women’s football in England. So why did Manchester United, the biggest and wealthiest (at that time) club in the world, decide this was the right time to pull the plug on their women’s team?

The official reason given by director of communications Philip Townsend was that the club’s aim was to concentrate on younger players. A Manchester United centre of excellence for girls up to the age of 16 remained, but the players had no first team to progress to.

When Chelsea and Arsenal were both committing to significant funding for their women’s teams, United were giving up on a generation of players who longed to wear the famous red shirts.

The club’s justification that youth football was their priority could have been put more simply as the women’s game didn’t make them enough money. They had a point.

Despite the success and record crowds at the Women’s Euros in 2005, it took the FA six years to create a Women’s Super League and a further seven for all of its top-flight clubs to have full-time professional status. The small crowds at league games and lack of TV revenue made supporting a women’s team far from glamorous. Those types of attitudes are what held women’s football back for so long. The thoughts of ‘why bother?’, ‘what do we gain from this?’ and ‘no one is really interested’ are difficult to shake off even now.

In 2005 United had a choice, they either followed their counterparts by backing their women’s team and trying to build some momentum ahead of the Euros, or they accepted that the women’s game would never generate enough interest to make funding a team worthwhile. Unfortunately, they chose the latter. It’s my firm belief that the women’s game could have moved on so much quicker in this country had United been competing at the highest level. If Yeovil, a town with a population of 45,000, could financially back a top-flight women’s football, what was United’s excuse?

One of the biggest similarities between the men’s and women’s games is that money talks. The most successful teams in the WSL are those with the biggest budget. Before the creation of the Super League, Arsenal won the Women’s Premier League nine years in a row. They also topped the WSL table for the first two seasons. However, when Liverpool decided to invest a significant amount of money in their women’s team, making all players full-time, the club suddenly went from relegation candidates to title winners in the space of a year. A successive season as champions proved the importance of investment. The following season saw Chelsea come out on top, then Manchester City, then Chelsea again. Arsenal’s dominance was no more. It’s important to note that this was not a case of the Gunners falling behind, other teams simply caught up.

Suddenly other English teams were able to attract players from abroad. Liverpool’s high-profile signing of American international Whitney Engen made a statement in 2012 and similarly, Chelsea’s signing of South Korean international Ji So-yun signalled that times were changing. As a result, it’s taken Arsenal until this season to really make a title challenge since the increased investment shown by other clubs.

This time last year, the FA announced their plans to restructure the women’s football pyramid. The top tier would retain the title ‘FA Women’s Super League’, dropping the ‘1’ with the second tier, previously known as ‘FA Women’s Super League 2’ would become the ‘FA Women’s Championship’. Licences to participate in the leagues had already been granted to the clubs currently playing in the divisions (who applied) before applications opened for teams outside the top two leagues.

Manchester United’s momentous decision to launch a full-time professional women’s team with WSL status came a month later. What had changed since 2005? The quality of the women’s game had increased massively, as had interest and media coverage. Furthermore, the success of the English national team in 2015 and 2017, despite not winning any silverware, had raked in record television viewing figures.

When former United defender Phil Neville became the Lionesses’ manager in January 2018, he promised to talk to the board about the creation of a women’s team. However, I find it hard to believe Ed Woodward made the decision based on a few quiet words from Phil.

Once the FA approved United’s application, the search for a manager, and more importantly a team, began. It was decided, controversially, that the club would go into the Championship division rather than the Super League. This meant United would be the only full-time team in the second tier of the women’s game, which many believed would give them an unfair advantage over their opponents.

It was perhaps a fair claim as the club immediately attracted players from the division above to their ranks. The most high-profile signing was England international Alex Greenwood, who was given the captain’s armband, but the acquisition of Martha Harris and Siobhan Chamberlain from Liverpool were also notable. Additionally, Jess Sigsworth, top scorer in the league the previous season, Scottish international Lizzie Arnot and Katie Zelem, who signed from Juventus having previously been at the Manchester academy, made very clear the club’s intention to secure promotion at the first attempt.

The club’s appointment of former England captain Casey Stoney as manager was a welcome surprise to many in the game. This would be Stoney’s first managerial role after spending just a few months as Neville’s assistant for the Lionesses. While she had the resources to give her every chance of success, it was not a given that this completely new team would walk the league. Established clubs like Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa and Durham would be no-pushovers and similar to the men’s game, everyone would want to beat United.

I went to watch Casey Stoney’s side for the first time this season when they took on Sheffield United last Wednesday. Without wanting to disrespect the Blades, it was very clear which team was full-time. The reds were hugely impressive, displaying a fluid and fast-paced passing game. The hosts struggled to deal with the threat of Greenwood and Zelem on the left but youngsters Ella Toone and Mollie Green were also a handful, both getting on the scoresheet.

While United looked far superior on the night, they haven’t strolled through this season unchallenged. They currently sit second in the division, five points behind Tottenham but with two games in hand. Stoney’s side have lost just once in the league, a surprising 3-1 defeat to Durham in December, but will be one point clear at the top of the table if they win their games in hand. Assuming this happens, United then face Spurs in what could be a winner-takes-all clash at the end of March.

In addition to the league, United have also excelled in the cup competitions. A narrow 2-1 defeat to Arsenal in the semi-final ended an impressive Continental Cup run which saw them beat Super League opposition in Liverpool, West Ham and Everton. They remain in the FA Cup and face a quarter-final tie with another Super League team in Reading.

If United are promoted this season, a lot of credit has to go to their manager. While she may have the only full-time team in the league, Stoney’s side is still very young and the expectation of success and pressure of wearing the United shirt should not be overlooked.

I think United will win the league and I also think they’ll beat Reading in the FA Cup next month. How far they progress in that competition will depend on their draw as they’re not yet at the level of Manchester City, Chelsea or Arsenal. However, they are likely to be competing against those teams next season and Stoney will presumably be given more resources to make a title challenge.

Manchester United’s absence from women’s football, in my view, held the game back for years. There was a crowd of over 1,000 at Sheffield last Wednesday and many of them had made the trip from Manchester with banners and loud singing voices to cheer their team on.

Whether we see a proper Manchester derby in women’s football this season or next, it’s been far too long in the making. Let’s hope it’s been worth the wait.

By Kathryn Batte 

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