In March 2018, eagerly awaited plans to form Manchester United Women were announced – and just six months on, they are taking the Championship by storm. But is it really the right league for the high-flying Red Devils?
After submitting an application to the FA, Manchester United Women FC was officially founded in May 2018, to take part in the 18/19 Championship season.
Casey Stoney, former England captain, was tasked with the job of bringing 21 strangers together in order to create a formidable legacy with former Bristol City Women boss Willie Kirk by her side.
Much to the surprise of some, Stoney opted for a wealth of youth when recruiting players ahead of the inaugural season, instilling her trust in young talent to carry the weight of responsibility that comes with playing for a club of United’s stature. While the squad included two senior England internationals, Alex Greenwood and Siobhan Chamberlain, the average age of the built-from-scratch squad is just 21 – the youngest of who was poached from Arsenal at just 16-years-old.
The new team also meant returns for youth academy graduates Emily Ramsey, Fran Bentley, Naomi Hartley, Millie Turner, Ella Toone, Kirsty Hanson and Serie A Champion Katie Zelem.
With all eyes on Stoney and her team, there was perhaps no bigger occasion for them to introduce themselves than a cup-tie against Women’s Super League giants and arch rivals, Liverpool. United sealed the win in a tense smash-and-grab victory. The excitement was halted briefly after a cup defeat to WSL side Reading meant United had one win in two going into the start of their Championship season.
Six games into the league and United remain unbeaten, drawing only once to Durham. Across these games, they have scored a staggering 27 goals, conceding just the one in a 4-1 victory against top-of-the-league Tottenham Hotspur. The first and biggest of those wins came in the first game of the season – an away game against Aston Villa in which they scored 12 goals.
Is this the league for them?
It was the victory at Villa which threw into questioning whether or not United really belonged in this league, with some concerned at the damage they could do across the Championship.
Unlike the Women’s Super League, which became the first full-time professional women’s league in the UK this year, the Championship is a part-time, semi-professional league with some players needing second jobs in order to be financially stable.
Herein lies the problem: Manchester United is a full-time professional squad. While the young players continue on with their education, these players get the financial backing of United to focus solely on the football with the ‘best training facilities, best coaching, best staff’ according to club captain Alex Greenwood.
It also meant they were in a position to bring in the best possible talent – while budgeted by the club itself, there were no major financial restrictions which meant they could do certain things other clubs couldn’t, like bringing in big name England internationals.
But can we really blame the club itself? The FA did not provide any limitations for United, but rather allowed them free reign to build their squad – who wouldn’t take full advantage of doing that?
Stoney defends United being in Championship
With criticism galore, Casey Stoney backed the decision to place United in the Championship after their win against Spurs last weekend.
In an interview with The Guardian, Stoney said with just three weeks to build a team and put staff in place, they weren’t sure who they were going to be able to recruit – so being in the Championship felt the more sensible option.
Given that United have an average age of just 21, it’s hard not to agree with the thought process behind putting them in the Championship. The majority of the players recruited were second-tier players and need that time to develop and mature before throwing them into the big leagues. It also gives the team a chance to gel and compete at the highest level, which they showed glimpses of against Liverpool.
Footballing ability aside, you can’t ignore the attraction the club brings to the sport. Their first home game generated a record attendance of 4,835 spectators – with home games averaging between 2,000-3,000 every game – the highest across both leagues.
With women’s football on the up, United’s presence adds a massive plus to the reach of the game which can only be a positive – no matter what league they’re in.
One thing is for sure, whether it’s the women’s or men’s teams, the fact remains for United: Hated, adored, never ignored.