What can Manchester United women expect in the WSL?
Background image: Anthony Parkes / CC BY-SA 2.0
Fourteen years ago, Manchester United as a corporation decided that women’s football was not profitable. They disbanded the team to avoid taking a loss. Over time, attitudes as well as trends, change. Now, women's football is a potential growth industry and United are back in the game.
Do the Glazers have a conscience or just an understanding that even if the bottom line isn't in the black, participating in women's football generates a wealth of goodwill? Neither would surprise. For better or worse, the corporation now operates a team for the ladies.
When United renewed its registration, the FA Women’s Super League board allotted the team a spot in the second division. It wasn't where they wanted to be so the board invested in players and a coach that belonged in the top flight. Eighteen victories in 20 matches delivered the Women’s Championship title and the trophy that fans expect from any side wearing the trident-bearing devil over their heart.
This is the star baker turning up to work at Gregg’s factory. Manchester United, backed by the entire business built on the men’s success in the 1990s, subsequent global marketing strategies, crushed the opposition at will. Such occasions took place against Millwall, London Bees as well as Crystal Palace.
The latter in fact has been smeared due to their poor finance surrounding the ladies side. Their own players had to subside operation costs. This is typical from the semi/non-professional game. Like Rangers in the Scottish lower leagues or Juventus in Serie B, the Red Devils served their penance but it was the competition who felt the pain. Comfortably won games with scorelines like 7-0, 8-0 and 9-0 weren't uncommon.
The club used its glamour to attract top-flight quality players, with the promise that they’d be making history as the re-born Manchester United women’s team. They wouldn’t be second-division players for more than a year.
Is it a hard sell? Cynics may yes. Forming a new team with the expectation that the sum of its parts will be as good as expected is understandable. But to a player, it’s hard to refuse. A chance to make some records. No matter you're a professional in a partially semi-pro league; you’re playing for the most recognised club in the world. It’s a no-brainer.
When you think about it, the men's side have been trying the same formula since Sir Alex Ferguson retired albeit against much stiffer opposition and with much less success. Regardless, the fabled transition attracted Siobhan Chamberlain, Martha Harris, Alex Greenwood and Amy Turner, who all moved from Liverpool to play for this new Manchester United side.
Top players from last year
You don’t need too much time on the women's website to recognise Jessica Sigsworth scored 17 goals across 19 games last year. The Doncaster-born forward replicated her prior year. She won the second division title and the golden boot as she did when accruing an identical goal haul in the prior campaign with Doncaster Rovers Belles. At 24, she’ll be given a deserved taste of top-flight football.
Katie Zelem also racked up the goals with 10. Regarded as risk-taker on and off the pitch, she traded a secure career with title-winning Juventus for the unknown in Manchester.
Mollie Green, Ella Toone and Lauren James all reached double figures as well. Now the question is how many if any can cope with the steep increase in quality in the Super League?
Jackie Groenen became the club’s first non-British player upon signing from Frankfurt. The Dutch midfielder already has experience in England. She played for Chelsea four years ago.
Lotta Okvist, a 22-year-old fullback who played for relegated Hammarby IF last year doubles the foreign ranks. The young Swede trained at the very top level with Orlando Pride in 2018 although she never made a competitive appearance for the club.
Abbie McManus spent an accumulative 12 years at Manchester City but called time on the Sky Blue side to play for the club she cheered as a child. Jane Ross did the same via West Ham. United now employs a fair few players who formerly turned out for their blue neighbours, reversing the diaspora that resulted from their dissolution over a decade ago.
It’s a testament to the club that they could develop a star that six-time Champions League winners Lyon would want. Alex Greenwood consistently kept the United backline straight from her left-back position. The French club only imports the best players. For Greenwood, it's an amazing accolade to play there but Manchester United lose a key player.
Other departures include Charlotte Devlin who did play a decent part in the club’s fortune last year yet decided to play for Charlton. Lucy Roberts and Ebony Salmon both found new clubs after limited appearances.
Casey Stoney can do no wrong in the Manchester United dugout. A journeywoman in her own right, having played for Arsenal, Charlton, Chelsea and Liverpool her storied career deserved to be extended via management. Nine years after her player-manager role at Chelsea, she’s overseen 29 games in Manchester and won 24. The test is to continue that success against the big girls.
The football gods have no mercy. United will be properly graded from the start in the top division. First up, the first-ever women’s Manchester derby. With so many players making the transition from City to United, the fascination levels are through the roof.
After which, the assessment continues with a shot at the reigning champions, Arsenal, at home. Taking on second and first from last year respectively allows for everyone to see whether Manchester United’s women team can cut it in the top flight. The women have shown they’re another class to the championship. Can they prove they belong here, however?