How Manchester United's women's team went from disbandment to the brink of FA Cup glory
On Sunday, Manchester United's women's team will grace the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium for the first time. The men's team has had the privilege to do so on countless occasions, tasting some of its sweetest successes and most devastating defeats on the prestigious pitch. But this weekend it will finally be the chance for their female counterparts to experience one of the biggest moments in English football: an FA Cup final.
It's long overdue for a club of its size. After 13 years without one, United only re-established a women's team back in 2018. Since then, steps have steadily been taken to reach this point, via promotion from the second-tier and the consistent chipping away at the big three: Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City.
The former will be United's opponents on Sunday, the Blues pursuing a third successive FA Cup triumph. Emma Hayes' side will be the favourites - after all, they've seen and done it all before. But it is the Red Devils who sit top of the Women's Super League at this moment, a sign of the huge progress made after three fourth-placed finishes in a row.
That will almost certainly not be repeated this season. Marc Skinner's side are on the brink of securing Women's Champions League football for the first time, which would represent the achievement of their season's goal. But Sunday is a huge opportunity to go beyond what many expected they could do this campaign.
It would represent a first major trophy for Manchester United Women, and the biggest milestone yet in what has been a rollercoaster journey for one of the world's biggest clubs.
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History that shouldn't be forgotten
This journey did not start in 2018, though. Following the Football Association's decision to lift the 50-year ban on women's football in 1971, a Manchester United ladies' team was established through the United Supporters' Club, playing its first game in October 1977.
The team would go on to join the Three Counties League and the Women’s Football Association, with it receiving coverage in the men's team's programmes. In the early 1980s, manager Anne Smith and the United committee would also work with others to create a local league to reduce the burden of travel, winning the competition's trophy in each of the first three years.
The women's team developed over the decades, played at Old Trafford ahead of a men's testimonial game and trained at legendary training ground The Cliff before officially becoming part of Manchester United in 2001.
However, that association would be short-lived. Four years later, shortly after Malcolm Glazer's takeover and only three months before the 2005 Women’s Euros were played in the north-west of England, the club deemed the women's team not part of its "core business".
It was disbanded and would not be reformed for another 13 years.
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Upon the announcement that United's women's team would cease to exit, the club said: "Our aims in the women's game are best served by concentrating on youngsters. We want to be community-based and our resources are better deployed at the level of school-age children rather than adults."
These youngsters would be trained up through the remaining academy until the age of 16, by which time they would have to look elsewhere to continue their football.
Plenty have come through the pathway and carved out strong careers elsewhere, such as the Everton duo of Izzy Christiansen and Gabby George. Both have been capped by England, with Christiansen also counting a Champions League title among her nine major honours.
Many, too, have now returned to the red side of Manchester. Katie Zelem left in 2013 to join Liverpool, where she'd win back-to-back WSL titles. From there, she flew to Italy and won the league with Juventus, an adventure she cut short to return to United for their inaugural season in the Women's Championship. On Sunday, Zelem will captain the club at Wembley.
Ella Toone left at the same time to forge her own path. She spent several seasons with Blackburn Rovers, had a couple of years with Manchester City and then became part of United's reformed team in 2018. Today, she's one of English football's brightest talents, a Euro 2022 winner who scored at Wembley last summer in the final of that competition.
Centre-back Millie Turner is another to come through the system who will represent this club on Sunday. Born in Wilmslow, a 25 minute drive from Old Trafford, Turner returned to the Red Devils via spells with Everton and Bristol City. She's been an integral member of this team since it re-entered the senior women's game.
March 22, 2018: Manchester United announced its intentions to reintroduce a senior women's team. That summer, former England international Casey Stoney was appointed as the manager, and she and her staff would assemble a team to compete in, and conquer, the Championship. It would include Zelem, Toone, Turner and also other former academy players such as winger Kirsty Hanson and goalkeeper Emily Ramsey. That youth set-up was integral then and remains so today. Since reforming in 2018, United have never played a match that did not feature an academy graduate.
Also among Stoney's recruits were the likes of Siobhan Chamberlain, 50 times an England international; Lauren James, a highly-rated teenager from Arsenal's youth system; and Alex Greenwood, part of the England team that finished third at the 2015 Women's World Cup.
“When I first signed five years ago, everyone came from different backgrounds, different experiences," Zelem said this week, reflecting on her return to the club. "For me, it was my childhood club, but I’d just won the league and got into the Champions League at Juventus so it was a huge gamble for me to come back and play in the Championship.
"If you look back to where we were then to where we are now, it’s a crazy journey. I think it’s been a real rollercoaster with ups and downs. We’ve certainly come on leaps and bounds.
"From being at Leigh with some girls that have never played full-time or never had professional contracts to now being at this stage of the season competing for the double, I think it’s almost immeasurable. If in another five years we’re that far advanced then Manchester United will certainly be one of the biggest teams in Europe."
Stoney's United side took the Championship by storm, winning 18 of their 20 league games to claim the title by a nine-point margin. Upon promotion, the club would immediately be wrestling with the top teams in the WSL. Having assembled a squad with an eye on how it could perform in the top tier, United shot up the standings and finished fourth in their first campaign, only behind Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. They also reached the Continental Cup semi-finals for the second successive season.
But there was a gap to be bridged. This team was never going to come in and compete for trophies straight away. They were up against clubs that had been progressing for years and years. That quality showed in their meetings, with four of United's five league defeats that season coming at the hands of the 'big three'.
A similar pattern unfolded the following season, too, though a 1-0 win at home to Arsenal showed signs of progress. This was something that was going to take time.
It wasn't just about matters on the pitch, either. While the signings of U.S. women's national team duo Tobin Heath and Christen Press showcased the pull that United could have with its brand, a report by The Athletic highlighted how the club was possibly looking to run before it could walk. It detailed the players' frustrations with facilities and their 'fight' for 'acceptable accommodation', while reporting that Stoney had taken her concerns surrounding the management of the women's team to the top.
Stoney would resign before the end of the season and a new manager, Skinner, was only installed days before the team's first pre-season friendly. This series of events highlighted the work that needed to be done for United to really become one of the elite in the English women's game.
But Stoney did leave a strong foundation on which they could build. United’s progress, which saw them finish just one point off the top three in that 2020-21 season, had changed conversations around the top of WSL. Suddenly, there was talk of a ‘big four’.
A tough ask
Given the circumstances that the previous season ended with, Skinner's first campaign was always going to be tough. The club did all of its summer business before he was appointed, and the former Orlando Pride coach then had a quick turnaround to implement his ideas.
"We didn’t have a pre-season with him at all," Zelem reflected. "It was obviously a slow process in him coming in and everything being sorted. The first few months, you could see that we needed a bit of time and we were still working on his philosophy."
That Skinner's third competitive fixture in charge of the club brought with it a 6-1 defeat to Chelsea said a lot, though things would steadily improve. The following month, United battled to a 2-2 draw with rivals Man City, they picked up a point away to Arsenal in the New Year and actually led at half-time on the final day at Chelsea.
But, as well as more positive results and performances in those big games, United needed more consistency. One thing that City, Arsenal and Chelsea have in common is that they very rarely slip up against teams other than each other. United, meanwhile, won just 12 of their 22 league games, with Aston Villa, West Ham, Everton and Tottenham among those to get something against the Red Devils. Skinner's team finished five points off the European spots.
The mentality shift
That's all changed this season. Going into Sunday's final, United are top of the WSL. They've won 16 of their 20 league outings, with Everton the only team outside of the 'big four' to have got anything from them - that a goalless draw in February.
Both Chelsea and Man City have worse records against the rest of the league. The Blues lost to Liverpool on the opening weekend while the Citizens have dropped four points against Aston Villa and were defeated by Liverpool earlier this month, a result that has left their ambitions of European football hanging by a thread.
They've improved in the big games, too. United have done the double over Arsenal and earned a point at the Etihad in December's Manchester derby. The reverse of that fixture will come next weekend.
"In previous seasons, we’ve gone into those sorts of games as the underdogs and now we don’t feel like that’s the case at all," Zelem explained. "Everyone knows in this league, if you drop any points then it’s really tough to keep up. Not only beating the teams below you but taking points off the teams around you is so important.
"We genuinely go into those games knowing our game plan, knowing what we want to do. We don’t change now for the other teams whereas, maybe in the first few seasons, it was more about staying in the game, maybe take a point or maybe nick a win.
"Now, you see in a lot of the games we dominate the ball. There’s been games like the first half against Manchester City where we totally dominated. We were gutted to come away with a draw. That shows the mentality shift that we want to win, we genuinely believe we can win and that’s what we accept now."
History made - and promise for the future
That mentality comes with the huge belief this United team has adopted this season, one that they will win, even in the later stages of games when it doesn't look like it's going to happen for them. Indeed, in the semi-finals against Brighton, it was a Rachel Williams goal in the 89th minute that sealed their place at Wembley.
Throw that into the cauldron with a fantastic squad of players - one which Skinner has been able to make a mark on this season with his own signings - and you've got yourself a United team that has made history. To be at Wembley shows the progress made over the last five years, even if it has not always been smooth sailing, and the good work that was done even before 2018.
With an incredible academy still sat underneath this well-performing first team, there plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future of this team, too, regardless of the result on Sunday. But while losing would not necessarily represent a failure of a season for United, winning would be a huge step for this club. It would be a sign that they are ready to compete with the best in this country - and, in time, beyond.
“To be honest, I think this is just a baseline of where we want to be," Zelem said. "We’ve always said we want to be in the Champions League and have always been close but not close enough. I think this is the turning season that everyone will look back [at].
“It used to be the top three - and Manchester United. Now, it’s solidly a top four. We know we can compete and win things. This is a baseline and we only want to improve from here.”