United Women ready for Manchester derby
Manchester United Women are raring to go for this weekend's WSL opener against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium.
After a record-breaking promotion campaign last term, which was recently showcased in MUTV's History Makers documentary, Casey Stoney's Reds are back and eager to make a name for themselves in the top tier of women's football.
And what a way to start! Our opponents this weekend finished runners-up in the Women's Super League last term and, of course, there is the extra spice of it being a Manchester derby. This will be the first-ever competitive meeting between the two sides.
"It’s fantastic," Casey said ahead of the enticing encounter. "It’s a great occasion. It means I haven’t had to sell pre-season, all the players want to be involved, they want to play. Unfortunately, I can only pick 11 and that’s going to be a difficult decision. We’re ready to go, we’re ready to get out there.
"What a game: for this club, for women’s football and for the players to experience. They deserve this moment."
Rewind to this time last year, and it was a whirlwind of a summer for Casey and her coaching staff, who had to assemble a squad within a matter of weeks of the club being founded - a mission they accomplished with flying colours.
Fast forward to today, and the Reds have once again recruited astutely during the summer. Into the fold have come England internationals in Abbie McManus and Mary Earps, a World Cup semi-finalist in Jackie Groenen and players with an abundance of WSL experience in Hayley Ladd and Jane Ross.
The boss feels this year has brought about new challenges, especially with United making the jump from the Championship to the top table of women's football.
"I think last year was complete stress because I was having to recruit 21 players in a space of four weeks as well as get my staff in place," said Stoney.
"Now I feel I can just concentrate on the grass and developing players, making sure everyone knows their roles and responsibilities, and making sure we’ve got the staff structure around them to support them. It’s obviously a different pressure for me now going into the top league."
LAYING DOWN A MARKER
New United Women skipper Katie Zelem has provided an insight into the atmosphere within the squad going into the new season. Zelem, who won United Women's first-ever Player of the Year award last year, has succeeded Alex Greenwood as captain, following the Liverpudlian's departure for Lyon.
Our new captain spoke of the buoyant atmosphere in and around the group ahead of Saturday's game.
"It's great to get back," Katie said. "It was a nice summer and we all really enjoyed our break, but you could see we had fitness testing and everyone was smiling from ear to ear. You’ve never known anything like it, but we’ve really gelled. Some of the internationals have been away, and they’ve been here and there, but we’ve signed new players and they’ve really fitted into the team well.
"The vibe is really positive. We’re really looking forward to the first game and, when everyone comes back in on Thursday, it’ll allow us to regroup as a full squad and really carry our momentum into the City game."
In last season's cup competitions, the Reds proved our worth against some of the best teams in the country, with victories in the Continental Tyres Cup against Everton and West Ham, before a narrow semi-final exit to league champions Arsenal.
And, in the FA Cup, United beat Brighton & Hove Albion, another top-flight outfit, to reach the last eight of the competition.
These experiences, Zelem believes, along with the new acquisitions over the summer, will help United settle into life in the WSL once the campaign kicks off.
"We really held our own last year. Most teams we went up against, we were successful. There’s no doubt that we’ve improved our squad, we’ve signed some really top-class players, so if we could be successful last year against them, there’s no reason we can’t hold our own this year."