Casey Stoney.

Casey Stoney's United story

Thursday 13 May 2021 13:23

Casey Stoney took charge a few months after the news every fan of women’s football had been waiting for was confirmed in March 2018, when it was announced that Manchester United would be launching its own team for the following season.

An application was made for the Reds to join WSL 2, later rebranded as the FA Women’s Championship, the second level of the English system, after four other sides were relegated from the division for either failing to obtain or giving up their Tier 2 licence.

As one of the sides who were welcomed into the league, it was time to get to work – starting with a boss to lead us forward, and what an appointment it proved to be…

See how the Reds celebrated the Women's Championship title with a 7-0 win over Crystal Palace.

2018/19: Strong start

“My ultimate aim is to grow this team so that every little girl growing up dreams of playing for Manchester United.” Those were Casey's words in June 2018, when she was hired as the first-ever head coach of our women’s team. It came with a huge challenge but was one she embraced with relish and embraced from the very outset.

The former England international was starting from scratch, building a new team with a 21-player squad after little over a month in charge. Fellow Lionesses Alex Greenwood and Siobhan Chamberlain brought invaluable experience to a young group, with the former appointed as the Reds’ first captain.

“It’s so professional and everything’s done properly,” noted defender Amy Turner. “I can’t wait to see where this club goes. I’m really excited to get started now.”

That buzz continued to build through to the landmark occasion of United’s opening game, fittingly away to Liverpool in the Continental League Cup. And what a way to start – with just six minutes remaining, Lizzie Arnot’s goal ensured it would be a day never to be forgotten, as the top-flight Merseyside opponents were vanquished.

More momentous days followed, as a crowd of 4,835 turned out for the side’s first game at their new home, Leigh Sports Village – still a club record at the venue as of the end of the 2020/21 campaign. After two cup fixtures, it was time to kick-off in the league.

United entered the FA Women’s Championship with one aim: immediate promotion to the Women’s Super League. The determination was obvious from day one, with a sensational 12-0 win away to Aston Villa first up, including five goals for Jess Sigsworth. Stoney’s team were absolutely flying from there, winning eight and drawing one of the first nine games, with 42 goals scored and just one conceded.

There were some notable displays in the cups, too, with WSL sides Everton and West Ham beaten in the Continental League Cup before a narrow semi-final defeat against established powerhouse Arsenal, as well as a run to the FA Cup quarter-finals that included victory at top-flight Brighton.

On 17 April 2019, Villa were once again on the end of a large scoreline, but this time with added significance. A 5-0 triumph ensured the target of promotion was achieved with three games to spare, with the Reds clinching the title in style in the very next outing, a 7-0 success against Crystal Palace. The season concluded with an incredible 55 points from an available 60.

2019/20: Top-flight arrival

A new season, at a new level, meant reinforcements were required, and the calibre of players joining was testament to the rapid progress made by United. Jackie Groenen arrived fresh from appearing in the World Cup final for the Netherlands, along with England internationals Abbie McManus and Mary Earps. The departure of Greenwood meant the captaincy was passed to Katie Zelem, a childhood Red who had previously been part of our centre of excellence until 2013.

It couldn’t have been a much tougher start to WSL life, with a then-record league crowd of 31,213 in attendance at the Etihad Stadium for a narrow 1-0 defeat in the first-ever women’s Manchester derby. That was followed by another 1-0 loss, with only a last-minute effort denying us an admirable point against reigning champions Arsenal. Two commendable displays, but these needed to start turning into wins.

And they soon arrived. Just like the previous year, it was Liverpool who were on the end of our first triumph of the season, as Lauren James took the honour of netting our first Super League goal before Zelem sealed a 2-0 win with a late penalty. It was the start of five consecutive victories – and clean sheets – across all competitions, including a measure of revenge against Manchester City as we claimed our first derby win in the Continental Cup.

It was in that competition where we racked up double figures for the second time in our brief history: Ella Toone was the star of the show, bagging four times in an 11-1 demolition of Leicester City. The attacking talent in the squad was plain for all to see, more so when we beat Brighton 4-0 for what was then our biggest WSL win.

From there on, results were more mixed as United adapted to the higher level of opposition. There was a second consecutive Continental Cup semi-final, with Stoney’s side edged out once again by one of the traditional ‘big three’ – this time Chelsea – as well as league wins against Tottenham and Everton at the start of 2020.

Unfortunately, the campaign was, like so many others across the globe, cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the game away to the Toffees in late February proving to be our final outing. Final positions were eventually calculated on a points-per-game basis, with the Reds taking fourth place behind the established giants of Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal – a superb first effort which left plenty to build on.
Watch the first-ever WSL win - achieved against Liverpool.
2020/21: Progress continues

The new campaign brought with it arguably the club’s highest-profile additions to date, as two-time World Cup winners and Olympic gold medallists Tobin Heath and Christen Press of the USA made the move to Manchester. Both would have a big influence on the pitch as well as off it, with plenty of eyes on two new star names.

United were getting stronger and stronger, and that was reflected on the pitch: Stoney oversaw eight wins in the first 10 games, with only Chelsea and Manchester City able to manage draws, as the Reds topped the WSL table at Christmas, just two-and-a-half years after being formed – an incredible rise was gathering momentum.

That run included a first win over one of the ‘big three’ when Toone struck to beat the Gunners, while Heath inspired a thrilling comeback from 2-0 down to salvage a 2-2 draw in the derby. The players were showing new resolve and it was paying off, big time. There was recognition off the pitch, too, as Stoney, Heath and Leah Galton received our first WSL Manager and Player of the Month awards.

A spate of injuries to key members of the squad resulted in some tough results during the second half of the season but the Reds continued to battle hard for a top-three place and Champions League qualification, including in a 2-0 win over West Ham as the team played at Old Trafford for the very first time.

Ultimately, United would so narrowly miss out on European football, finishing one point behind Arsenal in fourth place. A disappointing end to what had been such a promising term, but the rapid development remained obvious: this was a club on the up, and few would bet against that continuing in the coming years.

“I’ll be looking back on this season thinking, ‘What if?’” said Stoney after the league’s conclusion. “Had our circumstances been slightly different, could we have qualified for the Champions League? But we’ve progressed massively, and that’s credit to the players and staff.”
History is made with a first outing at Old Trafford, against West Ham.

Much credit for the undoubted "massive progress" must go to Casey, and her professionalism, endeavour and expertise in leading the team. In terms of individual recognition, she won the final two WSL Manager of the Month awards of 2020, to go with the three previous monthly LMA awards in November 2018, February 2019 and April 2019.

Hence, there was understandable disappointment when it was announced she is stepping down from the role following the final game of the season.

"Casey has been a driving force behind the success of our Women’s team since she joined the club in 2018," said executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward. "She has been an inspiration to her players and staff, to everyone at the club, and to the fans. Everyone at Manchester United thanks her for her unstinting hard work and dedication and pays tribute to her achievements. She will always be part of the Manchester United family."