Opinion: United's Lionesses continue to inspire a generation

Monday 21 August 2023 11:08

Growing up with a younger sister who was - and still is - obsessed with football gives you a different perspective on the once male-dominated sport.

Young fans can look up to the likes of Manchester United Women trio Mary Earps, Ella Toone and Katie Zelem and be inspired to follow in their footsteps.

On Sunday, the Lionesses may have narrowly missed out on World Cup glory but in reaching the showcase fixture against Spain in Sydney, they had created history once more.

Never before had the England women's team stepped out at the World Cup final but, just one year on from lifting the European Championships for the very first time, they did just that.

Of course, the raw emotions of the 1-0 defeat in Stadium Australia will hurt, but the growth of the women's game is showing no signs of slowing down.

Rewind back to 2007. My sister was six and playing for a junior team - a boys' football team.

There was not a pathway available for girls to play football at grassroots level with other girls. The choice was simple: play with the lads or don't play at all.

The likes of United's Toone, Earps and Zelem will have experienced similar routes into football.

Zelem has spoken in the past about the negative comments parents would make when she would play against their sons on a Saturday morning, and how those comments would dissuade girls who loved football from playing the game.

Those times have changed, thankfully, and a huge catalyst in that is the emergence and success of our Lionesses.

Following the Euros success last year, when Earps was England's goalkeeper and Toone scored the first goal in the final as the Lionesses beat Germany 2-1 at a packed-out Wembley, records have continued to be broken.

In December 2022, when United defeated Aston Villa 5-0 at Old Trafford, an incredible 30,196 supporters were in the stands - a home record crowd for our women's team.

We also established the highest attendance for our games at Leigh Sports Village when 7,854 watched the Manchester derby, as well as playing in the FA Cup final in front of 77,390 fans.

In 2023/24, we are looking to beat that Old Trafford record in November, when our home Manchester derby in the WSL will be staged.

"If you can see it, you can be it."

That was the message from United's Maria Thorisdottir and Jess Clinton to girls in our Regional Talent Centre last week.

It's no coincidence that since the spotlight on women's football has been greater, it has grown substantially.

There is still work to be done, though.

No matter what position they play in, young aspiring footballers should have the chance to wear a replica shirt of their favourite female player.

My sister, aged six, didn't have that chance. Of course, there were professional women's footballers then, but their success was not given the spotlight it deserved.

This resulted in very few visible idols for young girls - but that is no longer the case.

United fans have opportunities to watch our women's team in person, whether that's at Leigh, Old Trafford or on the road, as well as on their TV screens in the Women's Super League and FA Cup. The impact of this on the next generation of players cannot be overstated.

Earps, Toone and Zelem will no doubt have inspired thousands by getting to the World Cup final but don't underestimate the impact our other representatives at the tournament - Canadian duo Adriana Leon and Jayde Riviere plus Norway's Vilde Boe Risa - have had on the global stage this summer too.

The leaps that have been made in the women's game in recent times are remarkable, and every year new records are eclipsed.

The formula for sustaining this development isn't rocket science. Continue to shine a light on women's football, and it will continue to grow.

The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.