Bancroft: This club knows how to do football
Polly Bancroft is keen to ensure Manchester United play a leading role in developing the women's game.
Bancroft, who joined the club as head of women's football last month, has been speaking to club media's Steve Bennett in her first interview since starting the role.
Polly, who formerly worked for the FA, UEFA and Brighton & Hove Albion, outlined how she will fit into the existing structure at United and how she hopes to grow the team in the years to come.
She was also asked about manager Marc Skinner and the promising start we've made to the 2022/23 Women's Super League (WSL) season, plus the progress of several Reds such as Ella Toone, Katie Zelem and Maya Le Tissier. You can both read and watch the full interview with Polly below...
So Polly, welcome to Manchester United. Tell us how your first few weeks have been at the football club?
“Thanks Steve. I’ve had a very warm welcome, a northern warm welcome. It’s been really good, everyone’s been really supportive, really helpful. It’s great to be here.”
Tell us what your role will entail: daily, what are you doing? And long and short term, what are your goals?
“So the role hybrids football and the business side as well, so it’s quite a broad remit. Clearly the priorities are to support Marc [Skinner] and the players and that we do as well as we can in the Women’s Super League. Outside of the first team, it’s to support the other seven women’s teams within the club. That I suppose is the first layer. The second layer is then to continue the integration of women’s football in the broader club, so it’s working with the legal team, the commercial team, the marketing team to make sure that the women’s and girls’ teams are front and centre of their plans. Then I suppose the final layer is working with the stakeholders, so the FA, broadcasters, the supporters’ club, to be a leader in women’s football and to make sure that the opinions and the position of this club is at the forefront of the professionalisation of the women’s game.”
Polly Bancroft's first United interview
Polly Bancroft talks about working with Marc Skinner, Champions League hopes, our upcoming Old Trafford outing and more…
You’ve got an impressive CV: the FA, UEFA and most recently Brighton & Hove Albion. What was it about this role, at Manchester United, that brought you here?
“I think the power of the brand and the opportunity to do good with the power of that brand, regionally, nationally and internationally as well. So I think taking that opportunity to do good. I think using the voice of Manchester United and putting that at the forefront of the table of the conversations around the direction of the women’s game was a great opportunity as well. Just [using] the brand and making sure we are really working to the maximum potential. This club knows how to do football, so it’s making sure that we use all of the resource that it’s got to make sure that we’re performing in every competition that we’re in.”
You touched on it earlier but, in particular, how excited are you to work with Andy [O’Boyle], John [Murtough], Marc [Skinner] moving forward?
“I think between the four of us there’s a fantastic blend of experience both within the women’s game and the men’s game. So it’s about utilising all of that knowledge and experience and applying it to the women and girls’ programme. Clearly I’m excited to work with them. They’re very passionate and committed and great supporters of Marc and I and the women’s programme so good times should be ahead.”
Talking about Marc specifically, what have you made of the fantastic start to this campaign?
“Marc’s just won Manager of the Month, so I’m really pleased that he’s got that recognition. He’ll be the first to say that it’s a team effort, both in terms of the players and the staff, but I am really pleased for him because it’s been an exceptional start to the season. Marc and I are really aligned on our values. We have different ways of working but I think they complement each other really well. We’ve obviously both developed and grown up with the women’s game as well, so we both bring a vast amount of experience with the women’s game. It's a bright future, hopefully.”
We often talk about Champions League football and how important it is to get that here at Manchester United. How important is it for a club of this size to be competing at this level?
“It is and I think more importantly we want to win every match and we want to compete in every competition that we’re in. But let’s focus game to game and just [so] everyone’s pulling behind the long-term strategy, which is certainly to be in those competitions and hopefully the latter stages of those as well.”
Manchester United, compared to other teams in the WSL, are still quite new. What have you made of the club’s progress since 2018 and what do you think it takes to get to that next level?
“You’re right. It’s been a rapid growth, so this is only the fifth season in the new era of women’s football at Manchester United, so hats off to Casey [Stoney] and Marc for a lot of the work that they’ve done in those formative seasons. Clearly we are ambitious and we want to achieve. We would like silverware, so again competing in every competition that we participate in is key, yet also being mindful of ‘the United way’ and developing players through the pathway as well. If we can keep to those two expectations and the identity of the club, then we’ll be pleased.”
Talking about the pathway, we’ve just recently announced that Ella Toone has signed a new long-term deal and Katie Zelem has done it previously. How important is it to keep those players here at Manchester United?
“It’s really important, it’s part of the identity of the club. Ella’s a fantastic ambassador for the women’s game on an international scale but also locally here, so that other girls within the local region can look at Ella and aspire to be her as well. We’re very fortunate that we’ve got a great blend of players both locally and internationally that are now competing on the world stage.”
One player who is now competing on the international stage is Maya Le Tissier. You know all about her from her time at Brighton. What have you made of her impressive start to life here at United?
“It couldn’t have gone any better for her, I don’t think. So I’m delighted for her. The integration here has been seamless. I’m just really pleased for Maya. Like you say, I know about her from my time at Brighton but [it's] a bright future for Maya.”
When we signed Maya, on signing day she was talking about how she wanted to break into that senior Lionesses squad. She’s done it unbelievably quickly – is that a credit to the commitment of that player and what Manchester United can do for you when you come to this football club?
“That’s right and I think having so many international players throughout the squad. Obviously Maya’s playing week in, week out, so to be able to give her that profile and the fact she’s now competing at a higher level, as you say, it’s made her be in Sarina [Wiegman’s] mind and Sarina's thoughts to get her that first call-up.”
Looking ahead to our game at Old Trafford then on 3 December, we face Aston Villa. How excited are you about that game and how important is it for the fans to come to support United and pack out that stadium?
“It's a fantastic opportunity. We're working really strategically to make sure that it's not a missed opportunity. We're expecting a bumper crowd there, so we really want to make sure that they're enthused by their experience, and that they stay in the women's game. Ideally, they'd come in and watch other matches at Leigh Sports Village or that they're engaged either through social media or they're watching more matches. So we see it as a fantastic opportunity. But let's just hope that we can kick on from that game with three points in the bag and an increased attendance and fan base afterwards.”
How important are games like this one coming up at Old Trafford to develop the game, to grow the game? It’s in a fantastic place, isn’t it, women’s football? And to move it on from here it’s important to have these showpiece games, isn’t it?
“You know, we make memories on landmark occasions like that. So we own that. We can create our own history and our own memories from matches and occasions like that, but our season isn't defined by just one match at Old Trafford. So there's obviously an awful lot that goes into the programme, from the start of the season right through to the end, but let's use it as a catalyst to continue growing the game.”
The spotlight has never been brighter, has it, on women's football? In your opinion, what does the future look like for the women's game? How do you see it growing and developing from here?
“So I think we've got a really good opportunity to help steer the women's game forward. So things like we responded to the women's football review that's been chaired by Karen Carney and I think we've put a really informed and considered submission into that review. I think also being at the table in terms of the future governance and ownership of the Women's Super League, and that we’ll continue to be at the table of those conversations for the long-term sustainability and growth of the women's game and to make sure that it's professionalising in the best way possible. So to be involved in those conversations and to be helping to drive it, not just reacting to it, is really important.”
And talking about the growth of the game, how important is it then for the pathway for young players to come through our Academy into the first team? They won the domestic double last season, our Under-21s, and we've had players like Zel [Katie Zelem] and Tooney and Mills [Millie Turner] who have come through that pathway. So how important is that now?
“It's part of the fabric of this club, isn't it? It’s part of the identity and the DNA, and we're really fortunate that some of the staff and the practitioners within our pathway are the best in class. So you know, an awful amount of trust is put into those staff to develop the players or to continue developing the players through that pathway. [It's] very exciting, present and future, and hopefully we'll see more players like those coming through in the future as well.”
If you are one of those young players, and you do see Zel and you see Tooney and you see Mills playing regularly for our women's first team and on the international stage, it shows that you can do it as well, doesn't it?
“Exactly. They are role models, they’re present role models. Obviously there's a bit of work and we're really mindful of keeping that pathway linked as well, so the women's first team are going to speak to the players in the Academy to explain about their journey, talk about how they've made it into the women's first team. So there's that continued commitment from me to make sure that that's continued to align and be linked. But you're right, for all girls within the region to see that, and even if that means that they're starting to play football, let alone getting into the pathway, then that's a really positive thing as well.”
And just finally then, let's talk about our fan base – a real passionate group of fans we have that follow us up and down the country. In this new role for you, how do you hope to strengthen that relationship, maintain that relationship and grow it from here?
“So I've already met the supporters' club. We're in regular dialogue, which is great. So happy to support them in fan engagement opportunities, but you're right: they're passionate, they're loud, they know the women's game inside out and they're a fantastic support to Marc and the players at home and on the road as well, and that's really something I think quite unique about our team: that we do have a huge presence at our games. So I know the players in particular really appreciate them and we just hope that they grow in number as well.”
Well, Polly, congratulations on this new role here at Manchester United and all the best for it for the future.