UTD Unscripted: A debt to ourselves
When I first came to Manchester United, there was a lot to take in.
This was the only job in football that would have convinced me to uproot my family from Orlando and move halfway across the world to come back to England, so naturally there were a lot of emotions swirling around. Moving back from the States, joining such a huge club, learning about the players and the league gave me a lot to think about, but one thing struck me quite early on…
Everyone here just talks about the Champions League.
It had become this mountain for everyone to climb, this magical competition where qualification was the be-all and end-all. Whoever I spoke to, there was a fixation on getting into the Champions League. Although the club is still very young, getting into the Champions League felt like it was becoming something of an obsession. Having now finished fourth this season and gone to the wire before just missing out on the Champions League again, I daresay a lot of people are still thinking about it.
But the question that I’ve been asking more and more is this: isn’t that being disrespectful to ourselves? Don’t we owe ourselves more than just thinking about finishing in the top three?
Everybody who wears this badge is very fortunate to represent a club with a magnificent history, but also a very, very bright future. Everyone knows that Casey Stoney did a great job here before I came in. I think the beauty of Casey being the first manager of Manchester United Women was that she got to build it from its inception. When I took over I inherited a really good squad. That much was clear in advance. While there was a little bit of disappointment at coming so close to the Champions League and missing out in 2020/21, the main thing I could sense from the group was the hunger in them.
As a coach you always want to put your stamp on a place and grow things organically, so I also felt that we could adapt things, change things and progress to being a really competitive group against the teams who have historically been top of this competition. They’ve spent a hell of a lot of money, but why can’t we compete with them? There were a lot of good foundations here and we’ve managed this year to move in the direction we wanted to, while still retaining the identity around the team.
"While there was a little bit of disappointment at coming so close to the Champions League and missing out in 2020/21, the main thing I could sense from the group was the hunger in them."
Even though I knew what the WSL was all about, coming back from two years in America meant that I had to pick up the different styles we’d be up against. In the States, every game presents different challenges because of logistical aspects like six-hour flights to away games, different weather systems and so on, but in England it’s more about the different playing styles you’re facing.
Some play direct, some keep possession, teams like Chelsea are very good on the counter-attack, so I just felt that when I came in, I wanted to move this group towards a place where they could control the ball and concede less chances.
It was clear to see that we had the ability to do so. There are some wonderful players here. What struck me just as much as the group’s ability, though, was just how together they are. Every time I speak to other coaches, agents or players, they often talk about how tight-knit this group is. As a coach, obviously you love to put that kind of thing out in the media, but I genuinely mean it. These players like each other and that’s not that common. In a lot of places you find players who put up with each other professionally, but these players truly like each other. For me, I loved coming into this environment; it gives you a lot of energy and when you lose, you lose together and I think that’s a real sign of a really special team.
Believe it or not, because I still had connections at Birmingham, even when I was living in Orlando I had people telling me how loud the United fans were. That’s what I want to be part of: I want to be part of a group that gets pushed by their fans as well as pushing them. Those fans have been able to feel the start of their team, rather than just following their parents or being drawn in by success. The drive and stimulus that this team has with these fans is unique.
There’s a spirit of Man United that you have to be aware of as a coach before you can take it in your own direction. Of course, we want to win and expect to win, but the spirit of United is to never say die and I think the fans harbour that every time you play. I’m still learning that, but it’s exciting to learn every time I get out on the field because I’m thinking: we can be braver here, my players have to keep going, and I find it exciting because I know what the next phase of this team’s development looks like. Even with friendlies, we’ve probably only played 30 games together, so the excitement of showing our fans the next stage in this team’s development is really building.
Obviously, coming fourth two seasons in a row means everybody wants to keep moving up. That builds pressure and expectation which, to me, are good things. They have to be. They’re not easy to turn into positives because you can’t just say you like pressure and expectation, they’re things that you learn to like. The better you get at something, the more pressure you’ll face because people expect you to do things better, to win more, to improve. My job as head coach is to set the direction for this team, to set that pressure is acceptable and it’s something you should live with if you want to be a top performer. It’s experiential. We all have to learn from defeats and setbacks, know what they felt like, isolate moments and their feeling, then use that feeling as something they don’t want to experience again and work out how we ensure that.
"Of course, we want to win and expect to win, but the spirit of United is to never say die and I think the fans harbour that every time you play."
That, for me, is a choice. I’m a big believer in choice. I still get nervous before games because you can only control as much as you control, but I think you need to use that nervous energy to drive yourself forward and keep working towards your targets. When I went to Orlando, I spoke about being a team that wanted to win the league and we finished rock bottom in year one. We flipped it round for the second season and when I left, the team was in the top three.
For us, the next development is to not actually care what our opponents do. That might sound disrespectful, but it’s not. I see it the other way. I think it’s a mark of respect to acknowledge that other teams will play how they will play, but we choose to remain completely true to our own approach.
"It does not feel like a job, I can tell you that. People might question that in a couple of years if I’m completely grey, but right now the pressures of the job make me feel alive ."
Of course, all of us wanted to finish higher than fourth in the league this season, but that’s gone now. I don’t believe in wallowing for too long because I don’t think it helps anyone or achieves anything. Note the feeling, store it for future reference but definitely don’t wallow. Take what you need, move forward and look to the future.
In that future, I don’t want us to be fixating on qualifying for the Champions League. Shouldn’t we now be thinking about the league and winning the whole thing? We have a debt to ourselves to do everything we can to win every single game. If we do that, then you start to live out the rhetoric that surrounds those who win a championship: you look step-by-step, game-by-game and go from one focus point to the next. Don’t think about climbing the mountain, just look at the next step you have to take, then take it. Once we do that, we’ll move closer to success.
Could we do it? A perfect WSL season has never been done before, which tells you how hard it is, but we’re capable of beating any team and we owe it to ourselves to think that way.