With their second season in the top-flight of women’s football fast approaching, Manchester United and manager, Casey Stoney, know better than to rest on their laurels.
This will be the manager’s third year in charge of the club. It’s been a fast learning curve over the last two years, but Stoney brings a whole wealth of experience in the game to draw on. She led her side to promotion in their first season back in the fold and laid some solid foundations last year that saw them finish fourth behind Arsenal, ahead of the chasing pack.
However, this is Manchester United, a club where the best standards are expected from the club, staff, players and fans alike and the goals high. These expectations are always at the forefront of Stoney’s mind, while keeping a level perspective on the progress of her side:
“We are only in our third season in terms of even being here. So yes, there are expectations because we’re Man United. We have expectations internally because we’re Man United and because we know what we’re capable of. But we also know we’re going to have some bumps along the road. We had some of those last year and we learnt from them as an entire club… The badge comes with expectation. I wouldn’t have taken this job if I hadn’t wanted this it. We are developing our players all the time; we’re driving our standards all the time to try and push into that top three and that has to be our aim and ambition.”
With the coronavirus pandemic cutting the 2019/20 season short, lockdown has posed it’s challenges for every team and manager in the league. With all the doubt about when the re-start was going to happen, what budgets might look like and how testing was going to take place, it’s been a bit of an uncertain time across the league. Players have had to adapt to training on their own while managers had to work out how to operate without face time with their squad. For Stoney, looking after her players was the most important aspect of these months and the club set up a strong system to keep everyone involved:
“The biggest thing I needed to do with my players was communicate and make sure they knew exactly where they stood and how things were progressing. Players are used to structure; they’re used to knowing when the next game is, what the next target is, and that kept moving. That can have a real effect on their mental wellbeing. We had two full team calls a week minimum; we were doing cooking tasks; we were doing competitive tasks; and we had a wellbeing group going which the players led.”
But for Stoney, lockdown posed another obstacle – recruitment. With life in general restricted, conversations with potential new players that would normally take place face-to-face, had to be moved online:
“I’m not a big fan of it because I like to bring a player in. I like to get them to feel the club and know what we’re about and what I’m about as a person. That’s a little bit more difficult when you’re doing it through a computer screen.”
In spite of this, Manchester United can be fairly pleased with how the transfer window has gone so far. They have secured the services return number of their key players, including Kirsty Hanson, Amy Turner, Jess Sigsworth, and Ella Toone, and they have also strengthened. Lionesses’ midfielder, Lucy Staniforth, joined from Birmingham to add some attacking quality to the midfield. And there have been two young signings, 21-year-old Ona Battle from Levante and 19-year-old Ivana Fuso from FC Basel. While young, they bring a fair amount of experience, especially Battle who has represented Spain in major tournaments at every age group and recently starred for the seniors at the SheBelieves Cup. Stoney is very happy with young signings and expects them to bring a lot to her squad:
“You look at Ona – I watched her play against the States in SheBelieves and she was a stand-out for me. Yes, she’s young but at that age group with different countries, they play a lot of games. They come with a lot of game experience in pressurised situations in tournaments. They’ve come in and been fantastic. Obviously, they’re very different players and in different positions but Ona is really going to add to this team and the league this year, and I’m really excited to see what she’s going to deliver. And the same with Ivana. You know, she’s got a real talent in terms of being able to carry the ball, which is rare in the women’s game, and she’s got pace. They’ve both really added to our team, in terms of quality and depth, and I believe we’ve got a better squad this year.”
While Manchester United have strengthened, so has everyone else in the league. With its growing prominence in the women’s game, the FAWSL has attracted some of the world’s best players to these shores to make the competition even stronger. While this adds to the pressure on the manager, who aims to break her side into the top three, Stoney welcomes it and is as excited as the rest of us for the season ahead:
“As someone who has been in the women’s game now for – god knows, I can’t even remember – I think it’s probably been one of the most exciting years. For the players, I think it’s incredible; I think it’s going to be really competitive and they’re going to have to test themselves against the best. And as head coaches, those fine margins are going to be the telling tales this year – so game plans and making sure players are prepared and fit is going to be really important.”