This summer’s UEFA Women’s Euros was met with unprecedented interest. The tournament became the most watched Women’s European Championship ever. 365 million live viewers tuned in to watch some of the game's best players ball out on the international stage. Over half a million people attended games in person - 334,820 more than in 2017 - and 50 million people watched England lift the trophy against old time foes Germany in front of a packed out Wembley stadium. The biggest summer in women’s football history might have opened some people’s eyes to the wonders of international football, but the Barclays Women’s Super League is where the real party’s at, and Manchester United Women are here to prove it.
In seven league games they've won all but one, their best start to a WSL season since gaining promotion to the topflight three years ago. There's more strength in depth, and attacking threat in abundance than ever before. Make sure when you talk about the best teams in Europe, you now include Manchester United Women in that line-up. They might not have made their mark on the European stage (yet), but their time is coming and when it arrives, you best believe this side will celebrate that milestone like no-one else in the game. Tooney get your bucket hat ready, you’re gonna need it.
This weekend’s league game against Aston Villa will be the second time Marc Skinner’s Red Devils have taken centre stage in front of fans. Having set last season’s attendance record at Old Trafford - courtesy of a 3-1 comeback victory over Everton in front of 20,241 fans - United are determined to make this weekend's fixture bigger, and better. Meaning 0161 residents are set to experience nothing but pure, unadulterated vibes as the likes of Katie Zelem and Alessia Russo look to top the table once again, in what's hotting up to be the closest title race the WSL has ever seen.
Think 'Barmy Army' shenanigans in the Stretford End, big goal scoring clinics from Lil Keetz and an out of this world performance from ET7. People will be phoning home to tell their loved ones about the buzzing atmosphere they've just experienced at Manchester's most historic ground. Simply Red at their core, this New Order merges the club's long standing traditions with a fresh, new perspective on the 'beautiful game'. One that champions inclusion, vibrancy and freedom of expression - epitomised by the bespoke upcylced pieces created by designer and textile artist Lydia Bolton. Manchester United might be considered one of the cornerstones of English football, but Manchester United Women are about to experience new beginnings courtesy of their unparalleled run of form and determination to be the very best in the business.
To mark this weekend's showcase, VERSUS linked up with Katie Zelem, Mary Earps, Alessia Russo, Nikita Parris and Ella Toone to talk about their recent run of success in the WSL, what they're hoping the energy levels will be like at Old Trafford and how others can be encouraged to join what's quickly becoming known as the best scene in football. The women's game.
Photography by Manchester's very own Jennifer Jukes.
So far, 2022/23 has started off brilliantly for MUWFC. You’re going into an Old Trafford game having beaten Arsenal at the Emirates – and what a game that was! What’s the morale like in the squad at the moment?
Ella Toone: We’re obviously over the moon! I think it was a massive performance from us, and I think we were quite dominant for most of the game. It’s an unbelievable occasion playing at the Emirates but having our fans there really helped us – it was amazing to celebrate with them in the corner, that was a really nice moment for the whole team.
Ultimately, I think we showed everyone that we’re here to compete, and compete against the ‘big’ teams, something we’ve not always been able to do previously, but we fought to the very end, and that shows who we are as a team. We never give up!
And ‘Keetz’, what was it like facing your former club?
Nikita Parris: I wanted to win so badly.
I respect your honesty, despite the fact I am an Arsenal fan.
Nikita: I’m sorry, but it’s true! It was awesome, I can’t lie. I really wanted to win that game, and to be honest, I think Arsenal played well for fifteen minutes or so – you don’t deserve to win based on fifteen minutes in my opinion – but like Ella said, we dominated the majority of the game. We could (and should) have scored more goals, but that’s always the right mentality to have! And to echo Ella’s point, we played that match with a ‘never say die attitude’, so I’m really proud of the team and the effort they put in. It was a great game.
What was the atmosphere like?
Alessia Russo: We’ve obviously played in front of big crowds before, but we’ve never played at the Emirates, and to have 40,000 people in attendance for a WSL game was brilliant. Arsenal are a side who have a lot of history in the women’s game, but the United fans came in their numbers and made sure it was a day we won’t forget for a long time!
Mary Earps: Yeah, definitely. I’d never played there before so found the whole experience quite an exciting one. I also got told before the game that the grass is roughly 25mm long…so that was interesting, never knew that before!
‘The Carpet’. We take our pitch maintenance very seriously.
Also good to know, thank you!
And like some of the girls have said, what made the match really great was the fact we fought hard to come back and win the game. Bagging three points is always a good feeling, and it was an added bonus to manage that away from home…and doing it somewhere like the Emirates was pretty good too, obviously!
How does it compare playing to playing at Old Trafford?
Katie Zelem: I mean, Old Trafford represents Manchester United in a lot of ways to so many fans. Quite a few of us in the team are big United supporters ourselves, so to play at our childhood club’s home ground is quite literally, what dreams are made of. We’ve played there a few times now, but only a couple of times with fans in attendance, so this weekend will be one of our best experiences as a team yet.
Ella: Exactly that. I’ve grown up supporting United and to play league football at Old Trafford is so special for me, personally. I can’t wait to get on the pitch!
Your match against Everton earlier this year had the highest attendance record of the season. Is it exciting to think you can go one step further and play in front of a packed out Old Trafford for this weekend’s fixture against Aston Villa?
Mary: I’m really hoping the ‘Barmy Army’ come out and support us in full force – they always do, but the thought of seeing thousands of them cheering us on at Old Trafford…wow, that’d be amazing. I think we’ve sold in excess of 20,000 tickets so far? So already I know it’ll be a decent atmosphere, but I’d like to see a few more at the game, so get buying your tickets please!
I’ve obviously played at Old Trafford when it’s been at full capacity, and it’s such an incredible environment. That’s something I want the Reds to experience for themselves.
Is playing regularly at Old Trafford something you’d like the club to aspire to moving forward?
Nikita: Quite few of us now have experienced playing at big stadiums in front of thousands of people, and it’s one of the best feelings in the world as a professional footballer. And it should definitely be something that we all aspire to in the game, not just Manchester United, but there’s nothing worse than playing in a massive stadium and it feeling empty. The atmosphere we’ve just described to you when a stadium is packed, or there’s a ‘healthy’ amount of people at a game, there’s none of that when a stadium is nowhere near full. It kills the momentum of the game when that happens. So, as much as I love putting on a performance at grounds like Old Trafford, I want it to be something that we gradually build towards over time.
You’ve all spoken about how much energy your fans bring to your games. I’m sure they’ll be loud no matter how many are in attendance this weekend, but what are you hoping they bring to get the party started?
Katie: The same energy they always bring! We can hear them at Leigh (Sports Village) all the time and we love it! We just want to hear them scream their hearts out for us at Old Trafford. I can’t wait to hear them cheer us on this Saturday.
Mary: Noise. 100%. We’ve got fans who have been with us every step of the way since the team formed, and they know not everything is sunshine and rainbows when it comes to football, but they’re always there regardless of the outcome. Those are the sort of ride or die people we want around us for occasions like this one. They always keep that perspective and spirit alive no matter what. I want that type of energy this weekend.
Ella: Be loud! Cheer us on no matter what. If there’s a chance for us to score, make some noise. If someone makes a big tackle, go mental. Get on our side from the first whistle, it goes such a long way for us as players when fans are with us from the first minute until the last. It really helps us give that extra bit of energy to perform our very best.
In what ways do you think, the success of this summer’s Euros has affected club football?
Alessia: I think that the Euros was really special to a lot of people – not just the players but the fans too. And right off the back of that tournament, we felt as if the whole nation was behind us moving forward, which of course is a really cool thing to see and experience. But now, I think it’s about continuing to push for more progress in the women’s game because at the end of the day, winning the Euros doesn’t mean much if the fans aren’t there to stick around afterwards. And since the season has started, we’ve definitely noticed more people turning up to games, and that’s something we always want to see as players.
Hopefully, the game can just continue to grow and get better from here on.
Mary: I think we’ve been consistently growing as a group, and this season we’ve got a lot more depth in the squad than ever before – which is something we need if we’re going to compete, especially on a European stage. We have really high aspirations as a club, and to meet those we need to have strength in depth of course, but we also need experience. So, having quite a few players in the squad who played at the Euros, helps us to prepare for big moments.
I think it’s a bit of everything really: growing the experience of the team – a lot of us have played together for quite some time now, too – more depth and quality, and having the mentality that we can, and will win big matches.
The growth of women’s football in England has been exponential this past year or so, but what would you like to say to those you’ve yet to ‘join the party’?
Alessia: They must have been asleep for the whole summer…
I mean, you’re not wrong!
Nikita: You never really know whether you like something until you try it. So, just come to one game! If you do, I bet it won’t be your last.
Katie: I think that’s the right mentality to have, absolutely. I’ve spoken to so many people over the last two years or so who have turned around and said to me: “I watched your game at the weekend on telly, and you’re really good!” My response is always, “well yeah, we’re professional athletes. Of course we’re good!” I think once you give the women’s game a chance – and nowadays it’s a lot more accessible than what it was ten years ago, so it’s quite easy to do so – you’ll find that you enjoy it.
Ella: I think prior to the summer, there were people who might have thought they were ‘against’ women’s football for whatever reason. But seeing how much the country enjoyed the Euros and how well England performed, it helped to change perceptions. You know, and like Keetz and Katie have just said…try it!
It is different to the men’s game, and a lot of people like how we simply get on with it! We’ll go in for a big tackle and won’t roll about on the pitch afterwards if it doesn’t work out. We get up, and we go again. And that’s just one of the reasons why women’s football is different, another is the relationship we have with the fans. It’s really special, and totally different to the men’s game. Just come down a game and form your own opinion, don’t have one without knowing what it is we actually do.
Mary: It’s not my job to convince them. We know what we bring to the table, and we know that maybe women’s football isn’t for everyone, just like men’s football isn’t. The same with tennis, cycling or hockey. Like the girls have said, I would encourage people to watch a game before they make that decision, though. But, we know who we are and I think for the first time, we’re starting to be respected in our own rights as professional footballers, not simply women’s footballers. Football is football, from whatever point of view you look at it from. And that’s something we’re finally starting to experience.
And finally, who is the person in the squad that is most likely to get the party started on match day? Or in general!
Everyone: Millie (Turner)!
Oh wow, that was unanimous.
Alessia: She’s just so full of energy! All. The. Time.
Ella: She’s like one of those little Duracell bunnies. She just never stops singing and dancing, she’s like a kid at Christmas, but everyday is like Christmas for Millie. She’s so positive and honestly the best person to have around.
Purchase tickets to this weekend’s Old Trafford fixture here.