Manchester United Women balancing expectations after Liverpool win
LEIGH, England -- Five months after Manchester United announced they were re-forming their women's team, it was time for the talking to stop and the football to start.
United have not had a women's senior team since it was disbanded in 2005, and the debate had been about why it had taken so long for one of world's biggest football clubs to bring it back given the development in the women's game over recent years.
But since their 1-0 win over Liverpool in their first competitive game -- in Group Two North of the Continental Tyres League Cup on Sunday -- the conversation has turned to how good the team are and what they might be able to achieve this season.
Manager Casey Stoney, a former England international defender, is keen to keep a lid on expectations in the FA Women's Championship but she knows it is pointless trying to ask the players to do the same.
"We would be naive to think we can go and win everything," Stoney tells ESPN FC. "We're literally six weeks in. We had a good start on Sunday but it's game by game. It's cliche, but it is. We're learning as we go and we're going to make mistakes, we know that.
"There's no pressure from the club to go up in year one [promotion to the FA Women's Super League] but if you ask the players, they will give you a different answer."
She's right. Twenty minutes later midfielder Katie Zelem is sat in the same seat looking out over the pitch at Leigh Sports Village.
"We want to win the league, get promoted and get into the Champions League," says the 22-year-old. "It's Manchester United and we know the expectation that comes with that."
It is a difficult balancing act. On one hand, a group of relative strangers have been thrown together to compete against teams who have known each other for years. On the other, as Zelem says, it's United -- a club historically associated with winning.
The next test is against Reading in the cup again on Saturday. Like Liverpool, they play in Women's Super League One, the division above United, and a team Stoney says "will win trophies this season."
It is also a chance to play in front of their own supporters for the first time at Leigh Sports Village, where Ricky Sbragia's Under-23s play their home games. It will be the first home game for a United women's senior team since 2005 and a chance to start inspiring the next generation -- something that has been missing for 13 years.
"At the game against Liverpool, the Man United Under-12s were there and I could hear them all game," said defender Amy Turner, one of seven players who signed from Liverpool this summer. "After the game one of them said to me 'I'm No. 4 for the U12s and you've inspired me.' That's why we do it."
For Zelem, in particular, it has been a long wait. A United fan who grew up in Oldham, she was part of United's Regional Talent Club for nine years but in the absence of a first-team joined Liverpool in 2013.
"I didn't have the chance to go and watch a United women's team," says Zelem, who won a league title with Juventus last season. "I had to go and watch other clubs."
Through no fault of their own, United played against Liverpool on the same day the men's senior team travelled to Brighton. But with Jose Mourinho's side not in action against Tottenham until Monday, the weekend is free for United fans to turn up for the women's game on Saturday. And Stoney says her players are keen to give them a reason to come back.
"The girls want to perform," she says. "We want to have a go. We want to work hard, entertain and show some passion. I think we've got a team capable of doing that.
"It's fantastic that we're not playing at the same time as the men and hopefully the fans can watch both games and get right behind the club."
Stoney, whose family will be in the stands at Leigh on Saturday, is well aware of what United fans expect when they watch football -- whether that's a youth team, men's team or a women's team. And whenever she has had to fill in the blanks she has had access to one of the few people to have played and coached at Old Trafford: England women's boss Phil Neville.
"I spoke to him before I put my name into the hat because obviously I was his assistant at England at the time," she says. "We speak a lot. We've got a really good relationship and speak once a week, by message or by phone. He's a good source of information for me.
"He knows the football club very well and he knows me very well. After the game against Liverpool he said the togetherness we showed, that's Man United right there. That was pleasing.
"One thing Phil always says to me is smile more! When I'm in work I'm quite a serious person but he told me to smile more and enjoy it because it's the best job in the world."