Man United's newly formed women's team making strides off the pitch
LEIGH, England -- Success this season for Manchester United's newly formed women's team will probably not be measured on the pitch. It would be nice, of course, if they could get out of FA Women's Championship (tier two of the pyramid) at the first attempt, but it is not a demand being placed on Casey Stoney and her players by the club.
Instead, it is off the pitch where they are hoping to make their biggest strides.
There are 21 relative strangers to turn into a team. There is a fan base to attract and then keep. And there are plans and processes put in place to make sure United are among the heavyweights of women's football in the not-too-distant future.
On the pitch at Leigh Sports Village on Saturday afternoon, United's first home game since the team was disbanded in 2005, they were beaten 2-0 by Reading in FA Continental Tyres League Cup Group Two North thanks to a goal from Brooke Chaplen midway through the second half and another from Gemma Davison in stoppage time. However, there were plenty of positives for Stoney and her staff after just seven weeks together. Her team could have gone in at half-time ahead. Jess Sigsworth was unlucky not to score and Kirsty Hanson hit the bar twice in the space of 15 seconds.
Goalkeeper Siobhan Chamberlain gave Phil Neville a timely nudge with a fantastic save low to her left from Fara Williams' effort after she was left out of the latest England squad ahead of World Cup qualifiers against Kazakhstan and Wales. Katie Zelem, who won the Italian title with Juventus last season, was impressive on the left on United's midfield three. As was Lauren James, just 16 years old, stationed in front of the back four.
Quinton Fortune said at half-time that the performance reminded him of "United of old."
"They have got forward, got into the box, played out from the back. It has been very impressive," said the former South Africa midfielder.
He was not the only name watching from the sidelines. Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward was in the stands alongside managing director Richard Arnold. Bryan Robson was here, too. "It is great that Man United have a ladies team again," he said. "Hopefully they can be as successful as the men's team have been over the years."
The early signs are good, too. After beating Liverpool away from home in their first competitive game since reforming, Stoney was happy that her team had "matched" Reading, who finished fourth in Women's Super League One last season behind Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal.
"I'm gutted for the players," she said. "I thought they deserved more today. We created chances, some decent ones in the first half, and didn't take them.
"I didn't think [Reading] deserved to win 2-0, but you have to look at the bigger picture. We've been together seven weeks and we've matched one of the teams I think will be challenging for silverware this season.
"I'm really proud of the players to be able to produce a performance like that after so little time together"
If the performance was one positive, the crowd was another. United accepted beforehand that they had no idea how many would turn up and Stoney admitted to being pleasantly surprised. The attendance of 4,835 was more than the average crowds of eight League One clubs last season and 18 teams in League Two. The task now is to keep them coming back.
"Hopefully the fans have seen enough today to want to come back," Stoney said. "The girls gave their all, and I think they really excited at times. We got in their final third an awful lot.
"That crowd is huge for women's football, so I am a bit surprised, but it shows you what pull this football club has got. It's exciting."
Apart from delivering an exciting performance, the players did their bit to keep the supporters returning, staying behind after the final whistle to sign autographs and take pictures with anyone that wanted.
"On behalf of the girls, I want to thank the fans, they were outstanding," captain Alex Greenwood said. "Let's make sure they keep coming back. It's a massive crowd, but this is Manchester United. We've just got to keep giving the performances, and I think we have done ourselves justice today. The result didn't reflect the performance but that's football."
The next test is a trip to Aston Villa that will kick off their FA Women's Championship season on Sept. 9. Stoney has tried to keep a lid on early expectations, but even she has realised she might be fighting a losing battle.
"They're not helping by performing like that," she joked. "Look, it's the start of a journey, but if they can play like that against a good side I think it bodes well for the season."
Greenwood, meanwhile, has licence to be a little more effusive than her manager. "The aim is to win this league, go up and compete against the best teams week in, week out," the England defender said.
"There's no pressure on the team, but we know what we can do. If this is us after seven weeks, then what are we going be like in a month or two? We've already progressed a scary amount."