Two days into preseason, new Manchester United Women head coach Casey Stoney describes it as “feeling real now” when she sits down to speak about the upcoming season at the club’s expansive AON Training Complex.
While her team is training 16 miles at their home for the season — the 36-year-old can sit back and rest safe in the knowledge her squad is now complete and ready for their first friendly match this coming Sunday against Stoney’s former club, Liverpool.
“I have to be honest: it felt real when we had to recruit 21 players,” she laughed, before adding: “That’s not an easy thing to do. The pool [of players] isn’t that big and a lot of players are already under contract. Luckily, I’ve got a lot of connections in the game, I know most people in the game, so I was able to put a squad and staff together within six weeks.”
Time to Gel
With Stoney having just returned from holiday at the weekend and new assistant manager Willie Kirk wrapping up the last couple of deals to take the squad from 17 to 21, the task now for Stoney and her staff is to get the players gelled together, something which is evidently well underway.
“I’ve got lots of plans, lots of plans,” she teased. “I’m big on the people in my group. I don’t want robots, I want characters, the dressing room is meant to be a fun place. It’s their space but I’m also aware they don’t all know each other. We’ll do things differently away from the pitch, we’ve got lots of exercises put together for the team — to challenge them, stretch them, and getting them working together.”
Stoney added, “Most important are those relationships on the pitch. I’m not a big believer in running for running’s sake, the balls will be out as much as they can be. I’ll be honest, I’m really pleased with what I’ve seen over the last two days. They’re excited, they want to be here, they want to do well. We’ve gone out and hand-picked the best young players in the country and we’ve added a bit of experience.
“They’re in accommodation close to each other and that’s been done on purpose to have that balance off the pitch. They might not have friends in Manchester yet so it’s important their teammates are their friends. We’ll make sure we give them the support we can and this club is unbelievable in terms of the attention to detail, there’s nothing a player has wanted the club hasn’t delivered.”
Those players will be announced to the world this coming Friday in an official club announcement. With Stoney and indeed Kirk’s announcements seeing a huge engagement from fans across social media, the new head coach is wary of some players being too overcome by the attention that will come with Friday’s big announcement.
Many players in the squad will have never experienced an announcement like the one on Friday and Stoney is keen to support the players if they need it.
“We’re quite aware of that actually,” she said. “I experienced it with my announcement, it was bigger than anything I’ve ever known in women’s football and the club are aware of that. There’s a player-care team that’s educating them on what will happen, they’re briefed on what’s going to happen and if they choose to turn their phones on or off, that’s up to them.
“They can embellish it, embrace it, turn away from it but the support is there and the ultimate thing is that yes, we’ll launch the team; yes, social media will go mad, but it’s what we do on the pitch that counts. The focus always stays on the grass.”
Bringing in Kirk
Another big help given the amount of young players in the squad is the addition of former Bristol City manager Willie Kirk.
Kirk joined Stoney at United after leaving Bristol last month with a proven track record of developing young players, including the likes of Lauren Hemp and Claire Emslie, something Stoney admits played a big part in her decision.
“There were a few reasons why it was Willie but one of them was he develops players very well and his players respect him massively,” she said.
“He’s got a fantastic character, he’s very calming, he’s very different from me and I wanted someone who’s going to challenge me. I don’t want someone stood next to me who’s going to just say yes and agree with everything. We need to be different and have different thought processes, but when it comes to it the axe will fall on me and I’ll make brave decisions, I’ve told the players that.”
Now Stoney has little more than a month to develop a playing style and a philosophy in time for the domestic season to kick off with Continental Cup fixtures on the weekend of August 18–19.
There’s a little more time to hit home the process to her squad before the commencing of the FA Women’s Championship at the start of September but Stoney is already fully focused on what she wants from her squad ahead of the big kickoff, but is also realistic about the challenges facing them.
“We want intensity, we want to entertain, we want to excite,” she enthused. “We know we’re building and we want to get a philosophy but are we going to get that on Sunday after four or five days of training? No. We want to get minutes in people, get the rust out of their system and we want to have a go at these teams.
“The teams we’re facing are Tier 1 teams, which is where we want to be and we’ve picked these games on purpose because we want players to challenge themselves, we want to see little relationships building.”
Building a Fan Base Now and for the Future
So, what would make Stoney happy come this time next year? Many outside of Manchester expect United to win the Championship this season but the former Liverpool, Chelsea, and Arsenal defender has tried to play down expectations as the season grows closer and closer.
What the former assistant to England head coach Phil Neville does want is for every one of her players to have improved by the end of their first season together.
“I’ve said in all my interviews the biggest challenge we’ve got is bringing strangers together. Trying to win a league in the first year of a new project is not an easy thing to do and there’s no pressure from the club to do that. What would make me happy is all 21 of them walk in the door and walk out at the end of the season a better player and a better person.”
Stoney is also adamant the club need to build a solid fan base in their first season before the club moves to the club’s old training ground at The Cliff, which is currently undergoing a £1.2 million redevelopment.
United will play their home games at Leigh Sports Village while the facility is brought up to scratch but Stoney hopes to tap into a large local fan base by playing football the “right way.”
“Building a fan base is huge,” she admitted. “We want people who want to come back and come on the journey with us. We want to do that the right way by the way we play, the way the players are with the fans, that engagement.
“We want them to have a great match day experience, which they will do. It’s about year three, four, and five as much as year one, we want fans coming this year who will come back in five years. I hope fans have paid to come in and because of the style of football we play they pay to come back.”
The new boss also admits she hasn’t found it easy to switch off despite recently embarking on a well-earned holiday with her wife and three children.
“The holiday was great because I got to spend time with my kids but I couldn’t wait to get back and get started,” she smiled. “Pulling on an England shirt was a really, really proud moment for me but there’s no bigger moment in my career than this.”
She added: “I’m really privileged and really proud to be leading this team, this football club. Here things are done differently and it’s the first time in my career I’ve felt fully integrated with the club. That’s a big step in women’s football, I’ve been working for that for 18 years.”