England defender Abbie McManus says she and her teammates are on the “right road” toward changing perceptions of women’s football and ensuring the current Lionesses can be role models for both young boys as well as girls.
Coming off the back of sealing a spot in their third major tournament semifinal in succession, McManus admitted there’s a “long, long way to go” but things are heading in the right direction.
“We want to be role models and make sure there are clear pathways for girls coming through,” said the Manchester United defender.
“We want to make sure there are young girls running around school playing football with girls’ names like McManus, Williamson, etc., on the back of their shirt, rather than it just being Rooney or Ronaldo. We want to make a stand where women’s football is changing and I think we are on the right road to do that.”
Head coach Phil Neville referenced in his post-match press conference on Thursday, a comment from Leah Williamson who referred to the group as “badass women, a tag McManus says they’re working on.
“The badass comment that Phil and Leah have both made is something that we’re working towards. We want little girls to look up to us and we want little girls to know there is a career path.”
McManus also feels there needs to be more opportunity for a woman to go into a good job post-football because of how good she might be to do the job, rather than just being a woman, using her new club manager as an example.
“Casey Stoney being the manager of Manchester United because she was the best person for that job, not just because she was a woman. We want to know that at the end of our careers we can go on to something like that.”
There’s been a lot of debate in England about atmospheres, or lack of them, at FA WSL games or England games and cup finals largely being targeted at young children, making for a very different atmosphere to that of a men’s game.
McManus doesn’t want to condone some of the abuse that’s been thrown — for example, at her close friend and teammate Toni Duggan when she scored for Barcelona in front of a partisan Atlético Madrid crowd — but believes it’s good to see more passion at women’s domestic matches.
“I was speaking to Toni about that and when she got verbal abuse,” said McManus. “It’s not something we want to promote but it’s good to see we are not just getting families through the door but real, proper heartfelt fans. We do want to attract men to women’s football. I don’t want to say hooligans but we want the people who wear the shirt for the men and the women.”
Football runs in McManus’s family. Her uncle Bobby used to play football and was best man at George Best’s wedding, while her younger brother Scott played 250 games for Halifax Town between 2011 and 2018.
McManus grew up as a die-hard Manchester United fan and her role models were largely United players, though she would go on to spend 12 years with the blue side of Manchester before her summer transfer last month.
“It was definitely Faye White [her female role model] growing up as a kid,” she admitted. “When I was younger, I didn’t see much women’s football on TV so my role models were Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić because they were people I could see play on TV.
“I watched Faye White on an interview once. My parents told me she was a footballer so I YouTubed her and then I watched clips of her. I never got to go and watch her because no one ever told us how and where to get tickets. It’s getting easier now — for girls, boys, men and women. We’ve had young boys coming and asking for us for autographs, it’s exciting times.”
Like many, McManus had to spend her fair share of time playing with boys while growing up, but says she never really felt self-conscious playing with them and didn’t feel the pressure not to make a mistake.
“I was playing for a boys’ team as the only girl on my team,” she recalled. “Every team that came to play us, it was ‘Don’t tackle the girl’ until my first tackle went in. Then it was ‘Wow, we can tackle the girl.’ It’s not something I would shy away from but these days it’s not just tomboys playing football. It’s the girls playing football.”
She added, regarding pressure to not make mistakes: “I was oblivious to it because as a kid I didn’t realize women weren’t as empowered. Now I can see that it is our job to empower women. That’s what the comment of being a ‘badass woman’ is all about.
“I remember meeting the netball team and I said to Toni, ‘These are badass women.’ They empowered me — their story. I describe them all as divas because the way they spoke about their sport, about winning and being athletes empowered me. It was incredible. I look back and think, ‘Do we walk into a room and have that effect on people?’ Because if we do, we are going in the right direction.”
There’s been a lot of talk of tipping points in the women’s game in the last few years, particularly when the Lionesses came home from the last World Cup with a bronze medal four years ago.
England was once again on the brink of a final two years ago and will hope it’s third time is lucky when they take on champions United States in Lyon on Tuesday night.
While McManus believes a third consecutive semifinal might make people stand up and pay more attention than ever, she accepts there is now a pressure to go a step further after two previous failures.
“People always say others jump on the band wagon but you feel now we’ve got into a third semifinal it might be different,” said the defender. “We do need to go that one step further and get to the final and hopefully we can win it. We’ve got full faith in the squad here. We had one aim — to take the trophy home — no one is going to shy away from that.
“We’ve got two more games to go and we hope that the support is not just here for the tournament but it’s here forever. Sport has done so much for me as a person. It brings you out of your shell, it gives you a hobby, it gives you life skills. It makes you work mentally and physically. If I hadn’t found sport I don’t know what kind of person I would be.”