Manchester United manager Casey Stoney gave no guarantee that key players would walk back into her starting lineup for this Sunday’s Continental Cup clash with Manchester City.
Just over a month since the sides first met on the opening day of the FA Women’s Super League in front of more than 30,000 fans at the Etihad Stadium, this time the game will take place at United’s Leigh Sport Village home.
Neighbors City beat Leicester in their first group-stage match while this is United’s first chance to get off the mark and gain revenge after a narrow defeat in their previous meeting.
Stoney’s side has kept clean sheets in their last two games and held Arsenal for all of 90 minutes in their other match this season, and the United boss gave no guarantee of a return for the likes of Abbie McManus or Jackie Groenen given her team’s recent performances.
“I’m not keen on changing things unless I absolutely have to,” said Stoney. “We have got a couple of knocks we’re managing at the moment. If the team perform well, they deserve to keep their shirt, unless there’s something tactically I’m really looking at changing… the back four kept a clean sheet last week and I think that back four deserve another game.”
It’s a testament to United’s strength that Stoney already feels comfortable enough with the idea of leaving out new signings for the players who were tried and tested in the FA Women’s Championship but are stepping back up to the FA Women’s Super League this season.
The team has only conceded two goals in four games so far, not bad given they’ve had to chop and change personnel and have faced Man City, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Tottenham Hotspur.
While such a tough start could have had an adverse effect, looking back Stoney now believes performances and results so far will only give the team belief ahead of Sunday’s encounter.
“Do you know what? When the fixtures came out I was like, ‘Cheers,'” she said, sarcastically. “But, I didn’t have to sell preseason, because we’ve got Manchester City at the Etihad, then we play the champions. Straightaway I knew where we were at and what it did was give us a real belief that we can compete against the top sides and we can go and have a go.
“We needed to make sure those fine margins turned around a little bit. At the moment we’re fourth in the table, are we exceeding expectations? Probably a little bit. We’re 15 months old. When you put it like that it’s quite an incredible journey that the players have been on so far. So I look at the table and think if we can maintain and sustain and pick up as many points as we can from those around us we’re doing okay, but it couldn’t have been a more difficult start, unless you put Chelsea third game! But it gave us a great chance to see where we were and straightaway I’m thinking about recruitment for next year.”
While it may seem extreme to be thinking about recruitment just a month into the new season, it shows the perfection Stoney is striving for in a project that is still well in its infancy.
The United boss admitted her scouting and recruitment of Jackie Groenen, in particular, started at the back end of last year when the club was still in the first half of its debut campaign, but also said she didn’t plan on signing as many as players as she did and wants to give chances to the club’s academy products
“We have gone with a bit more experience because we needed it in key areas,” she said. “But Lauren James is still playing, probably playing more now than she did before. You look at the youthfulness of our team, Ella Toone played for three games. We think about youth and Leah [Galton] is still only 25, Jess [Sigsworth] is 25, and we’ve got 17-year-olds scoring against Liverpool, so yes, there is a balance, but we’ll continue to do that and we’ll drip them in and we’ll take them out when it’s right.
“We want to develop players here. I wouldn’t have signed seven players if I didn’t have to this season. It would have been four, four only. It would have been quite organic the way we changed things. Unfortunately, obviously I couldn’t really control the pregnancy [for Siobhan Chamberlain], Alex [Greenwood] made the decision to leave, and then we had a bit of goalkeeper anomaly where we had four goalkeepers and only one available so we had to sign another one. So it was out of my hands but four for me is a nice number and that’s all we’ll look at season in, season out.”
When discussing how she will go about recruitment in the future, Stoney wants to maintain a control on who comes in and out but didn’t go overboard when discussing potential additions in the January transfer window during the winter break.
“I manage my recruitment, my scouting, every player I scout, I meet. I know my budgets. I talk to marketing, I talk to social. It’s not that I want control over everything, I’m not a control freak, but I think we want to be represented in a certain way. Your team reflects you. I’m keen on reflecting myself and this football club in a really positive way. Yes, we want to show that we can play attacking football but that the girls are seen as role models, that we are seen in a certain way as a football club, and that we do things the right way.
“I say that everyone who comes in this ground should walk away — unless you’re an away fan and they’ve lost — with a good experience. I’ve been at other clubs where I’ve walked away and thought, ‘I don’t want to come back here.’ It’s been 20 minutes to get a ticket, then I get in, and the stewards are horrible. When you come here I don’t want that, so it’s important I have influence on all the departments. We need to remove the barriers and encourage people through the door.”
Regarding potential additions in January, Stoney added, “It’s not something we’ve looked at as a club unless we put a couple out on loan to be honest. Obviously, we would need to release some funds if we were going to bring someone in in January. I always think it’s hard for one person to come in during the middle of the season, for the dynamic of the group but also for that one person.
“They’re an amazing group, they make everybody welcome, so I don’t think it would be impossible but it is a big ask for somebody to come into such a tight group in the middle of the season. If we needed it though, we would do it — if it was necessary.”
For now, though, it will be the same set of players, minus the suspended James, who walk out for the first Manchester derby to be held at Leigh Sports Village on Sunday, with the stadium likely to look much fuller than the larger Etihad Stadium did last month, the atmosphere created by both sets of fans should make it an occasion to remember.
Despite bumper crowds around the FA WSL when games have been held at larger men’s teams stadiums so far this season and a sell-out of Wembley for next month’s Lionesses friendly against Germany, Stoney isn’t budging from her position of wanting to fill up their current base before looking at playing at Old Trafford.
“There isn’t any problems [playing at Old Trafford], it’s just not something I’ve requested or I want,” she admitted. “I’m very keen on growing the audience here and selling this out first, rather than doing a one-off game where there’s no carry-over. That, for me, is the important part. If we can start to market 5,000, 6,000, 7,000 here we have an incredible atmosphere and this place becomes a fortress. It becomes a place people don’t want to come, rather than a one-off game in a huge stadium where if we get 31 or 32,000 it’s still going to be quite empty.
“I watched City’s next attendance and it didn’t filter back at all. I looked at the following weeks’ attendance and it didn’t filter down at all. And do you know what? It costs a lot of money to open a stadium like that. I could do with that in my budget. I can spend that money in a better way, that’s how I look at it. I go, ‘We need this, we need this, we need this and this,’ let’s invest in that, I’d rather invest that money into marketing and get this place sold out consistently and then open up a big stadium. That’s my take on it, and the club are open to discussions on it but I’ve said no.”