Casey Stoney, manager of Manchester United. (Manchester United)
Casey Stoney, manager of Manchester United. (Manchester United)

Casey Stoney Talks Manchester United’s Preseason and Recruitment during the COVID-19 Pandemic

What you do is you treat them as human beings first and not footballers.Casey Stoney
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]anchester United head coach Casey Stoney says she is happy with the business she has done in the FA Women’s Super League transfer window so far after adding three new players to her squad. As United prepare for their second season in the top division, Stoney has added England international Lucy Staniforth to her squad, as well as young duo Ona Batlle and Ivana Fuso from Levante and FC Basel, respectively.

Stoney will be hoping to take the challenge to the established top three this season and hasn’t ruled out adding to her squad further before the September 10 deadline.

“The window is still open. It’s open until the 10 September, so we’ll have to wait and see,” said Stoney. “Looking at the teams around us, everyone’s strengthened and I do believe it will be one of the most competitive leagues, even one of the most competitive in Europe. We recruited players that want to win. We’ve recruited players that have got a drive to improve. We know we’re a young squad, we are only in our third season, in terms of even being here.

“There is expectation because we’re Man United. We have expectations internally because we know what we’re capable of, but we also know we’re going to have some bumps along the road and we had some of those last year; we learned from them as an entire club.”

New Signings

While any casual follower of the FA WSL or the Lionesses will be familiar with Staniforth, they may be less familiar with Spain international Batlle and Germany Under-19 youngster Fuso.

Batlle, a versatile full back who can play on either side of the pitch, and Fuso, similarly versatile in her ability to play up front or in the attacking midfield role, give Stoney different options this season and the head coach believes both can make an impact.

“They are young, but they look older” she said. “I watched Ona in the SheBelieves Cup and she was a standout for me. Yes, she’s young, but she comes with loads of experience at that age group. They play a lot of games so they come with a lot of game experience in pressurized situations in tournaments, and so they’ve come in and I have to say they’ve been fantastic.

“Obviously they’re very different players and different positions but Ona is really going to add to this team in this league this year and I’m really excited to see what she’s going to deliver and the same for Ivana. She’s got a real talent in terms of versatility, which is rare in the women’s game and she’s got pace, so they’ve both really added to our team in terms of quality and depth.”

Like every club, Man United were adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with Stoney admitting she prefers to bring players in to speak to them face-to-face, which wasn’t possible while recruiting during the nation’s lockdown as the football season was put on hold.

Stoney admits not every target did eventually arrive through the door, but she’s happy with her recruitment and said Staniforth, Batlle, and Fuso were all top targets for her this summer.

“We obviously set out with a list of targets that we really keep a close eye on throughout the year,” said the head coach. “To say that we’ve got all of them would be lying, we haven’t. That’s not due to finances, sometimes that’s due to player preference — they might not want to move countries et cetera — so it depends on who you’ve gone after.

“But, I would say the three we’ve got in we definitely went after and they were a key part of our recruitment process in terms of what we wanted to bring in. It’s been difficult. I can’t lie in terms of you can’t have the players over, I couldn’t meet them, couldn’t bring them around the club. So yeah, it’s not been easy, obviously. It was all a little uncertain for a while with COVID in the middle of it, but I think we went out we and got what we wanted.”

With two of the players new to the league and new to the stature of a club like United, it would be easy for either to be overawed by the situation, especially when their announcements took place in the historic Cliff training ground that once played host to the men’s first team under Sir Alex Ferguson.

When United came into the FA Women’s Championship in 2018, Stoney was keen for her younger players to not be overcome by the experience and says she learns a lot about the character of her players when it comes to how they handle such a move.

“I think you encourage players to embrace it in terms of the club and make the most of it and maximize their potential, or you find out a lot about their character and you enable them to show themselves a little bit. That’s our job as coaches, to get to know them as people, know what they need. We’ve also got a fantastic player-care system, we’ve actually had Joe from our player-care system in translating whilst we’re coaching,

“I’ve been on some of their English lessons as well so that we’re actually talking football terminology and learning that way. I’ve learned a little bit of Spanish because luckily, Ivana speaks Portuguese, so that actually works quite well, so Ona and Ivana can have conversations and then Joe comes in and supports us with that, but their English has come on brilliantly. What you do is you treat them as human beings first and not footballers.

“You make sure that they’re looked after, they’ve gone into a house in terms of the club accommodation. I think they’re just having a good time and we try and support them in every way we can to make sure their needs are met and they’re supported, because obviously what they can’t have at the moment is family over. That’s a difficult time for them.”

Playing Catch-up

Whether the three signings to date will be enough to take United one extra place up the table and into the UEFA Champions League next season remains to be seen.

Stoney is keen to once more keep a lid on expectations given how far United are behind their local rivals Manchester City, champions Chelsea, and Arsenal given all three have been in the league much longer than her side, but accepts her side needs to be more consistent to even have a chance of breaking into the top three.

“We’ve been quite honest about our performances in year one. We’re still very young in our journey and to go into that top three we need to be more consistent, we know that. We dropped points against teams we shouldn’t have. If we want to get in there we need to win more, keep more clean sheets, and to do that we need to keep developing our players and our team.

“When you win it’s great, you’re the best thing since sliced bread and when you lose, you’re the worst manager in the world, you know, and that’s part of the job. Being a head coach can be a lonely existence at times, but there will be no one more driven and more expecting than me in terms of what I want to achieve, what I think we can achieve, and what we want to drive the players to achieve.”

The teams in question have also undoubtedly strengthened their squads ahead of the new season, whether it be Chelsea’s capture of Jessie Fleming, Arsenal’s Aussie duo of Lydia Williams and Steph Catley, or Manchester City’s mouth-watering arrivals in the forms of World-Cup-winning duo Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle.

Stoney is determined to take the challenge to all three teams, but is once again realistic about the challenges ahead and the competition also coming from those who finished below them last season.

“Those teams have been doing it year after year,” she said. “We are in our third season. I do say this quite a lot: Is anyone asking the same question to West Ham, who are more into their journey than us, and Tottenham, who are exactly the same position as us? But with the badge comes expectation and I wouldn’t simply show up if I didn’t want that expectation.

“We’re developing our players all the time. We’re driving our standards all the time to try and push into that top three and it has to be our aim and ambition. But we also know we’re in a very competitive league ever and the teams around us are also improving all the time too. Even maintaining fourth is going to be difficult because everybody’s strengthened, but I think it is our biggest test, but it’s also has to be our aim. It can be an aim we might not necessarily achieve, but it can be our aim and I think we’ve got enough in our squad now. I think we are developing all the time.”

Stoney will hope that Fuso, in particular, can help them score more in front of goal as they look to take the challenge to the top three, where they failed to find the net in any of their games against them in the FA WSL last season.

New striker Jane Ross only scored one league goal and while Stoney accepts her team didn’t fire in front of goal last season as much as she’d have liked, she believes they have the quality and depth to rectify the problem this season.

“Listen, we know that that we struggled in that area last season,” she said. “We also got injuries. When Leah [Galton] got injured and Kirsty [Hanson] got injured and we had a few injuries we struggled, we really struggled. I think we’ve got a little bit more depth now you know, we’ve got goals and we’ve done okay in preseason with goals.

“It’s building on that in that final third and we’ve been working in preseason to make sure that we do get more goals. Like I said, the windows still open as well. So you never know, we could add.”

Despite the gap to the top three last season and the strength of the marquee signings all three have added so far this summer, Stoney doesn’t believe her side is playing catch-up.

“I don’t think we’re playing catch-up” said Stoney. “I think we missed out on valuable experience with the season being cut short, we can’t hide away from that. We still had a lot of games to play against top teams and it would have been good experience for the players, so we missed out there.

“I think we’re probably playing catch-up because we’re two years old, rather than the fact that we’ve had months without football. I think it’s about us making sure that we’re doing the right things at the right time and I think at the moment, in our third year, I’m really happy with the squad.”

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith United set for a tough opening test against unbeaten champions Chelsea at Leigh Sports Village, Stoney will likely have to do without the support of the partizan home crowd her team is so used to with games set to be behind closed doors until at least October unless the U.K. government decides FA WSL games can be used as potential test events.

Either way, it currently looks unlikely fans will be at the opening weekend of fixtures and Stoney hopes the league does all it can to increase visibility for fans at home until they can return safely to stadiums.

“I think obviously fans are a big part of football and we do want them to return as soon as it’s safe to do so” she said. “Obviously, the good and bad thing is it doesn’t generate most of your income with fans coming through the gates because we don’t have enough coming through the gates at the moment for it to generate your income. So, on that side, I don’t think it’ll have a huge impact on the game, but obviously we want people in the ground, we want an atmosphere.

“We want to make sure that it’s an advert that people want to pay to keep coming back to watch, we want to keep driving the attendances, and until we can get them back in the ground we can’t do that. But then we have to raise our visibility in other ways. We have to get it on platforms. We have to have more games on BT, we have to make sure that maybe the BBC get involved. Visibility is absolutely massive for the women’s game and if we don’t get that, then you know the game can go in the background, which is not what we want.”