The Women’s Championship had been a stroll for the newly assembled squad, several of whom were returning to United after previously spending time in the club’s Centre of Excellence as youngsters – for years, United girls had to move on at 16 because there was no first-team.
Others had WSL experience and a handful were internationals, choosing to step down a level to be part of the project.
United also went big with their choice of manager, appointing former England captain Casey Stoney in her first full-time coaching appointment. The drive and competitive edge she had shown during her own glittering playing career was quickly evident in her management style.
A year on since sealing promotion, here’s a look over United’s highlights of the last 12 months…
Trophy Presentation & Record League Crowd
After sealing promotion in April, United were presented with the Women’s Championship trophy in April in front of a record league crowd for the club.
Just over 3,700 people attended Leigh Sports Village that day to see club captain and England international Alex Greenwood lift the trophy at the end of a 5-0 win over Lewes.
Only one other game had brought in more fans and that was the club’s very first home game in the Continental Cup against top flight Reading the previous August when 4,835 watched on.
Despite United’s vast quality compared to the rest of the Women’s Championship, strengthening was going to be key ahead of a WSL campaign against a higher standard of opposition.
The very first new player to agree an incoming transfer was perhaps the biggest of all in the shape of Dutch international midfielder Jackie Groenen, with the deal announced as early as 22 May – only 11 days after the 2018/19 season finished.
Groenen had been named the 33rd best female player in the world in 2018 in The Guardian’s annual top 100 list only six months earlier. After it was announced she would be joining United, she immediately went on to star for the Netherlands at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, scoring the extra-time semi-final winner for the European champions.
Groenen, who had enjoyed a fine debut season for United prior to the coronavirus pandemic putting a halt on the campaign, wasn’t the only important signing last summer. Hayley Ladd has been a revelation in midfield since joining from Birmingham, while Abbie McManus and Jane Ross brought more WSL experience and competition for places.
WSL Opening Day
United actually lost on the opening day of the 2019/20 WSL season, the club’s first ever top flight game. But it was still an historic occasion to remember, a Manchester derby played out in front of a record WSL crowd of 31,213 at the Etihad Stadium.
A single long-range goal from Manchester City’s Caroline Weir decided the game at 1-0, but United more than held their own against one of the WSL’s ‘big three’ and were genuinely unfortunate not to come away from the game with a point. It was a very positive first step.
First WSL Win
Having lost to City, United were then narrowly beaten by reigning champions Arsenal in their second WSL game – the first at home. Only a very late winner from the Gunners decided the contest.
Yet despite the positives of both performances against two WSL giants, two defeats still left United bottom of the table. That made getting a win against a struggling Liverpool in the third game of the season even more important.
United took their time to make dominance count but eventually broke the deadlock through James the day before her 18th birthday, with new captain Katie Zelem making it 2-0 late on.
United faced Manchester City again just over a month after the Etihad clash, with the pair meeting in the group stage of the Continental Cup. This time, United won, proving their top flight merit.
It was a strong City side, packed full of internationals and star names, yet United got off to the perfect start when Zelem scored early on. Sigsworth made it 2-0 in the second half.
Upper Hand Over Everton
It became clear fairly quickly in the 2019/20 season that United were good enough to compete for fourth place in the WSL behind the usual ‘big three’. The key test for that was then going to come down to how they fared against Everton, who had made a strong start.
United first met the Toffees on the road in a Conti Cup match in early November, but rather than a close game between evenly matched sides, Stoney’s side ran out comfortable 3-0 winners.
A first league encounter against Everton followed in early December at home, but United once more scored three to prevail 3-1. The league reverse several months later also yielded a United win: 3-2.
Staying Ahead of Spurs
The first half of United’s debut season as a top flight club was a massive success – five WSL wins plus strong Conti Cup results outweighed league defeat against each of the ‘big three’ and a shock loss against West Ham.
But whether through fatigue or a disruption of momentum brought about by postponements due to weather and pitches, the second half prior to the coronavirus suspension was much tougher.
United kicked off the new calendar year with a frustrating home defeat by struggling Bristol City and later dropped points to Reading and Brighton. Yet a 3-0 home win over fellow former Championship side Tottenham in difficult conditions in late January was welcome relief.
It ensured United stayed firmly in the ‘best of the rest’ conversation, ahead of Spurs, against whom their success can be directly measured given both were promoted at the same time.
United had earlier beaten Spurs 3-0 in the reverse league fixture in October as well.
Source : 90min