Last week, a day before her 39th birthday, Casey Stoney announced that she would be stepping down from her role as manager of Manchester United Women at the end of this season. Her resignation has been met with acrimony from the already-angered supporters, with many at the club now flummoxed about the road ahead for the Red Devils.
United’s women’s team were disbanded in 2005 when the club’s then new owner, Malcolm Glazer, deemed a women’s team unprofitable and hence, unworthy of his core business (surprise, surprise). Thirteen years later, in 2018, the club reinstated the women’s side after they were granted the licence to play in the FA Women’s Championship, the then newly formed second tier of women’s football in England.
A highly decorated player in her time and venerated as a significant figure in English women’s football, Casey Stoney was given the reins of this nascent United side. Under her tutelage, United were promoted to the FA Women’s Super League at the first time of asking after comfortably winning the Championship. When the 2019-20 WSL was curtailed because of the COVID pandemic, United finished fourth, already promising to be ready to challenge the very top teams in the league less than two years after their reinstatement.
When Stoney arrived, she was made a lot of promises in terms of resources she’d be provided to accelerate United’s journey to the top of women’s football. She was promised that the club will revamp The Cliff, the former training ground of the men’s squads, and make it a dedicated training site for her team. The refurbishment has not been completed yet, with COVID cited once again as the reason for sidelining any investment in the women’s game. She was also promised continued and improved player acquisitions, which the club didn’t really manage to fulfil after the first season. American superstars Tobin Heath and Cristen Press did arrive on significantly high salaries but that only further skewed the wage bill, and given the injuries both suffered this season, their wages stung further, with the two now likely to return to the States.
At the start of the year, the women’s team were relocated from Leigh Sports Village (LSV), their usual training and matchday site, to the Aon Training Complex where the men train. This was done because the team continued to suffer from frequent injuries due to the poor quality of the pitches at LSV. At Aon, Stoney had to fit her side’s schedule around the men’s senior, U23, and U18 sides. As far as basic amenities are concerned, her players were unable to avail showers between training and meals. The gym they were allotted was in a tent, with the nearest toilet facilities no less than a 10-minute walk away.
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Manchester United had started this season strongly. Despite having a core of players who played in the Championship, Stoney’s women were able to reach the top of the WSL, threatening the oligopoly of Manchester City, Chelsea, and Arsenal, all of whom are drastically more experienced and well-funded sides. However, United’s predicament behind the scenes meant this charge could not continue over the whole season, and after being top of the table by January, the Red Devils fizzled out and ended the season in fourth, one point off Arsenal in third – marginally missing out on Champions League qualification. Stoney called this her “personal failure”.
Surprisingly, the resignation of Ed Woodward, United’s outgoing executive vice-chairman, also irked her. For all the criticism laid on his door, Casey always talked positively about Woodward, who maintained a healthy relationship with her and seemingly had a genuine interest in raising the stature of the women’s team to the same level as their men’s counterpart. His departure was something she was completely unaware of, and that added uncertainty further made things worse.
The behind-the-scenes hardships had left Casey wanting to quit much earlier than she eventually did. Any other promises or changes the club could pledge were too late. After building the team from the ground up and bringing them right at the precipice of top-flight success, she decided to call it a day in Manchester.
The club’s failure in properly supporting the women’s team, down to the point where they’re barely provided basic human amenities, is yet another blot on the owners’ long-tarnished reputation at the club, which in the light of past few weeks continues to do them no favours. They had struck gold with Stoney, who shone not only because of her management, but also because of her connection with the community in and around the club. With her departure, many key players at the club are also set to leave, leaving the supporters staring into the wilderness of next season. Having just about threatened the “Big 3” in the league, United now face stagnation, or worse, regression.
As for Casey Stoney herself, her reputation as a manager has soared on the back of her Manchester United tenure. While there are no confirmations yet, there are already reports of offers emerging for her from the US. She is destined to have at least as decorated a career as a manager as she did as a player, but for now, as a United fan, I can all but thank her for her service to the club, apologise on the owners’ behalf for the lack of support, and wish her very best for wherever she goes next.