Special report: The state of Manchester United’s women’s team – The Athletic

Charlotte HarpurMar 5, 2024

When new Manchester United co-owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe sat down recently with the media to discuss his plans for the club’s future, the focus was, perhaps inevitably, on long-term issues relating primarily to the men’s team.

The women’s team is a relatively new entity, having been founded in 2018, but they have finished in the top four in every one of their Women’s Super League (WSL) campaigns. The media glare and scrutiny on them does not match the men’s team, but the potential for growth is huge.

The weeks since Ratcliffe and his INEOS company were confirmed as minority owners of Manchester United — with responsibility for sporting operations — have been significant for the women’s team at a time when everything at the club is being put under the microscope by INEOS director of sport Sir Dave Brailsford. United lost 3-1 to Arsenal, effectively ending any lingering WSL title hopes, and head of women’s football Polly Bancroft announced she will leave at the end of the season to become chief executive of League Two side Grimsby Town.

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“If it’s a team wearing a Manchester United badge on the shirt, then it’s Manchester United and they need to be focused on winning and being successful,” Ratcliffe said when specifically asked about his ambitions for the women’s side in a written media briefing on February 21.

But for the women’s team to move forward, the club must look back. There have been some key issues in the past which need to be addressed.

In this special report, The Athletic has been told:

  • The club missed out on signings because of delays at senior level
  • United reneged on a verbal deal agreed to keep former striker Alessia Russo at the club
  • There has been a lack of clarity regarding budget and strategy
  • Departure of assistant Martin Ho left a gap in quality of coaching
  • High level of staff turnover has left some players concerned
  • INEOS’ review will include a decision over the future of manager Marc Skinner

When Ratcliffe spoke to a group of journalists shortly after his deal to buy the club was formally confirmed, he provided some insight into how the takeover will affect the women’s team. Although the discourse focused on the men’s side, INEOS is committed to raising performance levels across the board: men’s, academy and women’s teams.

INEOS intends to take a ‘football first’ approach and wants United to be playing the “best football in the world”, but Ratcliffe also appreciates “it is not a light switch, where these things change overnight”. The club have a three-to-four-year timescale for United men to knock Manchester City and Liverpool “off their perch”, as Ratcliffe put it. The aim is to stabilise the men’s side and it would be unrealistic to put women’s football at the top of the list, though a similar timescale to establish United Women as England’s premier force applies. It is not going to be easy and INEOS do not want to give fans false expectations. The group is realistic with its ambitions and is adopting a gradual approach.
There are no plans to splurge cash in the summer transfer window for either team.

Ratcliffe also said he would not comment on the men’s manager Erik ten Hag, but speaking about the men’s team’s history since Sir Alex Ferguson left a decade ago, he said “none of (the coaches) were successful or survived for very long. You can’t blame all the coaches. The only conclusion you can draw is the environment in which they were working, didn’t work”.

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By contrast, in less than six years of existence, the women’s team have had only two managers: Casey Stoney and Skinner, whose contract expires this summer. There is a different dynamic to the men’s team, who have had long-running issues since Ferguson’s departure. Skinner had a very successful second season in charge and a more difficult third year.

Marc Skinner is out of contract this summer (Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Skinner has been under pressure in recent months, with a small section of vociferous fans wanting him sacked. A disappointing 1-1 draw at second-bottom West Ham United on Sunday left his team 12 points adrift of Chelsea with seven games left. Hopes of playing in Europe next year are also dwindling, with a nine-point gap between themselves and third-placed Arsenal.

When The Athletic asked Manchester United about the state of the club and the issues raised in this article, a club spokesperson said: “We are proud of the progress made by our women’s team since its inception six years ago. Last season, we finished second in the WSL, qualifying for the Champions League for the first time, and reached our first FA Cup final. This season, we have opened new facilities for the team at Carrington, which are among the best in the country. We know there is still much we can improve, and we are determined to do that as part of the club’s drive for success on the pitch from all our teams.”

But Skinner’s position is inevitably under the microscope. INEOS’ mantra, often repeated by Ratcliffe, is “best in class” and the manager needs to convince his new bosses he fits that description. He was not rewarded with a new deal at the end of last season but discussions are ongoing regarding an extension, with INEOS ultimately deciding his future.

Ratcliffe also said United must have a club-led style of play, which will be devised by new chief executive Omar Berrada (who will join from Manchester City this summer), INEOS, along with a new sporting director and head of recruitment. It would make sense for that one-club playing style to include the women’s team, but the club are yet to decide if that will be the case.

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The 71-year-old billionaire was also asked about a stadium for the women’s team. They play at Leigh Sports Village (LSV), a 12,000-capacity stadium shared with rugby league team Leigh Leopards, 25km from Manchester city centre. The women’s team have played at Old Trafford just five times since their founding in 2018 and Ratcliffe revealed he would like to build a brand new ‘main’ stadium while raising the possibility of reducing Old Trafford’s 74,310 capacity to make a smaller facility for “community things, be it a concert or whatever”.

He added: “The ladies’ teams, academy teams, some of the local teams could play there and Old Trafford could become a community asset and then you’d have this world-class stadium next door.”

Ratcliffe seemed excited about the idea of adapting Old Trafford to a state-of-the-art facility and it would be a vast improvement. However, referring to the women’s team as “ladies”, not having a stadium design bespoke to women’s football, nor having a dedicated home for their sole usage — as Olympique Lyon Feminine, one of Europe’s leading women’s teams, plan to have — is somewhat disappointing.

Ratcliffe was also asked about his views on a possible return for Mason Greenwood. The forward joined La Liga side Getafe on loan on the final day of the summer transfer window and the implication was that his future would lie away from Old Trafford. It came after an internal club investigation following a decision in February by the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to discontinue its case against him for attempted rape, assault, and coercive control after key witnesses withdrew their cooperation from the investigation. Greenwood denied all the alleged offences.

When asked if a fresh decision on the player would be made, Ratcliffe said: “Yes, absolutely. We will make a decision and we will justify it.”

Staff members have voiced unease at a possible turnaround on Greenwood’s future at United. The internal sentiment which forced a U-turn on plans to bring him back into the fold in August has not changed in recent months.

Ratcliffe and Brailsford have met the players and staff of the women’s team once so far — in January before they flew to their warm-weather training camp in Malta. Fans are yet to see INEOS representation at a women’s game, but that will change and INEOS is discussing who that representative will be. Tom Crotty, an INEOS director since 2001 and a public face for the company, is the designated INEOS representative on the Manchester United women’s football board. He will be the emissary to the women’s unit to ensure close connection between the team and the club.

“There’s a really positive injection of energy, quality and brains,” Skinner said at the end of January when asked about INEOS. “It’s going to be positive steps forward for everyone involved.”

Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Sir Dave Brailsford toured the club’s Carrington training ground in January before officially taking over sporting control (Manchester United via Getty Images)

INEOS wants its teams to feel valued and included and it aims to ensure the women’s side will operate at the same level, with the same commitments, as the men’s side. Brailsford, the former mastermind of cycling’s Team Sky, an organisation which did not create a women’s cycling team, will be in charge of elite football performance and will conduct a thorough review of each team’s existing operations before implementing changes. He is taking a look-and-learn approach to all departments.

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The appointment of Berrada from Manchester City and the impending recruitment of former Brighton & Hove Albion technical director Dan Ashworth from Newcastle United as sporting director bodes well for United’s women’s team, who moved from temporary portable cabins and the use of a tent as a gym into their new multi-million-pound base at Carrington at the start of this season.

Berrada and Ashworth were instrumental in ensuring City and Brighton’s women’s teams received the highest level of facilities. Berrada was a member of the WSL and Women’s Championship working group, while Ashworth, who briefly worked with former England manager Hope Powell at England’s Football Association (FA), told The Athletic in 2020 that he is “passionate” and “supportive” of the “quickly-expanding” women’s game and applauded its growing popularity before many others.

INEOS’ direct impact on the women’s team is yet to be felt in these early days. No strategy has been set out or communicated to the women’s team, though that is understandable given its stake in the club was only officially confirmed on February 20.

New people at the helm of the club’s sporting operation means change is afoot, to structures and personnel.

INEOS will conduct an audit of how the women’s team is set up and how those responsible for its success are performing.

There have been many departures in the past year, the most recent being Bancroft, the head of women’s football, who joined in October 2022. The former Brighton & Hove Albion general manager was tasked, according to her LinkedIn profile, with overseeing the strategic direction, operations, and performance of the women’s first team and academy. It was a large remit and very different to the one she had at her previous club Brighton.

Bancroft handled day-to-day decision-making and reported to Andy O’Boyle, United’s deputy football director, who works closely with John Murtough, responsible for all United’s football activity, including the women’s team.

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“She’ll be very pleased with the work she’s done,” said Skinner, who worked alongside Bancroft, during his press conference on Friday. “Polly is a very bright, intelligent person and I’m sure she’ll make a success of her next role. I want to thank her for all she has done at Manchester United.”

One former club employee, like most sources in this article speaking on condition of anonymity to protect relationships, described Bancroft as “firm but fair” and said she hit the ground running when first appointed, while one agent said they have a “huge amount of respect” for what she has done for women’s football. On the other hand, The Athletic has also been told of a few concerns about her level of communication regarding players’ futures, while agents say they have rarely dealt with her, which is surprising given her title as head of women’s football.

The club see Bancroft’s departure as a small bump in the road but believe she has left a solid foundation. INEOS, who had met Bancroft, is looking at potential candidates for her replacement.

She is not the only staff member to have left or to be leaving. The summer departure of assistant Martin Ho, described as a driving force behind the women’s team, left a big hole in the coaching department, with some feeling a step up is required to reach the standard expected by elite players.

The women’s head physio, Ibrahim Kerem, transitioned to the men’s team, a move seen by some as devaluing the women’s side. The Athletic has reported previously how physios of men’s teams are generally better paid than those on the women’s side, so such moves are not uncommon. The club see this particular switch as a positive switch that shows career development opportunities exist and in the future cross-fertilisation across men’s and women’s teams, going both ways could be a possibility. In the past 12 months, the first team’s performance nutritionist, physio and doctor have all left. The interim head of physio is also expected to leave in the coming weeks and the club are advertising for a replacement until the end of the season. The under-21s head coach, goalkeeping coach and analyst also left towards the end of last year. The club appointed a new under-21s head coach last week.

A former employee explains many staff did not have line managers or regular touchpoints and no one knew who to turn to if they were frustrated or unhappy. According to one agent, such a high level of turnover has left some players concerned, while another empathised with such sentiments and agreed the situation was unsettling. Goalkeeping coach Ian Willcock is the only first-team technical staff member left from former manager Stoney’s reign. A club spokesperson said they are putting in place additional support for players and staff to reflect the growing expectations and scrutiny around the women’s team, alongside personalised programmes of support.

Over the past two seasons, Manchester United say they have invested in several new permanent staff positions supporting the women’s team and girls’ academy, including in analytics, operations, recruitment, medical and player care. They are conscious of the volatility of staff turnover, acknowledging the women’s side is growing, does not have the same economic foundations as the men’s side, and people are building their careers. Over time, there is a desire to establish a more stable team.

At this point, Ratcliffe’s words are particularly pertinent: “It is going to be intense at times,” he said, “but equally it needs to have warmth and friendliness and be a supportive structure because the two things marry together well.”

With three days to go before the January transfer window closed, manager Skinner sent out a direct message to the club: “It’s clear we need quality in depth,” he said after United’s 2-1 win against Aston Villa. “If we’re going to chase down Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City, we’ve got to continue to invest to their levels.”

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Skinner acknowledged the quality in his team but called for “additions” and more “experienced players”. “I can’t hit that home hard enough, can I?” he said. United urgently needed a left-back after Gabby George suffered an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury in October, but despite Skinner’s desperate call to action and players being offered to the club, United decided not to recruit in January. Their squad is thin and has been hampered by long-term injuries to George, Hinata Miyazawa (fractured ankle) and Emma Watson (ACL). Looking to their rivals, Chelsea paid a then-world record fee of £428,000 (including add-ons) for Mayra Ramirez to replace Sam Kerr and brought in Nathalie Bjorn in the absence of captain Millie Bright. Meanwhile, Manchester City spent £200,000 on Laura Blindkilde Brown as cover for the injured Jill Roord.

Having failed to keep their best players Ona Batlle and Russo last year and with Champions League qualification rounds on the horizon, United needed to invest in their squad last summer. According to a club spokesperson, they implemented a short and long-term squad strategy approach and the hiring of head of player recruitment, Harvey Bussell, is a sign they are evolving their talent identification strategy. United, however, do not have any scouts. They are not alone in that regard in the WSL, though Chelsea and Arsenal employ scouts specifically for their women’s teams. The club made seven permanent signings, making them the highest-spending WSL team, but business was done very late. Although the squad had more depth at the end of the summer transfer window compared to the start, the incoming signings have yet to take United to the next level.

One key issue has been a lack of clarity and direction in the women’s team’s operations and negotiation processes. The Russo saga was a case in point; according to sources close to the club, during the January transfer window, United shook hands on a deal for their star striker to stay, only to renege on several conditions, leading to it collapsing.

In negotiations for other players, multiple sources said United were pushing hard bargains, made disrespectful lowball offers and tried to find ways to save nominal figures here and there.

Multiple sources involved in deals said the club’s processes can be convoluted. Sam Barnett, United’s football negotiations manager, moved over from the men’s side before the summer despite not having any experience in the women’s game. United’s director of football negotiations Matt Hargreaves, Bancroft, Barnett, Bussell and Skinner were involved in recruitment and negotiations at varying degrees at different stages. The club have let past and current contract negotiations — such as in the case of Mary Earps — drift for over 18 months, which is not a good look as questions arise as to why a resolution has not been found. Poor communication from those in charge regarding budget and strategy for contract renewals, signings and transfer fees are said to have delayed negotiations and led to United missing out on players. This caused frustration and removed confidence in dealing with the club.

Mary Earps’ Manchester United future is uncertain (Charlie Crowhurst – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

Barnett left United at the end of 2024 and, in the interim period, Hargreaves has assisted on the women’s side. The club have recruited a new head of negotiations across the academy and women’s football to assist him. Although Bancroft had autonomy to make decisions regarding strategy and how to use the budget, like many clubs, there is always a sign-off process on significant matters such as player transfers. Ultimately, any decision needs board approval from top management such as O’Boyle and Murtough.

A club spokesperson said they are continuously professionalising their processes to be more strategic in their approach. A women’s team steering committee including senior representatives from key club departments, such as operations, commercial, communications and legal, provides guidance and ensures the interests and needs of the women’s team are understood at the top levels of the club.

There is a sense from multiple sources close to the squad that there is a brilliant connection among the players who have rallied together, are supportive of each other and are still competitive despite the issues raised in this article.

At the moment, staff, players and external stakeholders are in limbo. A lack of clarity has far-reaching repercussions on the make-up of the squad.

It appears everyone is waiting for an overhaul, but it remains to be seen exactly where INEOS wants to take the women’s team, when changes will be made or who will be involved.

Additional reporting by Mark Critchley and Dan Sheldon

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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Charlotte Harpur is a women’s football writer for The Athletic UK. She was previously a junior editor for the news desk. Charlotte has written for The Daily Telegraph, The Times and finished in the top three of the 2018 SJA Student Sportswriter of the Year competition. Prior to The Athletic, she was head of French at a school in the East Midlands. Follow Charlotte on Twitter @charlotteharpur

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