The sun beat down as the players mingled with fans at the front of the stands. Around 1,000 of the 4,835 crowd had stayed back and were being rewarded with autographs and photos with their new heroes, who hung around for a good 30 minutes to spend time with the supporters
It is fair to say that Manchester United Women’s first home game had been a huge success.
That they lost on the field was secondary on a day like this one. A 2-0 defeat to Women’s Super League side Reading in the FA Continental Tyres League Cup was the only thing that didn’t go to script.
But it was no reflection on United’s effort, and it certainly did nothing to weaken a bond which has already begun to form between the players and their supporters as evidenced by the scenes after full-time.
There was a great showing of support from the club too. Former United men’s stars Bryan Robson and Quinton Fortune were in attendance, along with executive vice-chair Ed Woodward and fellow directors Richard Arnold and Cliff Baty among others.
As a project, the club have wanted to show they are serious about their involvement in the women’s game, and the appointment of Casey Stoney as head coach has already seen them punch above their weight in their first couple of games.
Seven weeks into their experience together, Stoney’s team have already beaten Liverpool and now given a Reading side who should go well in the top flight this season a run for their money. The signs are good ahead of their Women’s Championship campaign.
Saturday was always going to be about the fans first and foremost. And not just about how many of them the new United Women’s team could attract, but also about showing the young girls in the crowd that they too can have the dreams that boys have had for decades. They too could now grow up and play for Manchester United.
“On behalf of the girls I just want to thank the fans, they were outstanding today,” captain Alex Greenwood told reporters afterwards. “That was fantastic to see. If we could get that every home game it would be fantastic. I can’t thank them enough for coming out, it’s a massive boost for the girls.”
Even head coach Stoney was taken aback by the success of the occasion despite her obvious disappointment that her team didn’t get a result out of the game to match their endeavour.
“I didn’t know what it was going to be to be honest, so yes I am surprised. It’s huge for women’s football, that sort of crowd, so it just shows you what scope this football club has got,” she said. “It’s exciting for me as a coach but more importantly it’s exciting for them as players because that’s what they work for.
“The crowd was really important to us, to make sure that we drew a crowd, but obviously we would have loved to have won the game. But bigger than that was the performance, the attitude of the players and the fact they really had a go.”
United had Reading on the back foot for much of the game but couldn’t make the most of their chances. A second-half goal by Brooke Chaplen had them chasing the game and Gemma Davison would wrap it up in the 95th minute after breaking clear as United pushed for the equaliser.
Stoney, though, knows that her newly-formed side won a lot of new supporters regardless of the defeat.
“You have to look at it in the bigger picture," she said. "We’ve been together seven weeks and we’ve matched one of the teams that I think will be competing for silverware this year, so I’m really, really, really proud of every single one of the players today and the shifts they’ve put in for seven weeks to be able to produce a performance like that. I’m hoping the 4,800 fans saw enough today that they want to come back.”Watching them leave with beaming smiles and mementos to treasure, it seems a safe bet.