This time 20 years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson was in the middle of masterminding the achievement that would cement his name among the greats of the game. Manchester United’s treble success in 1999 is the 10-day period for which the pre-eminent manager will forever be best remembered.
While the Scot’s long list of triumphs are never likely to be repeated, United have been left searching desperately in the six years since Ferguson’s retirement for a manager who can represent the values which made the club so great for so long.
In 2018 they found one. Whereas David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho unsuccessfully tried at various stages to stamp their own imprints on the club, when United went about recruiting a head coach for their new women’s team they hit the jackpot first time.
Casey Stoney hardly had the easiest of jobs either. Upon being appointed, she had to build a squad of 21 players in a matter of a few weeks and identify the backroom staff who would help to ensure that Manchester United’s values were reflected in the women’s team from the off.
“When I first took the job on it was daunting because you have to build this whole project,” she tells Goal. “But I’m at a football club where I get an enormous amount of support to do everything. I needed to identify the players, I needed to work out which people I wanted to bring on this journey and I did that. But I’ve got to say those first four weeks were tough, there were a lot of sleepless nights and lots of journeys but we got there and it’s been well worth it.”
Thanks to the work Stoney has done, United’s women’s section already has the Manchester United vibe which has been missing from the male branch for far too long. She didn’t need to have had experience of being at the club to instantly recognise what needed to be achieved and how it should be attained.
In a first season in which they dominated the Women’s Championship and beat four Women’s Super League sides in cup competitions, Stoney has demanded the very highest levels of intensity from her squad.
Even when they took a 5-0 lead against Lewes 10 minutes from the end of their final match of the season last Saturday they were running the ball back to halfway in the quest for the two goals which would take them to 100 across their 20 league games.
That was typical of the high bar the former England captain has set over her 11 months in the role.
“It’s been an emotional and an incredible journey,” she adds of her first season in charge. “We are where I expected us to be, based on the players’ hard work, the recruitment we’ve done and the staff we’ve recruited.
“I demand very, very high standards and they know that, and sometimes it drives them crazy, but I’m preparing them for the next level and they have all delivered. I’m proud of how far they’ve come but they now know that it’s break time and then we’re going to go again.”
For midfielder Katie Zelem, who was named the club’s first-ever Women’s Player of the Year recently, it is Stoney’s drive which has seen United hit such immediate highs.
“She’s had such high standards from the minute we came in. She even had us doing the Yo-Yo Endurance Test with three days left of the season,” Zelem explains to Goal. “But that’s Casey all over as a manager and as a person, she’s great to have around and she demands high standards but that’s what we need. We’re quite a young, inexperienced squad but for Casey to drive those standards up is what we needed this year and going into next year.”
Everything about Stoney’s approach speaks to her being an archetypal Manchester United manager. The standards are set whatever the opposition, there is a desire to play the game the right way, and the thirst for success is evident in every word she speaks.
Next up for Stoney and United is a first season in the top flight, and the boss is ready for the increase in pressure which is bound to come with their promotion.
“If I didn’t want expectation I wouldn’t have taken this job. And if I didn’t want pressure I wouldn’t have taken this job. I like the pressure, I like the expectation, and it’s up to me now to make sure that we can deliver on that. In the Super League we will make sure we can go and compete, and as we do we will play our style of football and that won’t change.”
The women’s success this term has been a much-needed fillip for a club which continues to search for the elixir in the men’s game. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has preached the need for the club to regain its identity since becoming manager in December, and the months ahead will be huge as he bids to replicate Stoney’s success in building a squad which typifies Manchester United at its best.
“When it has been tough on the other side I think the women’s team has brought positivity and a buzz around the club,” Stoney adds. “It means that we’ve been able to celebrate success. The key thing is that we want the men to join us next year, and with Ole in charge we’ve got every chance.”
In every game, every training session, every interview, Casey Stoney comes across as a Manchester United manager through and through. Such individuals who immediately understand the club and its needs are the kind of valuable commodity Old Trafford could do with more of.