While Manchester United’s men’s team is unravelling as a former Juventus midfielder who returned to Old Trafford is catching all the headlines, their female counterparts are revelling thanks in part to a player whose career path has taken a similar turn.
Katie Zelem was one of a number of promising young girls to come through United’s Regional Talent Club, but with the club lacking an adult women’s team she was initially left to look elsewhere when it came to making a career of her exceptional talent.
At the age of 17 she was snapped up by Liverpool, and in 2017 she found herself being a part of Juventus’ new venture in the women’s game before being given the opportunity to return to United by Casey Stoney after the Red Devils decided to end 13 years in the wilderness by setting up Manchester United Women this summer.
Three games in to their inaugural Women’s Championship season, Stoney’s side are top of the league with maximum points and a goals return of 20 for and zero against, and the 22-year-old Zelem has been at the heart of much of their great work as a creative playmaking influence in central midfield.
Getting the chance to be a part of United’s phenomenal setup from the start is something Zelem clearly delights in.
“It’s been extraordinary to be honest. At Juventus that’s a huge club too and when I went over there they gave everything to the women’s side. Then I thought not much can top that,” the United number 10 explains. “But Man Utd have proved me wrong, they’ve given us everything and we’ve trained at Carrington, we’ve got all the staff, we’ve got all the facilities, we’re playing in Leigh, we couldn’t ask for much more.
Stoney spent the first couple of months in her role as head coach recruiting 21 new faces to form her first-team squad along with her assistant, former Bristol City Women’s boss Willie Kirk, and Zelem marvels at the way the group have bonded so quickly in the unusual circumstances.
“I feel like I’ve had experience of it before because Juventus was a new team, but we’ve all clicked really naturally and really quickly actually, the staff and the players,” she adds. “Don’t ask me how because I couldn’t ask another team to do it but it’s just happened how it has and it’s worked well for us.
“Casey’s excellent. I played with Casey as well so I already knew what kind of person she was and that kind of brought me here as well, not just Casey but Willie as well – they really complement each other.
“He’s won this league with other clubs so he’s got a lot of experience to bring. So they complement each other well, and so far our training sessions have been a really high standard and I think that’s shown on the pitch.”
It certainly has, with their extraordinary 12-0 opening-day win at Aston Villa having been followed up with a 3-0 home victory against Sheffield United and Sunday’s 5-0 win at London Bees. But Oldham-born Zelem admits that such results haven’t really helped to ease the pressure from outside the club.
“I think there’s a lot of external expectation, but from inside we know what we’re capable of and we’re just trying to achieve our potential.
“I think the 12-0 hasn’t helped really but being Manchester United anyway everyone wants to beat you, especially with us coming into the second division. I think that there’s a lot of press and coverage around that, but we can’t control that so we just play how we do and hopefully the run can continue.”
Watching United’s players engage with fans for long periods of time immediately after full-time has been one of the most thrilling things about following the early progress of the women’s team, and Zelem says the role of inspiration to future generations is one that all the players take seriously.
“The fans have been unbelievable, against Sheffield United it was raining and there were still 2,000 there, that’s more than most of the top division as well. But the near-5,000 when we played Reading [in the League Cup] was obviously a record and for me it’s amazing to see the little girls.
“That’s why I like to spend time with them at the end, because I’ve been there and there’s not been this when I was younger, so for me to just say hello and sign a programme means a lot to them, more than you can imagine. So hopefully that inspires them to be like us one day.”
“It might sound cliched but that’s a big part of the women’s game. We want to inspire and we want to bring the younger generation through.”
Next up for United is a tough test supplied by Durham at Leigh Sports Village on Sunday at 12:00 BST. And win, lose or draw - sun, rain or snow - you can count on Zelem and her team-mates being shoulder to shoulder with their supporters long after the final whistle once more.