Ex-Manchester United manager Casey Stoney has described it as ‘bittersweet’ seeing the team play in front of fans at Old Trafford last month, having led a match behind closed doors last season.
United enjoyed a historic afternoon in front of more than 20,000 fans at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ at the end of March, coming from behind to beat Everton and maintain their challenge for a top three WSL finish and Champions League qualification.
Exactly one year earlier, Stoney’s United had played at Old Trafford. But Covid-19 restrictions at the time ensured it had to be played without fans in the stadium.
Stoney, who was United’s first manager when the team was reformed in 2018, went on to resign at the end of the season. The news was a surprise at the time but also came amid reports of growing tension between her and the club, particularly over training facilities.
The former England captain is now in charge of NWSL club San Diego Wave in the United States, but has insisted she still has strong feelings for her former players.
“It was bittersweet for me,” she said to Sky Sports when asked about Old Trafford.
“Every time I see those players perform well – and I saw them walking out of the tunnel at Old Trafford – it kind of melts my heart in a little way because I don’t just leave a club and forget the players. I’m still in touch with them and care very much about them.
“I want them to be successful, so for them to walk out at Old Trafford, in front of a crowd like they deserve, and win, score goals and enjoy themselves, I’m extremely proud of that group and what they continue to achieve.”
Stoney has said there is no regret about leaving – “It was the right time, for the right reasons.”
Most of the current United squad played under Stoney. But new manager Marc Skinner has worked hard all season to put his own stamp on things and implement fresh ideas, and the former boss said she would refuse to accept any credit should the team get over the line in their Champions League ambition.
“I think they’ve got every chance [of finishing in the top three]. Will I take any credit? No. All of the credit should go to the players because they’re an incredible group of women."
Skinner recently described it as a ‘privilege’ for United to be in the position they are and his consistent message has been about taking it one game at a time, only focusing on what his own team can do in the remainder of the season.
“It’s where we want to be, consistently and pushing towards the top. We can’t control what Man City do, but we’re going to be focused on [our] games – there will be dips in moments of games, because otherwise football would be super boring,” he explained.
“We’ve earned our right to do this and I’m going to remind our players about that every single day. We’ve had knocks this season – but, at the end of the day, it’s a great narrative.”
United have had their opportunity partly because Manchester City struggled for points earlier in the campaign. But this season more than ever has shown a shrinking in the previously wide gap between the top and bottom of the league, ensuring no results are ever guaranteed.
“I’ve been in the WSL before when you go away to Chelsea, or Manchester City, and [you know] you’re going to lose the game and it’s a bit boring. We’re now in a position where any team on their day can gets results. I've loved it this season,” Skinner said.