Exclusive - Manchester United star Ella Toone will live out her dreams on Sunday when the team plays at Old Trafford in front of fans for the very first time.
Toone was part of the United that side beat West Ham at the famous stadium last season, but Covid-19 restrictions at the time ensured it had to be played behind closed doors and was eerily quiet – Mary Earps told 90min this week that it felt like something was missing that day.
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For Toone, who grew up a United fan and spent six years in the club’s youth ranks before returning in 2018 upon the reforming of a first-team squad, it is arguably even more special than most.
“It means everything to me,” she tells 90min. “Growing up a United fan, this stadium is a massive part of me. I want to go out there and just enjoy the moment and the occasion. I’ll have my family and friends in the stands and our amazing fans as well.
“It will be a special day for us all, especially me. Growing up through the academy and always wanting to play on this pitch – in front of fans on this pitch. I think it’s just that extra special moment. I’m a United fan playing for the club and I want to go out here and just enjoy it as much as I can.”
With no men’s game this weekend as a result of the international break, the women’s team have been the centre of attention. The front of Old Trafford features huge new branding with exclusively female players, while every member of the squad is represented with their own poster on the walls across the concourse. Tickets have been promoted to tens of millions of followers on the club’s main social media accounts and tens of thousands are expected to attend, potentially ensuring the game will serve as a watershed moment and leave a lasting legacy if new fans are bitten by it.
“We’re going to have so many more fans than we do at Leigh,” Toone says. “Hopefully the fans who are in the stadium for the first time will come and support us at Leigh as well – it’s our home ground and we love it as well. Hopefully we can put on a performance and can get as many fans as we can.”
The subject of fans is something that strikes a chord with Toone. Speaking glowingly about the support they receive from the passionate and loyal ‘Barmy Army’ is a recurring theme among United players in general, with the squad incredibly grateful and humbled by unrivalled fandom.
“I think [the support] is amazing. The fanbase we’ve got, we’ve had them from the start and they’ve grown in numbers over the years,” Toone says.
“They go to every home and away game and they’re so loud and have their chants. They’re so passionate about the club and about us as players. Every time we step out onto that pitch, they’re our 12th man. Every time we go out, we want to put on a performance for them, because they put the love into us, so we want to say thank you in how we perform on the weekend.”
That United are playing at Old Trafford, replicating the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal previously hosting games at the Etihad Stadium, Stamford Bridge and Emirates Stadium respectively, is an indicator of the ongoing rapid growth of women’s football in England.
The WSL is thriving thanks to commercial and broadcasting deals accelerating the visibility of the game and the individuals who play it. WSL clubs have been fully professional since 2018 and the league has also been able to market itself well off the back of big support for the England national team.
It has all served to raise the profile and Toone, who is seen by many as the face of Manchester United due to her longstanding connections with the club and local upbringing, has experienced being increasingly recognised away from football – but it is something she has embraced.
“I think the game is growing so much and it has done over such a short amount of time over the last couple of years. It helps with the broadcasting, being on the telly when we play,” she explains.
“Obviously, a lot more people recognise you – I was in the Trafford Centre and a girl wanted a selfie and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m only doing shopping’. It’s mad but that’s what we want to happen, to be more visible, to keep [the game] growing as much as it can. We’ll try and help that as well.”
The idea of being a role mode is also something that Toone is only too happy to accept as the next generation of young girls look up to players like her who have been professional footballers from the very start of their senior careers – something that wasn’t the case as recently as five years ago.
“[Being a role model] is one of the main things why we do what we do. We want to be the best role models we can for all the young boys and girls growing up – I think that’s what we pride ourselves on,” she says.
“Even little things like signing a shirt after a game, or getting a selfie with a young girl, that will make their day. For us, it’s about inspiring the next generation of girls and boys to get involved in football.”