Katie Zelem explains why joining Man Utd was a 'huge gamble' that has paid off

Katie Zelem will captain Man Utd in Sunday's FA Cup final at Wembley
Katie Zelem will captain Man Utd in Sunday's FA Cup final at Wembley / Matt McNulty/GettyImages

Manchester United captain Katie Zelem gave up a lot to join the club when a women’s team was reformed in 2018. But now she is preparing to lead the team out at Wembley in their first ever Women’s FA Cup final – it will be a moment she says ‘childhood dreams are made of’.

Manchester-born Zelem was only 22 when she got the call to head back United five years ago, having been in the the youth ranks for nearly a decade until being forced to start a senior career elsewhere. But she had already been a WSL champion at Liverpool and was playing abroad with Juventus, with whom she had won Serie A and got into the Champions League with a second club.

United, however, were starting out in the second tier.

“When I first signed five years ago everyone came from different backgrounds, different experiences. For me, it was my childhood club, but I’d just won the league and got into the Champions League at Juventus so it was a huge gamble for me to come back and play in the Championship,” she says.

“If you look back to where we were there to where we are now, it’s a crazy journey. I think it’s been a real rollercoaster with ups and downs. We’ve certainly come on leaps and bounds.

"From being at Leigh with some girls that have never played full-time or never had professional contracts to now being at this stage of the season competing for the double, I think it’s almost immeasurable. If in another five years we’re that far advanced then Manchester United will certainly be one of the biggest teams in Europe. I’m so proud to have been a part of the whole journey.”

Zelem, named captain in 2019 when Alex Greenwood left United for Lyon, is one of the few remaining ‘originals’ in the United squad along with Ella Toone, Leah Galton, Millie Turner. Kirsty Hanson and Emily Ramsey also joined on day one but have spent this season out on loan.

“It’s a bond that we’ll always share,” Zelem explains now. “We know that we’ve been through the same things together and different managers, different players but we’ve been there through it all and I think that’s so special.”

Just as they are in the WSL title race, Chelsea are the team that stand in the way of Zelem’s United and potential FA Cup glory this coming Sunday. The Blues are the only side that United have faced in a competitive game but are yet to beat, but the gap between them has been closing.

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Chelsea won 6-1 at Leigh Sports Village as recently as the second week of last season. But United took the lead at Kingsmeadow twice on the final day of that campaign, albeit eventually conceding four, while this season’s meetings have been closer still and it took a route one Sam Kerr goal to be the sole difference during March’s encounter at Kingsmeadow again.

“We try not to talk about the 6-1!” Zelem laughs. “I think every time we’ve played Chelsea [since then] we’ve improved. We know what they’re about – they’re a team that doesn’t mind not having the ball and are defensively really organised. They’ve obviously got the threat in behind with Sam Kerr and threats on the counter attack. I think we know what their threats are now.

“I’ve said it a lot of times throughout the season, but it’s about confidence and belief. That’s why we’re doing well this year, because we genuinely believe we can win every game. When we play against Arsenal, I think we’ve got that psychological edge over them now and it’s about taking that sort of mentality into the Chelsea game.

“Obviously, Wembley is massive so it’s a bit of a difference when you go from Kingsmeadow to there, so hopefully the pitch size will make a bit of a difference in that. It’s about being patient, keeping the ball and creating chances and taking them when they come. We also know that, [losing] 1-0 in the last game was down to fine margins. One long ball and Sam Kerr scored.”

Zelem, whose father was also a footballer and once played in a Wembley final for Macclesfield, shares the opinion of manager Marc Skinner and plenty of others at United that Sunday is a starting point for the club in their ambitions, rather than any sort of pinnacle.

“I think this is just a baseline of where we want to be,” she explains. “We’ve always said we want to be in the Champions League and have always been close but not close enough. I think this is the turning season that everyone will look back [at].”

And on what it means to be a part of it all, starting with Wembley on Sunday…

“Manchester United lives firmly in my heart,” Zelem says. “Captaining Manchester United and making my debut – then this moment – are certainly up there in my highlights. It’s a club I’ve been at for a really long time and supported my whole life. It’s what childhood dreams are made of.”

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