Manchester United Women

Man Utd looking to next challenge of filling Leigh Sports Village after Old Trafford showcase

Jamie Spencer
Man Utd Women played in front of 20,241 people at Old Trafford on Sunday
Man Utd Women played in front of 20,241 people at Old Trafford on Sunday / Clive Brunskill/GettyImages

Manchester United can consider Sunday’s WSL clash with Everton at Old Trafford a huge success, but the important thing now is for that success to translate to home games at Leigh Sports Village.

It was the first time that United’s women had played at Old Trafford in front of fans after Covid-19 ensured a 2021 fixture against West Ham to be staged behind closed doors.

More than 20,000 people were there to see goals from Alessia Russo (2) and Katie Zelem secure a 3-1 comeback win, bolstering the team’s claims for a Champions League place. That attendance broke the club’s previous record crowd more than five times over.

The stadium was dressed for the occasion, inside and out – manager Marc Skinner spoke glowingly afterwards about the ‘hard work’ that staff had put into promoting the game and making Old Trafford a true home for the team – and the atmosphere was exceptional.

The loyal ‘Barmy Army’, who travel home and away without fail, sang at their usual volume throughout but were complemented this time by thousands upon thousands more.

The vast majority who attended don’t go to WSL games at Leigh, where United have been based since reforming in 2018 and would typically welcome between 1,000 and 3,000 on a matchday depending on various factors such as the opposition or weather.

Many at Old Trafford will also have been at a women’s match for the very first time. What they experienced was a wonderful example of the quality and excitement it has to offer. The level of noise inside the stadium suggested that most really enjoyed themselves.

Leaving the stadium, this writer happened to overhear a small boy wearing a United shirt bearing the name of Bruno Fernandes telling his family that ‘…women’s football is really good, maybe even better than men’s football, actually’.

The hope is that plenty who were there will now want to experience it again.

Upon the final whistle, Old Trafford’s resident matchday announcer Alan Keegan reminded the crowd of upcoming WSL games back at Leigh between now and the end of the season.

“I hope they come to support us at Leigh as well and I think it’s important that we don’t just stamp it and move on,” Skinner reflected.

The boss added that he was ‘proud of the fans for turning up’… on Mother’s Day to boot.

While Old Trafford served as a great advert, not everyone will come back in the same numbers – Leigh is not the most easily accessible stadium without a car, located on the north west outskirts of Greater Manchester. Yet those who were in awe of Alessia Russo’s goals, Ella Toone’s creativity or Ona Batlle’s speed will have a massive reason to want to see it all again.

If 18,000 of Sunday’s crowd wouldn’t usually be at Leigh, even just 5% deciding to buy tickets to see United face Brighton at home next weekend off the back of what they experienced at Old Trafford would be close to 1,000 people more than normal – absolutely huge in relative terms.

From there, snowballing up to Leigh's 12,000 capacity will be the longer-term aim. Occasional returns to Old Trafford next season and beyond will also provide timely boosts in exposure.

It takes very little to fall in love with a football team. In women’s football even less so because fans can immediately feel so much closer to the players – the respect and adoration goes both ways, with players usually staying on the pitch after games for pictures, autographs and chats.

“There will be people here that have never experienced women’s football,” Skinner explained. “I’m walking past [the crowd] and have seen loads and loads of young girls. My daughter loves Ella Toone. We’ve never told her to love anyone. She loves Ella Toone and she sings the songs about Ella Toone and that’s because they can see them, they can feel them, they can touch them.

“When we can feel close to something, we feel part of it. That’s just human nature.

“For us, to fill Leigh, we just need to expose the players so that [people] can see what we’re doing. Women’s football has always been a little bit more unique, where you feel like you can touch it a little bit more. Men’s football has obviously been built for so long that it’s hard to touch it.”

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