Marc Skinner's personal growth as he returns to Wembley for Women's FA Cup final

Marc Skinner has learned plenty of lessons over the years
Marc Skinner has learned plenty of lessons over the years / Cameron Smith/GettyImages

Manchester United boss Marc Skinner is not new to the Women’s FA Cup final. He took home-town club Birmingham to Wembley in 2017 but suffered a resounding 4-1 defeat to Manchester City in a game that was over as a contest in just 32 minutes.

At that time, Skinner, although involved with Birmingham in various coaching capacities since 2006, was still very new to first-team management. He had not long turned 34 and had only been in the job for six months. Looking back, six years on as he prepares to take Manchester United to their first ever FA Cup final, he admits that mistakes were made in 2017 – but he has learned from them.

That growth as a person and as a manager has helped Skinner take United to the top of the WSL this season, all but certain to now finish in the top three and qualify for the Champions League for the first time, as well as going further in the FA Cup than ever before and in with a chance of winning it.

“What we got wrong at Birmingham was making it a massive event,” Skinner said ahead of Sunday’s final against Chelsea. “We made it too big, put quotes on the wall from players and families, so it became an emotional event rather than being a clear business-like [plan].

“We made mistakes and I think that was naivety. You can celebrate afterwards if you win the cup and be as emotional as you want. There’s going to be enough emotions in the game that we need to save them. I’ve learned from that,” he added.

In contrast to their 2017 FA Cup run, Birmingham struggled in the league when Skinner first took charge. The Blues won only once in the shortened one-off WSL Spring Series that year and he considers himself lucky that there was no relegation – although Birmingham weren’t bottom – because he may never have been in a position where he could be appointed by Manchester United.

Marc Skinner
Marc Skinner took Birmingham to the 2017 Women's FA Cup final / Catherine Ivill - AMA/GettyImages

Two years later, when Skinner was offered the head coach job at Orlando Pride and the chance to work with superstars Alex Morgan and Marta, Birmingham were flying high. He left midway through the 2018/19 WSL season, but his team went on to finish fourth – just two points behind Chelsea.

Orlando was another slow burner that also improved with time. Skinner didn’t win any of his first nine NWSL games and the team finished dead last in the 2019 regular season standings. Yet in 2021, they were unbeaten in the opening seven games and were in first place by the time he was in talks to return to England and replace Casey Stoney at Manchester United.

“You have to have a resilience in a sport where a lot of people like what you do and a lot of people don’t like what you do, the way you do it, or they don’t like you as a person,” he said.

“I think I’ve learned to be calmer and methods to get the message across when everybody is flustered. I’ve learned to try and seek solution rather than be all fire. I don’t think I work off emotion as much as I used to. You’ve got to keep putting blocks in place for your own learning and I think that’s what I’ve done better, but I still want to be better at it.”

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The timing of Skinner’s United appointment meant that he was always up against in his debut season in charge. Most of pre-season had already happened when he stepped through the door and the players were having to learn his system while the season was already ongoing.

“His first season, we didn’t have a pre-season with him at all,” captain Katie Zelem remarked. “It was obviously a slow process in him coming in and everything being sorted. The first few months of the last season, you could see that we needed a bit of time and we were still working on his philosophy.”

Skinner did have pre-season ahead of 2022/23 and, with a season already his belt, it paid dividends. United made an excellent start, winning six games on the bounce without conceding. Now two weeks from of the end of the campaign, they could yet win a league and cup double, but have also already achieved a club record points tally and equalled the WSL single season record for clean sheets.

But he has repeatedly said throughout this season that United aren't the finished product and that sentiment is no different now on the cusp of a cup final and potential silverware.

“You’ve not even seen the tactical evolution of this team, we’ve been quite structured and organised. But it takes time to shift that over years and if you’ve ever watched any of my teams, we tactically adapt and adapt and adapt,” Skinner said, hoping to stick around for a while to come.

“I’ve been really proud of the players this year, especially taking on all the things. I think it was 4 August I hit the ground [in 2021], which was too late. But the girls took it on brilliantly well and we’ve added to that this year. I don’t think there are many teams that can carry a 10-player swing within a season, but we’re no way near where I want to be and [yet] we’re still very, very good.

“We’re maybe slightly ahead [of schedule at United], but nothing that we’re not planning for. If it moves [faster], brilliant, but I want it to be sustained. That’s still going to be my plan over the summer, the recruitment, and how we make it so we’re not just a flash in the pan.”

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