Ahead of their second Manchester derby this weekend (albeit in the league cup), we sat down with Manchester United manager Casey Stoney to chat about everything from the benefits of doing live commentary to having an active hand in every aspect of the club to the delicate balance of the domestic-international schedule.
Commentary, Groenen and the academy
Already slated to be on the mic for when England take on Germany at Wembley, the opportunity to commentate on matches gives the former defender plenty to think about.
“It gives me the opportunity to look at different types of styles of play. I scout every time I’m watching so I’m doing two jobs at the same time and it also gives me the opportunity to see my players in a different environment, in a pressurised environment as well so I do enjoy it and I get to talk about the game very objectively.”
A player that likely required minimal scouting, United’s blockbuster summer signing, Jackie Groenen has already added plenty of spark both on the pitch and in the dressing room.
“She’s been in a World Cup final, she is a European champion. You look at the pass she made when we were playing against Tottenham, when everyone else is thinking she’s going to probe in between the left back and the left centre half and she reverses it to Leah [Galton], with the power that we’ve got in the wings, having Jackie on the pitch with the ability to play forward it makes a difference to us. And also, her energy, the way she gets around the presses and stops the opposition playing; there’s a reason we were talking to her so early last year and I identified that she was a player that was key to moving us through.”
Whether at senior of academy level, the Dutch international has been making more than a little impact.
“I have a real close relationship with the academy coach because I think it’s huge in terms of the pathway and obviously we’ve got two players playing there today, giving them minutes. I think it’s key that we have that working relationship. And she just said to me Martha [Harris] was playing and Jackie was playing and she said they’re amazing with the young players, they went in and helped and she’s no different here, she’s incredible around the players. But they all are, they are a very very tight knit group and she’s become very much part of that.”
Long gone at the days of United graduates reaching their latter teens and being forced to find a senior club to ply their trade at, the academy that has produced so many talented players over the years still in full production mode but now with the benefit of a clear pathway to the senior side.
“They can actually achieve it now and that’s something. I go in at the start of every season and talk to all the parents and the players about the pathway and how important it is. At this football club it’s part of our DNA, we want to make sure we encourage you from within.”
For Stoney, the academy isn’t there to tick boxes; there is no set quota of player to bring through to the seniors but she feels a duty to do right by those in it, to make sure each individual is in the right place.
“If you’re good enough and you work hard enough and you dedicate yourself then it is achievable. Maria Edwards has been coming up and has been on our bench, training with us a few times, during half terms – what we do is we try and look at them when the pressure’s off them educationally a little bit and they come and train with us. We just bring them in when it’s right and we let them go back when it’s right. Because they might come in for a couple of days just to have a taste and that might be enough and then come back in. January onwards we’ll be looking at who’s ready to make the step up and if they’re not then we don’t keep them, we make sure that they go into a place where they’ll go in at the right level.”
Rotation and windows
Without the most generous squad depth in the league – and an eye-popping goalkeeper crisis – Stoney has had to be smart about how she juggles the team but is keen to reward consistent performances.
“It is important, probably most important for the psychology of the player and also you build relationships. Full backs build relationships with the wide players, centre backs build relationships with the midfielders.”
She continued, “Yes, I haven’t kept the same team, I haven’t; some of it has been forced through injury, some of it is because I thought they’re not quite on it at the moment and I’ve got to pick a team to win the game but if you play well you always deserve the opportunity to have another go. Unless there’s something I go, ‘that player is really good at that job that we need in that game’ then I’ll change it, but I’m always really honest with them about why I change it and sometimes it’s not because you’ve done anything wrong it’s just I need something different from that game.”
A player who had been there and done it all, the United boss is already well versed in management and has had the opperunity of seeing the inner workings of the England team from a management perspective (to go with her 18 years as a senior international). So can appreciate the delicate balance between playing domestically and going away on international duty.
“As a club manager I would prefer to have more time to prepare my team but if you spoke to Phil he’d probably say the same thing so it’s a fine balance isn’t it? I also think if the game’s going to be successful, we need an England team to be successful, so we need to give that England team the best chance to be successful; so that contact time for him becomes important. Yes, it’s frustrating when you’ve got a whole preseason… we had two days to prepare against Man City, we had two days to prepare against Tottenham. They get back from SheBelieves, which is an overnight from America, and it’s what, two days before the Conti Cup final, so that’s not ideal and it’s happened before, hence why the Arsenal players didn’t go and the Man City players did and Man City lost. There are scheduling problems still but I do think if the women’s game is going to grow, we do need the England team to do well.”
With the removal of the January window (from 2020 onwards), international managers have been left frustrated and although Stoney is grateful to have her players for longer, notes that it has brought about a sizable hole in the calendar for internationals.
“I actually thought there was too many windows to be honest, I don’t think the January one was necessary, it’s up to the clubs to get them up to speed. It used to be FA Cup straight back in then you’d go away and you lose some consistency there and… but they’ve lost two windows and I think that’s quite significant to lose January and February, that means you haven’t got them from November to March which is a long time in terms of contact time so there is a balance. As a club manager I’m quite pleased because it means I keep my players but as an international manager it makes it quite difficult for you to do your job leading into a major tournament.”
Despite wanting to keep her players for as long as possible, the 37-year-old, is fully appreciative of the benefits of players being called into camp, and only sees international sessions as a way for players to grow both on and off the pitch.
“When I started playing international football, that was the only time I went abroad, you might take that for granted but that was the only time I travelled the world and I’m not going to take that experience away from people so for me I always encourage it and where I can make it happen, I make it happen. But ultimately my job is to make sure we’re successful but if they improve by going away and training in a different environment, by all means, I’m always open to those discussions.”
Tough tests and friendly stewards
As for how busy Stoney keeps herself?
“I manage my recruitment, my scouting, every player a scout I meet. I know my budgets. I talk to marketing, social. Not that I want control over everything, I’m not a control freak, but I think we want to be represented in a certain way. Your team reflects you. I’m keen on reflecting myself and this football club in a really positive way.”
From the players to the stewards, everything about Manchester United Women has the meticulous Stoney touch.
“I say that everyone who comes in this ground [Leigh Sports Village], should walk away, unless you’re an away fan and they’ve lost, with a good experience. I’ve been at other clubs where I’ve walked away and thought ‘I don’t want to come back here’. It’s been 20 minutes to get a ticket, then I get in and the stewards are horrible. When you come here I don’t want that. So, it’s important I have influence on all the departments. We need to remove the barriers and encourage people through the door.”
Their first two fixtures of the year might have been six dropped points but playing the top two – and going toe-to-toe – is the best preparation Stoney could have asked for. Not only has it showed her where the team are at, it’s shown the team right where they need to be too.
“Do you know what when the fixtures came out I was like *scoffs* ‘cheers’. But I didn’t have to sell preseason, because we’ve got Manchester City at the Etihad, then we play the champions. Straight away I knew where we were at and what it did was give us a real belief that we can compete against the top sides and we can go and have a go. We needed to make sure those fine margins turned around a little bit. At the moment we’re fourth in the table, are we exceeding expectations? Probably a little bit. We’re 15 months old, when you put it like that it’s quite an incredible journey that the players have been on so far. So I look at the table and think if we can maintain and sustain and pick up as many points as we can from those around us we’re doing OK but it couldn’t have been a more difficult start, unless you put Chelsea third game.”
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