Named as the new Manchester United captain after Alex Greenwood’s sudden departure to Lyon, Katie Zelem has taken on her new responsibilities with aplomb, whilst staying the same old loud person her friends and teammates know and love.
Still just 23-years-old, Zelem is still one of the more experienced players in the United team, the midfielder a double league winner with Liverpool, before a spell with current Serie A champions, Juventus.
Despite her years in the sport, the boom the women’s game has received since the World Cup has catapulted WSL and the Lionesses to the forefront of the public consciousness, and Zelem admits, it’s an exciting time to be involved with the women’s game in England.
“It’s really positive. Some of my friends who maybe haven’t seen much about women’s football in the past are always messaging me saying, ‘Katie, we’ve seen this on TV’ and ‘we’ve seen little new clips’ and that’s so refreshing to hear, how hard people have worked behind the scenes and we’re finally getting recognition and not just our team, but the sport as a whole. I think since the World Cup, you can the attendances have really rose and, with us playing at the men’s stadiums, that’s really pushed it forward.”
Given a trial by fire in their first two league games against last season’s top two, Manchester City and Arsenal, the Red Devils may have shocked many by going toe-to-toe with the two of the biggest and best teams in the country. But as always, there is the expectation of greatness from a club that bares the name, Manchester United.
“Manchester United is a huge club so there’s probably expectations from the outside that, maybe people less into women’s football thought that we were just going to fly in, but within the women’s game, I think people are a little bit surprised, yeah. We only conceded two goals against the two top teams, and then had two clean sheets, so for me, we didn’t take away the points we would have wanted, but apart from that it’s been a good start.”
Having risen an eyebrow or two after opting to spend their first season in the second tier, rather than going straight into WSL, the Oldham native insists the first season in the Championship was vital for laying the foundations to carry forward.
“For me, it was the best decision they could have made. I think at first, of course, there was a lot of umming and ahhing about it, Manchester United in the second division, but it helped us build our foundation. Casey was then able to get the players she wanted and make the team her own. I think if we had come straight into the top league, we would have had a lot of pressure on winning games and how many points we’d have got and that wasn’t really what it was about. It was about building a team and a foundation to come into this league and now you can see how well that’s worked out.”
With the women’s game historically never too far from an international break, there is no rest for the players in Casey Stoney’s squad who don’t get called up by their national teams. The reduced players to work with, benefiting the individuals who have extra one-on-one time with their coaches.
“I think that’s really beneficial to be honest. Obviously, we’ve got girls that go away, some not just with England but with other national teams, but we’ve got a strong core of the starting team that actually stay when people go on international break. Not always do we work on team things, but it allows us to develop individually. There’s obviously less players here and still a lot of staff around so Casey and Glenn [Harris] can focus on our individual needs more.”
Having enjoyed a spell in Italy with Juventus, Zelem was thrust into a foreign culture and fast had to adapt, the experience one that’s only improved her as a player and grown her as a person.
“I think I was quite young when I went away and I came back like a different player to be honest. For me it developed me a lot as a person, I didn’t quite realise I just stepped on a plane and I was gone and then had to just deal with everything when I got there. And some little things you don’t think of, everyone thinks oh the language barrier but the culture is so different, there’s so many things you don’t realise until you’re there and nobody can understand you, that you then have to deal with and I think that really improved me as a person.”
Her empathy having increased for the experience, “I’ve come back and you can see things from a different perspective. Before I used to think why do they want to go home for two days, why are they so bothered and when I was there I was like get me on a flight now I wanna go home. So now I can just have a broader understanding of things.”
A natural choice for captain in the team, Zelem had noted as well as having to face the media more since being given the armband, she is someone her teammates will go to before others.
“The girls obviously look to me a bit more now just like I would if someone else was the captain, especially the younger players if they want advice, maybe it’s better to come to another player rather than a coach. I’m quite loud as it is so that will never change whether I’m the captain or not, so that’s probably one of the reasons that Casey went with me to be honest. I don’t feel like I should change now she’s selected me as captain, I just need to be me wearing an armband.”
The role and increased responsibility hasn’t changed the captain however.
“I’m quite vocal and that’s been me since I was *this* big so you’re never gonna shut me up regardless. I’d like to think I’m quite honest, if something needs to be said then often the best thing is to just say it, there’s no point leaving things lingering. Me and Case’ can have really honest and open conversations, whether she thinks her team needs work or I think there’s something that can help the players a little bit more she’s really willing to take that advice on board and of course the girls really respect her and they want to hear everything she’s got to say too.”
But does she dare to challenge her coach? Of course…
“I think I’m probably one of the only people that would dare to challenge Casey, sometimes I get some dirty looks but I’ve learnt to handle it. But Casey’s a new coach and she wants people to challenge her because she wants to become better. I think that she likes that we challenge her and her staff challenge her and that helps her improve. And maybe I’ve seen something or I’m looking it from a different perspective and she hasn’t seen that so it’s good that we’re able to discuss things so openly.”
Stoney, who has received warm praise for her management and coaching style, is one who ticks the boxes for Zelem, her approach one that the midfielder knows the team benefits from.
“For me, Casey’s one of the best managers I’ve worked under. Because she’s so recent out of the game, she has a better understanding, little things off the pitch she deals with so well and because she’s been there herself, it just makes it so much easier for her to understand the situation. She takes on a lot of work herself, but she’s a good manager and a good coach and you really don’t find that very often.”
Stoney’s studious approach and dedication to the role something Zelem insists is unwavering.
“Casey will never change, no matter what team she’s working with. She’s the first person here and the last person to leave. Whether we’re playing Arsenal or we’re playing a friendly, she prepares the same for every game and, not just me, you could ask anyone, she works too hard to be honest. She never leaves. She gives everything to the team to make sure we’re the most prepared and she doesn’t ever want to let us down.”
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