The hearts of Manchester United Women were shattered last week when their maiden Champions League voyage was cut short at the hands of European powerhouses Paris Saint-Germain. The Reds were unable to make it to the group stages of the competition but this certainly won’t be the last the world sees of them in the UWCL.
Despite being the youngest club in the Women’s Super League, United fell agonisingly short of clinching the title last season. They dropped points on just four occasions throughout the entire campaign, but their impressive run still couldn’t stop Chelsea from lifting their fourth consecutive trophy.
United also reached their first ever major cup final last season after seeing off the competition to reach the last hurdle in the FA Cup. However, it was Emma Hayes’ Blues who beat them to the punch there as well. Now, the Reds have some losses to avenge.
Straight off the back of their Champions League heartache, United put five past Everton to brush off their defeat and get back to winning ways. Captain Katie Zelem took some time to speak with ManchesterWorld after meeting local MMA fighter Jack Cartwright ahead of his fight at Oktagon 48 in Manchester on November 4th.
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“It’s tough. I think we worked so hard to put ourselves in contention for the Champions League group stage and we knew it would be difficult as soon as we drew PSG,” Zelem reflected. “But I guess it makes it even more difficult that we went so close. We had our chances and I think we’ve put out a good account of ourselves, and sometimes that unfortunately hurts more.
“We definitely want to be a team that people fear, we want to be a team that turns up and works hard but expects to be winning every game. That will be our aim going forward.”
Despite boasting household names including England’s Ella Toone, Mary Earps and Nikita Parris, as well as Brazilian international Geyse, United are still new to challenging at such a high level. The women’s team was reintroduced in just 2018, following the side’s disbandment in 2005.
“Five years from not even having a team, not having a single player... A year in the Championship, a year with Covid — there’s a lot that’s gone on along the way, and to be five years from total nothing, to being in an FA Cup Final and being within one game of winning the league over Chelsea, I think shows how far we’ve come,” Zelem reflected.
“Last year was a real special year and the fact that everybody gave everything, every possible ounce that they could, and this year we knew it would be hard but we wanted to try and keep as close to that as possible.”
The Oldham-born midfielder was named captain of her girlhood club in 2019. Zelem spent nine years in the youth system before exploring senior options elsewhere, in the absence of the women’s first team. When United came calling, their future skipper returned.
Zelem admitted her responsibility as captain of United adds “a little extra edge” to her performances but ultimately “makes it really special” whenever she steps out at Leigh Sports Village or Old Trafford.
“I'm just filled with immense joy and pride, not just to be captain but to be representing the team. Not just for the girls either, but all their friends and family in the crowd.”
The 27-year-old also reflected on her first World Cup this summer, which ended with England picking up a silver medal after an agonising loss to Spain in the final. The Lionesses had hoped to extend their gold rush after their fairytale Euro 2022 title win, but it wasn’t to be in Sydney. Regardless of the disappointment, Zelem highlighted the much bigger drive behind England’s World Cup run.
“As much as we want to win trophies, the main ambition was to inspire the nation and inspire a generation of young girls who can see a dream out there and can believe that they can live it too. For us, that means more than than any medal that we've got.
“All the girls who come to the matches with our names on their shirts and everyone actually being able to see the realisation that being a professional footballer as a female is out there. That makes me immensely proud. And when I see all the girls asking for photos and autographs, that's not something I had when I was younger, and I think how times are changing and how it's being driven by success is amazing.”