Manchester United women will make history tomorrow as they take on Everton at Old Trafford for the first time in front of fans.
For this group of girls it is something they could never have imagined. Goalkeeper Mary Earps once spoke of having to stop playing football because she was a girl, now she features on a banner adorning the front of the Theatre of Dreams, overlooking the statue of Sir Matt Busby.
“Did I dream of being on a picture on the front of Old Trafford?” Earps said to The Athletic. “No because it was just never going to be possible.”
As a child captain Katie Zelem once stood on the centre circle at Old Trafford, holding the straps of the Champions League banner as the men’s team came out onto the pitch. Now she sits upon a throne on that same banner and will lead out the team in front of fans at Old Trafford.
“Back then I never would have imagined that 15 years down the line, I would be playing at Old Trafford,” says Zelem.
Zelem was part of the United youth set-up but was forced to find a new club at senior level as United didn’t have a team at the time.
New signing Diane Caldwell, who came over from Ireland to do the stadium tour of Old Trafford when she was a kid, appreciates that the women are representing more than just United at the weekend. With the match being shown on Sky Sports, they are also representing women’s football as a whole.
“You have a bit of pressure being in the big stadium, on live TV, to showcase the women’s game because we’re being scrutinised.”
“People will say, are they good enough to be in the stadiums? Are they good enough to be on live TV? You just have to relish it because a lot of players have not been given that opportunity.”
The team have played previously at Old Trafford, beating West Ham 2-0 there, but Covid restrictions were in place meaning fans could not attend. As the Athletic reports, it was not picked for TV and MUTV had used their 3 game allocation but on Sunday, the fans will be there and it will be televised. Emotions will be running high.
“Now I look back on it,” says Earps, “it was the perfect preparation for the game that we have on Sunday. It doesn’t feel quite as big. It feels big but it feels more familiar.”
This time around, the Barmy Army will be able to support the team from the stands as they are situated in J stand, the standing section of Old Trafford. Earps referred to the core fan group as “The heart of Manchester”.
The supporters group will meet at the Bishops Blaize before the match.
Allowing the team to put on a show at the Theatre of Dreams is a bid to increase the fan base and get those new faces following the girls at home in Leigh as well.
The founder of the Barmy Army, Natalie Burrell told The Athletic, “If we can get an extra couple of thousand, that will be the impact. That’s what I’m excited for, to get a load of new fans involved.”
Burrell continues, “I’m thinking long term about how we can get people coming on the buses and start following the girls more often at Leigh.”
The United skipper agrees. “It’s really important to make Leigh a fortress. We want to set the right tone so that when you come to Leigh it’s a really difficult game.”
As momentous as the occasion is on Sunday, the importance of staying focused and winning the game isn’t lost on the Reds.
They currently sit in third in the league but City are now level on points. Champions League Football is at stake.
Old Trafford will host the opening England game of the Euros in summer where Zelem is hoping to be a part of that Lionesses squad.
“The Euros is a huge goal for a lot of people in our team and it’s something that we all need to strive to work for.”
“You only get selected for England if you’re performing for your club.”
United will be looking to beat the Toffees on the history-making day at Old Trafford and keep Champions League football firmly in their sights.