Oldham born midfielder Katie Zelem will lead Manchester United out at Wembley on Sunday for their first ever final as they take on Chelsea in the FA Cup.
However, Zelem will not be the first member of her family to step out at Wembley on Sunday.
Her dad Alan and his twin brother Peter were both footballers.
Alan played in goal for Macclesfield Town in the 1989 FA Trophy final at the old Wembley, but his side were beaten 1-0 in extra time by Telford United.
In an interview with The Athletic, Zelem said, “That was my dad’s career highlight, and if you ever get the chance to meet him I’m sure he’ll tell you he played at Wembley. Unfortunately they got beat, so hopefully it will be a different outcome for us.”
She continued, “As soon as we made it to Wembley he texted me saying: ‘You’re always copying me’. So hopefully I’ll be able to dig out a photo of him there and me there.”
The final is a marker of the team’s progress since its reformation in 2018 and Zelem has been on that journey from the very start.
She spoke of what a gamble it was returning to United after once being a part of their youth set-up.
She was forced to leave since they didn’t have a senior side and went on to win the league with Liverpool and Serie A with Juventus.
United were starting off in the second tier of English football and it was a big risk.
“When I first signed five years ago everyone came from different backgrounds, different experiences. For me, it was my childhood club, but I’d just won the league and got into the Champions League at Juventus so it was a huge gamble for me to come back and play in the Championship.”
As an eight year old, she was a flag bearer for the men’s side at Old Trafford in the Champions League. She recalled, “We had to go and practice that the day before, it was like a full-on affair — you had to practice when you wafted it… you can imagine eight-year-old kids just wafting it whenever they fancy. We spent more time practising the flags than watching the game.”
But now she is about to lead her childhood club on a Champions League journey of their own with a top three finish all but guaranteed. “If you look back to where we were there to where we are now, it’s a crazy journey. I think it’s been a real rollercoaster with ups and downs. We’ve certainly come on leaps and bounds.”
Along with Zelem, Millie Turner, Leah Galton and Ella Toone are all still at the club after being a part of that inaugural team.
“If this (rate of progress) happens and in another five we’re that far advanced, then Manchester United will certainly be one of the biggest teams in Europe. I’m so proud to be a part of the whole journey.”
She continued, “There’s like four or five originals left and it’s a bond that we’ll always share. We know we’ve been through the same things together — different players, different managers — but we’ve been there through it all and that’s special.”
United have had one of those magical seasons, they have had to dig deep at times to get the job done but it’s created fairytale moments.
Last season, United conceded crucial goals in the final 15 minutes of five matches, resulting in 10 points being dropped.
This season, United have gained nine points as a result of goals scored in the final 15 minutes and booked their place in the FA Cup final thanks to an 89th-minute Rachel Williams goal against Brighton.
It was the Reds’ game against Arsenal at the Emirates which first sparked the rise of the comeback queens.
The win came courtesy of Millie Turner’s 85th-minute equaliser and Alessia Russo’s 91st-minute winner. It was just the second time United had beaten one of the Big Three in the WSL and the first time since manager Marc Skinner took over.
“No one likes to win like that all the time — god, I think my mum nearly passed out,” Zelem laughs.
It has been noted several times that there has been a massive mentality shift this season at the club and that could be the key to success at Wembley.
“Definitely in previous seasons we’ve gone into those games as underdogs, and now we don’t feel like that’s the case at all. We go into those games knowing our game plan, knowing what we want to do. We don’t change now for the other teams whereas in the first few seasons, it was more about staying in the game — can we take a point or nick a win?”
The style of football has been exhilarating for fans to watch this season.
“Now you’ve seen a lot of the games: we dominate possession, we dominate the ball. There have been games like the first half at Manchester City (1-1 in December) where we totally dominated and were gutted to come away with a draw. That shows the mentality shift. We want to win, we genuinely believe we can win, and that’s what we expect now.”
Kick off is scheduled for 2.30pm at Wembley on Sunday and United have 7 full coaches of supporters departing Old Trafford early in the morning, thanks in part to the Manchester United Women’s Supporters Club.