Manchester United are pleased with the progress being made by its women’s operation, which has now been further boosted by the formal appointment of Polly Bancroft as the club’s first ever dedicated head of women’s football.
United failed to run a senior women’s team from 2005 until 2018 at a time when the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City were rapidly developing both their own operations and furthering the progression of the women’s game in England.
But although late to the party, United have fairly quickly made up some of the ground on the WSL’s elite and have been keen to build a sustainable women’s setup with solid foundations. A wake up call when Casey Stoney left suddenly in 2021 amid frustration over facilities and major criticism stemming from a report by The Athletic into damning shortcomings may have been a necessary jolt.
The Old Trafford hierarchy are viewing the women’s team as a work in progress, satisfied that things are heading in the right direction to ultimately compete for trophies.
Chief executive Richard Arnold spoke about both the men’s and women’s teams in similar terms when he addressed ongoing progress at the club at a recent fans’ forum.
“While it’s still early in the process, we’re pleased with the calm, competent progress Erik [ten Hag] has been making in building a squad with the right quality and character to make us competitive. And the same is true of the women’s squad under Marc Skinner,” Arnold said.
United, like the rest of the clubs in the WSL, have recorded increased ticket sales since the catalytic success of Euro 2022. It is telling that two of the club’s biggest ever attendances have been recorded in the opening two home games of this season, while the previously unused fourth stand at Leigh Sports Village has been opened for tickets for next month’s visit of Chelsea.
“We are very optimistic for continued momentum of the women’s game,” were the words of chief operating officer Collette Roche at a quarterly conference call to investors last month, seeming to underline United’s future commitment to the women’s setup.
Bancroft’s appointment, although well overdue in terms of a specialist to properly oversee the development of women’s football at the club four years after reforming, is a welcome boost. Brighton are a club that has really valued women’s football and so her willingness to leave that behind to take on a new challenge at United is indicative of her optimism about the opportunity.
Previously of UEFA and the FA, she had been general manager at Brighton since 2020 and played a major role in driving the team’s development, particularly behind the scenes when it came to things like support and infrastructure – Brighton opened a bespoke £8.5m training facility on her watch.
United fans will be hoping that Bancroft can bring similar to Manchester. The club has already started to invest on new training facilities for the women’s setup, with new pitches ready for this past summer and working on a longer-term project to house the team for years to come.
Manager Marc Skinner, who will now have more time to dedicate to day to day coaching and game planning with Bancroft on board, has previously described that growing investment in behind the scenes facilities as ‘heavy’.
The BBC reported last season that at least five other WSL clubs had been operating on a bigger budget than United, which has riled fans expectant of only the best from the biggest club in the world. Money was spent in the transfer market during the summer, which is still not always the norm in the women’s game, buying Nikita Parris from Arsenal and Maya Le Tissier from Brighton.
But Skinner has stressed the importance of promoting sustainable growth. Before Bancroft arrived, his role last season extended beyond that of coach and involved helping to shape the club’s future plans and budgets. He has been adamant that the hierarchy has ‘listened’ every step of the way and is prepared to invest, but at the same time has urged financial responsibility. In some ways that could be perceived as an overly patient, slow or even disinterested approach from the club.
Skinner, United and now Bancroft too have been working towards creating a more self-sustaining model for the women’s team that in time they hope won’t have to rely on financial support.
The manager has ‘no doubt’ that United will continue to grow, “….but we have to do it responsibly and make sure it is there for years to come. I would love for this club to get to a model where we are sustainable within our women’s structure, that we make the money to [re-invest] into us, rather than keep asking [for funding support].”
Bancroft has been described by football director John Murtough, who was instrumental in the 2018 reformation, as the ‘extra ingredient’. Bancroft herself has called United the ‘biggest club in the country’ and is immediately looking forward to where the next chapter will lead.