Katie Zelem spoke to 90min about all things Man Utd Women, as well as football becoming more accessible for girls than ever before, as Fives Soccer Centres launched their next-generation football centre at TraffordCity for the Manchester community.
“It was a fantastic event to launch the new Fives Trafford venue. They are leading the way in offering a professional experience to all players, and I really feel like the future of football is safe hands,” Zelem said.
Manchester United captain Katie Zelem has seen the club come a long way in the women’s game in a short space of time but believes this year more than ever the team is ready to compete with the best that the WSL has to offer in the quest for Champions League football.
Zelem has a long personal history with United. She was part of the club’s centre of excellence from a young age but was forced to move elsewhere in order to start a senior football career because there was no first-team to progress to at United. But when a senior side was reformed in 2018, the two-time WSL champion returned home from a spell in Italy to rejoin her club.
Following quick promotion to the WSL, an immediate fourth-place finish in the WSL and two narrow failures to break into the top three for Champions League qualification, United have started the 2022/23 season on fire. Marc Skinner’s team are top of the league, ahead of Arsenal on goal difference, with a perfect record from five games, 14 goals scored and none conceded.
Previously, United had never won more than two consecutive games at the start of a WSL season.
“This year definitely feels like a new sort of energy,” Zelem tells 90min.
“We’ve brought in seven great players and you can really start to see Marc’s philosophy. He didn’t have much of a pre-season last year and it took a little bit of time at the start of last season to start building. But we’ve really hit the ground running.”
Zelem suggested that as well as new players coming in to improve quality and depth, the ‘application’ from existing players has also been better.
“I think a lot of things have come together now and it definitely sends out a message [to other clubs]. Previously, it has been the top three and ‘ish’ Manchester United, but now we’ve definitely put ourselves up there to be competing,” she adds.
Part of the reason behind their outstanding form is just how well the squad is bonded. Skinner recently suggested it is the most ‘together’ group of players he has ever worked with, while forward Nikita Parris has called it a ‘sisterhood’, the like of which she had never before experienced.
Zelem explains that United have always had a tightknit squad going back to 2018, but this year it is showing on the pitch ‘more than ever’ and is reflected in the results.
Captain since 2019, Zelem is grateful for the strong relationship she personally has with Skinner, who has not been shy with his praise of the skipper – ‘genius’ is a word he has used more than once.
It wasn’t an automatic decision to keep her as captain when he arrived last summer, but Skinner happily came to his own conclusion that Zelem, who considers herself to be a representative of the rest of the squad in the role, was the right choice to keep leading the team.
“I’ve got a great relationship with Marc. He could have come in and changed the captain and changed a lot of things,” the 26-year-old explains. “He gave it a few weeks and had an assessment of the squad last year and decided for himself that he wanted me as captain going forward.
“I think our relationship has just gone on from there really. We’re really open and honest with each other. He knows I’ve always got the players’ best interest at heart and sometimes we might come to a disagreement but we’ll always figure it out in the best interest of the team. I really enjoy playing and working as a captain under Marc and I know a lot of the girls do too.”
As a leader, Zelem hopes she can make a difference through the little things that are often unseen, making sure her teammates are always supported. That kind of leadership helps knit the group together and allows players around her to perform uninhibited and to their best.
“I made it clear to Marc I’ll always be the players’ captain,” she says. “I’m a player before I’m a captain so I want what’s best for the team. There’s a lot of things in football that do go unnoticed, whether that’s on or off the pitch. I would like to think those are what I pride myself on and try to excel at. I like everything to be working smoothly so the results come on a Sunday.”
United’s success on the pitch in the opening weeks of the new season, in tandem with England’s summer triumph at Euro 2022, has helped bring women’s football even more into the spotlight than ever before. Many WSL clubs, United included, have reported increased demand for tickets, while interest in watching the sport has also served as a catalyst and inspiration to play it.
Zelem, like so many of her fellow professionals, is delighted to see football made increasingly available for the next generation of players, which is why the opening of venues like FIVES’ new TraffordCity site is so important.
“I didn’t have something like [FIVES] available when I was younger. But to know that it is accessible is a huge thing,” she explains.
“Accessibility in women’s football is highly talked about and usually a huge barrier. Whether it’s to play football or watch football, accessibility in the past has been the issue for women’s football. Now this is readily available for people in Manchester or for people to travel to come here, it’s amazing. Hopefully girls can grow up thinking this is the norm because for me it wasn’t.”
Fives Trafford has been equipped with state-of-the-art, industry-leading technology and world class facilities with eight larger than standard small-sided football pitches, which are the first in the UK to be approved by the FA.
Each pitch offers individual player tracking for everyone to analyse & log their performance stats, as well as video match replays & highlights, all powered from the dedicated Fives mobile app. The new app also allows players to check pitch availability at the Trafford venue, confirm & split payments for bookings, access their pitch and then watch and share their game footage.
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