The reaction to Emma Mitchell’s loan move from Arsenal to Tottenham for the remainder of the season hinted at a hardening in women’s football of the club rivalries prevalent in the men’s game. Professionalism and a bigger profile have marked the start of the shift but movement between traditional rivals has been commonplace.
One player to have made such a transfer, with much less fanfare last summer, is Abbie McManus, who left Manchester City and joined Casey Stoney’s Manchester United as they got set for their first season in the Women’s Super League.
With it the centre-back has swapped playing back-up to Steph Houghton and Jen Beattie (who joined Arsenal in the summer) to help marshal the backline alongside Millie Turner as one of the more experienced players in a team looking to grow.
“I hate the fact I am always in the old group now,” McManus, 27 on Tuesday, says with a laugh. “It is challenging me. I have got to help the younger ones, where I used to have other people helping me because I was the younger one. It is definitely pushing me on and I think it will help my England career as well, help me be a little bit more mature, leading by example rather than just following the pack like I was at Manchester City.
“I’m playing centre-half with Millie, so just to talk to her at the back is good for her and good for me. Now I am the one that is speaking rather than being the one next to Steph or Beats as the quiet one, with them speaking to me. It is definitely building me as a player and hopefully will push me on further.”
United’s players have surprised her. “I’m not a person for names on paper,” McManus says. “City have an unbelievable squad; obviously you can see that. But I highly rate Manchester United’s team.
“I didn’t even know the girls and, training with them week in week out, I’m like: ‘Wow, how have I not seen you play before?’ Obviously I didn’t really watch them much last year because they were in the tier below but the work rate of the girls at United is unbelievable. Maybe because they don’t see themselves as being ‘names’ so they all want to aspire to be better.”
United’s only experience of Women’s Super League opposition before they won promotion was in cup competitions. A run to the semi-finals of the Continental League Cup, when they were knocked out by Arsenal, provided a glimpse of what was to come. On Wednesday night they welcome Brighton to Leigh Sports Village in the quarter-finals of this season’s edition.
McManus, who left Sheffield FC to rejoin City for the team’s revamp and launch into the WSL in 2014, knows how important a competition such as the Continental Cup is at kickstarting a trophy-laden future and is relishing helping United fight for a cup.
“At Man City in the first year the Continental Cup was our trophy,” she says. “The feeling of winning that trophy was better than when we won the league because we were the underdogs. I’m happy to say that I think Manchester United will be the underdogs. We are new to the league, we are not meant to pick up silverware this year but we want that.”
She adds it is “massive” for young players to win that first cup. “It’s definitely a learning curve – they will remember the first one. I remember the first Conti Cup more than anything else, more than going to the World Cup, especially as we were playing Arsenal … If we can do that here at Man United I’m sure the girls will remember it for ever.”
United are six points ahead of Brighton in the league with two games in hand but Stoney’s team lost 1-0 to second-bottom Bristol City in their most recent game and have been reflecting off the pitch and working in training to try to rectify things. “I’ve got the bruises all over my legs from the blocks and stuff,” McManus says of the intensity of the training. “We’ve got an unbelievable squad here; there’s young and old and everyone wants to improve. Everyone is fighting for something: trophies, the Olympics, even for our own shirts. It is a competitive squad.”