TOTOCC News Katie Zelem’s ready for anything with Man United and England

Katie Zelem’s ready for anything with Man United and England

Lisandro Martinez is in the middle of a photoshoot; fists clenched, glaring down the barrel of the lens, with a World Cup winners’ medal dangling from his neck. Sitting calmly to one side is clubmate Katie Zelem. The Manchester United captain has already posed for pictures inside the same sci-fi set, minus an 18-carat slab of gold the size of a saucer.

Sure, she’s pleased for him, but she’s fiercely competitive and she wants to bring home her own medal from this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

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Before that, she has a league and cup double to chase, and an interview with ESPN to navigate in what can only be described as “bloody freezing” conditions, as she aptly puts it, inside the Platt Lane Sports Complex. But as we quickly learn, Zelem is not the sort of person to let challenging conditions stand in her way, as one United legend found out.

Zelem — whose dad, former Macclesfield goalkeeper Alan Zelem, and his twin brother Peter, who played for Wolverhampton Wanderers, Burnley and Preston North End — was born to play for Manchester United. Such football exposure has helped shape a player with a combination of passion, perseverance and belief. A will to win, too, nurtured by her parents and a diet of never-say-die football witnessed from the stands at Old Trafford.

The 27-year-old grew up watching Sir Alex Ferguson’s all-conquering side of the Noughties, the club’s last great side. She even got to experience the Theatre of Dreams from the centre of the pitch, tingling with electricity ahead of a big European night.

“I used to play for the academy and we’d run the big Champions League flag out onto the pitch ahead of a game,” she tells ESPN after the photoshoot for Adidas. “It was incredible to be out there getting a feel for what it would be like to look around a packed Old Trafford, playing for United in a massive game.”

Representing your childhood team, which also happens to be one of the biggest clubs in the world, with the added pressure of being a girl in an environment that was geared towards the development of boys, could be overwhelming, but not for Zelem. She was there to succeed, not make up the numbers, seizing every opportunity to learn and size up the opposition, even if it meant ushering United’s hero of their 1999 Champions League final win out of the way.

“There was a little window at The Cliff [United’s old training ground] where you could watch training sessions. The lads’ academy used to train before us and someone was stood in the way,” she recalled during a Sky Sports interview last month. “I thought, ‘Bit rude this, innit? I can’t see,’ but I waited a few more minutes and then I thought, ‘Nah, I’m not having it’ so I started banging on the window and saying, ‘Excuse me, I can’t see.’

“He turned around and I thought, ‘Don’t know what he wants,’ and he started coming out saying, ‘Oh do you want an autograph?’ And I said, ‘No, sorry, I can’t see’, and my friend nudged me and said, ‘Katie, that’s Solskjaer’, and I went, ‘Oh sorry!’ I was only 10.”

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was manager of the men’s team when Zelem returned to a very different club 11 years later. This time she was a full-time professional in 2018 — something she never envisioned as a young girl.

“It’s everybody’s childhood dream to represent the club they support so to have achieved that is amazing,” she says. “Every time I put the Manchester United shirt on, I’m so proud that my family and friends can come and watch me. It means everything.”

She pauses before adding, her voice crackling with emotion: “I’d love to sit here and say it’s turned out how I imagined, but I honestly didn’t ever think the day would come.” In 2005, United’s women’s side was disbanded shortly after the Glazer’s takeover because it was deemed unprofitable and not part of their “core business.” The world’s richest club reduced their operation to coaching girls up to the age of 16 through its community scheme.

United didn’t offer a pathway, but the women’s game was developing in the wake of the 2005 European Championship held in England and Zelem hoped that if continued to work hard, opportunities would present themselves further down the line. And they did. She joined arch-rivals Liverpool in 2013, where she won back-to-back Women’s Super League (WSL) titles, before signing for Italian giants Juventus in 2017.

Zelem was content in Italy and preparing for a second season there after winning Serie A, until the chance to fulfil a dream and make history presented itself. Manchester United, the only Premier League men’s side not to have a senior women’s team, were about to reform and join the second-tier Championship, and they wanted Zelem.

“It was amazing to join Juventus, but it was even more amazing to come back and sign for Manchester United,” she says. “It was a huge moment finding out that we were going to have a women’s team and to be there right from the off is so special.”

She ended her first season with 11 goals in all competitions and another winners’ medal, this time the FA Women’s Championship as United stormed to the title, securing promotion to the top tier WSL. But this was still a project very much in its infancy. It has taken time and investment to establish the women’s team as a core part of the club, rather than a box-ticking exercise.

Since reforming in 2018 United have upgraded the training facilities while they develop plans for a fully integrated approach with the women, men and academy at one site. They have appointed Charlotte Healy as head coach of the under-21s and Polly Bancroft as head of women’s football to establish United as one of Europe’s leading clubs both on and off the pitch. While this progress is commendable, it has happened against a backdrop of dissatisfaction. The previous manager Casey Stoney resigned in May 2021 after she grew increasingly frustrated with the training conditions. Zelem is grateful to Stoney for refusing to settle for second best.

“I look back to where we were and it doesn’t even feel like I’m at the same club,” she says. “It’s completely opposite ends of the scale. It shows we’re heading in the right direction.”

On the pitch, Zelem has set her own standards. The midfielder won the Manchester United Women’s Player of the Year award in her first season, playing a key role in the promotion-winning campaign. The following season she was named as captain with then-manager Stoney believing the armband would “add to her game, both on and off the pitch.” She was right.

“There’s a lot of pressure on my shoulders, but it’s something I relish, especially as a Manchester United fan,” Zelem says. “I know what it means and how many people would want to be in my position. I feel so privileged that I can represent the club. I want to make the fans proud.”

The set-piece specialist scored seven goals that season, including three direct from corners, as United finished fourth in the WSL behind the league’s established big three. And this is where Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal have kept United for the past two seasons — like a big sister holding a younger sibling at arm’s length as they swing air-punches.

This season United are close to landing a blow. They’re top of the WSL just after its halfway stage, one point above reigning champions Chelsea, who have a game in hand. It is a title challenge fuelled by the pain of defeat and the experience of victory. United fell away last term, finishing five points off third-placed Manchester City. Manager Marc Skinner knew he had to recruit players with experience and nous. In came Lioness Nikkita Parris to join fellow Euro 2022 champions Mary Earps, Alessia Russo and Ella Toone.

With a strong squad, Skinner has been able to instil tactical flexibility, including a high press led by Russo which has seen United build the WSL’s meanest defence with only seven goals conceded in 13 matches. But progress is not enough for Zelem. She wants the title.

“Marc has done a great job in bringing in some brilliant players and we’ve made huge strides, you could see that when we beat Arsenal,” she says. “But we don’t want just to finish third, we want to keep pushing on for the title. We’re Manchester United and we want to win things.

“Can we win it this year? Why not? Especially with the first half of the season we’ve had, there’s no holding us back.”



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One of this season’s highlights came in December when United hosted Aston Villa at Old Trafford. Making her 100th WSL appearance, Zelem led the team out in front of a record-breaking 30,000-strong crowd and scored the opening goal in a 5-0 rout.

“For it to have come full circle and actually walk the girls out at Old Trafford is crazy,” she says as she recalls the historic moment. “It will always be one of the highlights of my football career, but to score the opening goal in front of a record crowd was the cherry on top.

“I was fortunate enough that my whole family could be there to celebrate that moment and I saw them after the game, which was really nice.”

For a Mancunian born-and-bred, this was special, an antidote to the pain she felt five months earlier when she had to watch the opening match of the Women’s Euros at Old Trafford in front of a record 68,871 attendance. Zelem was one of five players cut from Sarina Wiegman’s provisional squad. She buried her frustration and spent the summer working as an analyst and getting behind the team as a fan.

Now, six months on, Zelem is done dwelling on the past. She’s firmly focused on belting out “God Save The King” in Australia and New Zealand.

“Whenever you hear the national anthem it sends shivers down your spine,” she says. “The feeling of putting on the shirt knowing you’ve worked hard to be in that moment will never change — it’s brilliant.”

It’s something she has experienced on five occasions and desperately wants to feel again starting at this month’s Arnold Clark Cup. Zelem has been called up by Wiegman for the round-robin tournament where England face Belgium, Italy and Korea Republic. After watching a dramatic men’s World Cup in Qatar, she’s desperate to test herself against the best players in the world.

“It was crazy,” she says. “If that doesn’t inspire you then what does? To represent your country on the biggest stage would be a dream come true.”

A dream and a challenge. Wounded contenders always arise around newly crowned champions. Spain and Germany, both vanquished last summer, will be looking to knock England off their perch. Then there’s the mighty United States; the four-time winners and back-to-back reigning champions will be out to remind England there’s one dominant force in the women’s game.

“Teams will be looking at us differently,” says Zelem. “Now everyone wants to beat the team at the top – there’s a target on our back and we need to be prepared for that.

“People always bring an extra level when they’re playing against England, but it doesn’t change how we set up.”

And what would it mean if they won the Women’s World Cup for the first time in England’s history? “You could retire after that,” she says with a laugh, before thinking about the reality. “Just being there would be an honour. Something that will stay with you forever. I just want to be on that plane.”

She has every chance of fulfilling this dream if she continues her good form in the second half of the season. With two goals and five assists this term, Zelem would arm Wiegman’s midfield with energy and creativity. And if required, she’d embrace the dreaded walk from centre circle to penalty spot.

“I’d take a penalty in a shootout, 100%,” she says without hesitation. “I take penalties for Manchester United and any player that backs themselves should step up.”

When the moment arrives, whether it’s leading her childhood club to their first WSL title or rising to the call of a nation, Katie Zelem will be ready.


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