Casey Stoney’s ‘hell of a journey’ to manager of Man United
The former England coach and player has battled both sexism and homophobia
Casey Stoney was appointed head coach of the newly-formed Manchester United’s women’s team in May of this year. Photograph: Manchester United/Man Utd via Getty Images
It has, says Casey Stoney, been a “a hell of a journey”, one that has felt like an interminable battle at times, both personally and professionally, with so many voices telling her she could never be what she wanted to be. The battling is far from over, she says, and it can still be wearying, but she’s never been in a better place. Life is good.
“I’ve got three amazing children, I’ve got an amazing partner, I’m head coach of Manchester United, and I’ve done all of this because of me and the people who have supported me.”
She thinks back to the night she led the Great Britain team out at Wembley for their London 2012 game against Brazil in front of a crowd of 70,000, a moment that made all that battling seem worthwhile.
“It was like all the early mornings had been worth it, the full days at work, all the late nights training, training on Christmas Day, the tears, the highs, the lows, all the sexism, all the homophobia, all the times I was told I couldn’t do or be something. ‘Look, I’m here now, I’ve overcome all of you, I persevered’,” she says, before smiling and thrusting two fingers in the air.
It was back in February that Stoney, now 36, called time on a playing career that yielded 130 caps for England and a dozen major trophies during spells with Arsenal, Charlton, Chelsea, Lincoln and Liverpool. She then joined the England set-up as Phil Neville’s assistant but by May she was her own boss having been appointed head coach of the newly-formed Manchester United’s women’s team.
I said to the girls that success for us, apart from being competitive in the top league, would be for every little girl growing up wanting to play for Manchester United
The club had scrapped the team back in 2005 when the Glazer family took over, it “not being part of the core business”, a decision that earned them a torrent of criticism until, 13 years later, they applied for a licence to compete in the FA Women’s Championship, a rung below the Super League. Stoney, who started doing her coaching badges when she was 17, beat off a number of contenders for the position of head coach and then had a month to assemble a squad in time for the new season. So far? Played five, won four, drew one, scored 23, conceded none, top of the table.
A decent start? “Not bad,” she laughs. “I was just incredibly proud to get the job. I went up against some tough, tough candidates, some really well respected men within the game and women too, so it’s such a privileged position to be in. It’s been a blank canvas too, I don’t have to clear up anyone’s mess, I’m not inheriting anyone’s players, I went and recruited all of them along with my assistant. It’s our style, our philosophy, our way of working, and we’re developing it as we go. It’s really, really exciting. And the club has given me loads of support and free reign to do it.”
“I said to the girls that success for us, apart from being competitive in the top league, would be for every little girl growing up wanting to play for Manchester United. That’s the legacy we want to create, and we want to do it the right way, we want to develop these girls as people as much as players. I left school at 16, I ending up working in a betting shop, I worked in McDonalds, I worked in a gym, I took all the jobs I could just to make sure I could pay the bills, but had I not gone in to coaching, had I not been so driven, I don’t know what I would have done when I retired.”
“I’ve got seven under-18s at United and they have to complete their education or do an apprenticeship, it’s not an option. There’s going to be a 15, 16 year gap on their CV when they finish playing football, they’re professional players but it’s never going to be a career where they don’t need a second career, so it’s important that we help prepare them.”
The men’s side have been supportive, Juan Mata texted me after we won last weekend, he said well done for the result, he’s one of the nicest men I’ve ever met in football, he does a lot of good work.
The key to the success of the women’s game in England is, Stoney believes, a “one club” approach, where the likes of United market and promote the women’s side of their operation in tandem with the men’s. “There has been a little bit of interaction on that front so far, the women did their kit launch with the men for example, and that one club feel is vital. You want the little boy and girl walking along the street seeing the male and female players on posters together, that it becomes the norm and perceptions change. And the men’s side have been supportive, Juan Mata texted me after we won last weekend, he said well done for the result, he’s one of the nicest men I’ve ever met in football, he does a lot of good work.”
“But I think longer term, ideally, the Premier League would take over our league and market it in the same way as the men’s game. Newspapers need to do a lot more too, not just for football but for women’s sport generally. Some of our greatest sports teams are female and we have two per cent of the coverage – that seems unbelievable to me.”
Respect of the room
That was one of the issues Stoney addressed when she was in Dublin this week for the launch of the 20x20 campaign which is aiming to increase by 20 per cent by the year 2020 of media coverage, attendances and participation numbers in women’s sport. Such initiatives are, she believes, critical because while there has been progress she feels “in some ways, we’re still a world away”.
I had stuff sent to me, about me being mentally ill, about homosexuality being a health hazard, all that, but that was far outweighed by the positive reaction from people who thanked me for saying it’s okay, for being visible
“If I turn up somewhere with my assistant [Willie Kirk] and the people there don’t know much about the club, they’ll go straight to him because they assume he’s the manager. And he has to say ‘she’s the boss’. Those sort of things still disappoint me. I think some attitudes have changed towards the playing side of the women’s game, but not necessarily towards the coaching and management part. Even on coaching courses I’ve done, I had to be twice as good as the rest to even earn the respect of the room.”
“Sometimes it feels like you climb over one wall only to see another wall that’s even higher. Sometimes you do get disheartened, you feel you’ve taken four steps forward and then it’s like, ‘ah, no we haven’t’. But I genuinely believe I have a responsibility to fight all of this because I’ve got a little bit of a profile, I’ve got the opportunity to challenge and change things. I looked in the mirror once and said, ‘if you want to see change you’ve got to be it’. It’s got to start with you.”
Comfortable in own skin
And she took on that challenge in a very personal way in 2014 when she spoke openly for the first time about being gay. “I had stuff sent to me, about me being mentally ill, about homosexuality being a health hazard, all that, but that was far outweighed by the positive reaction from people who thanked me for saying it’s okay, for being visible. And the whole experience made me comfortable in my own skin for the first time in 32 years – until then I was embarrassed, I was ashamed.”
Why? “I think because I was gay. I didn’t think that was accepted. But you get to a point where you ask, ‘who’s important?’ The people around me, my family, my friends, they love me, they support me, their opinion matters, should I really care about the opinion of a small-minded, bigoted stranger? I actually feel sorry for them because difference should be celebrated, without it the world would be a very boring place.”
“I have three kids with Megan [Harris – a former team-mate of Stoney at Lincoln], they love me unconditionally, for who I am, and my ultimate job is a Mum, it just strips back everything. And my kids motivate me every day now, everything I do is to try and make sure they have the same opportunities that I have had.”
“It was funny, when I got my first call-up for the under-16s I remember saying ‘one day I want to be England manager’ – that’s before I even played for England. Nothing beats playing, but in terms of being able to have an impact on people, I have that opportunity now with 21 girls. I can change their lives.”