England forward Lauren James and US World Cup-winner Christen Press both scored in a 2-0 defeat of West Ham as Manchester United’s women’s team made its historic Old Trafford bow.
There may have been no fans, the Barmy Army banners may have been dwarfed in the huge ground and coverage limited to the FA Player and radio, but it is hard to overstate how monumental the presence of Casey Stoney’s team at the stadium is. This was one of the most-followed clubs in the world saying that women’s football matters.
Clearly not suffering from being overawed by the occasion, United were dominant but they could not make it count early on. Their 75% possession in the first half yielded just one shot on target — a 13th minute strike from James from the edge of the box that was read well by goalkeeper Courtney Brosnan. West Ham, by contrast, had two shots on target.
James was the driving force for the home team. The 19-year-old forward, an Arsenal academy graduate and sister of Chelsea’s Reece James, has always been one of the most technically gifted players in whichever team or division she has played in, but this season there seems to be another level of maturity to her game. Under the tutelage of Stoney, who is a firm but very hands-on manager, James looks to be thriving on and off the pitch. At Old Trafford she looked at home, stalking the wings, ready to collect, accelerate and turn players inside out with her twisting runs.
It is, however, her movement off the ball, her contribution to the whole and an appreciation of how she can improve the players around her, that has moved up a gear.
West Ham had not won in six games and have continued to struggle to find any consistency under new manager Olli Harder. It was somewhat fitting that the team that was taken more securely under the wing of the club and were successful in their application to join the Women’s Super League in the same season that United’s women’s team was re-established and launched into the Championship. That is where the similarities end though as West Ham sit at the bottom of the table and are batting to remain in the league while United fight at the top end for a place in the Champions League, something Stoney has said would put them “ahead of schedule”. United’s hopes of finishing third and securing the new extra space in Europe were dented last week by a 2-0 away defeat to Arsenal, who though a place below them in the table have a hugely superior goal difference and will end the weekend with a game in hand.
West Ham have been a bit of an enigma of late and their performance in Manchester only added to the intrigue. They did well to hold United’s relentless pressure at bay and stifled the potent front three of James, Press and Ella Toone. It spoke to the potency of James that whenever the forward was on the ball the West Ham strategy seemed to be to put as many bodies as possible between her and the goal and weirdly it worked.
It would be James though, scorer of her team’s first ever WSL goal, who would head in the team’s Old Trafford goal. A corner from midfielder Lucy Staniforth headed high by defender Millie Turner and then back towards goal by right-back Maria Thorisdóttir with James nodding it into the back of the net from close range.
Buoyed by the goal, United continued to pour forward and after midfielder Jackie Groenen dispossessed Laura Vetterlein, she moved across the edge of the box and fed USA forward Press who slipped the ball past Brosnan with ease. The visitors’ woes were compounded by the sending off of Vetterlein with 13 minutes left after she tripped Kirsty Hanson and was shown a second yellow.
For United, victory gets them back on track in the fight for third, the players have tasted and tested what it is like to play at Old Trafford before they do so in front of fans and the pressure has been lifted on the club who have had to field constant questions about when they would open the doors of their historic home to their women’s team.