Goals from lifelong fans Alessia Russo and Katie Zelem helped Manchester United to come from behind and defeat Everton 3-1 in front of a club‑record crowd of 20,241 at Old Trafford for a Women’s Super League match.
The United manager, Marc Skinner, said: “I tried to speak to Zel afterwards because it’s a whirlwind, but for her to score a penalty at the Stretford End and then for Alessia to score [there] as well? I mean, she’s probably had a million dreams of that happening and what a wonderful way to seal a dream.
“We’ve got to make sure that we encapsulate this moment, to use it as a projection point to continue the growth, so that this is not a one-off and our club is going to be a real key part in helping develop and push women’s football forwards.”
Russo’s first-half header had cancelled out Claire Emslie’s well‑taken strike in the fourth minute. United took the lead from the spot in the second half through the captain and, Zelem, before Russo added her second six minutes from time. It was one year to the day since the United women’s team had first stepped out on to the pitch at Old Trafford. That was in the midst of the pandemic. One year on, and hours before kick-off, fans buzzed around the perimeter with anticipation. On the 8.20am train from London Euston, United shirts were present in every carriage.
From the faces of the players looming large on banners on the ground’s exterior to the tickets given away at local schools, the club pushed for a turnout that would eclipse the team’s record league crowd of 3,797 at Leigh Sports Village and it did not disappoint.
The party mood was, initially, swiftly quelled. Emslie, the former Manchester City forward, was set free on the right by Kenza Dali and she coolly slotted past the United goalkeeper, Mary Earps, and in at the far post.
“To get the start that we got was a dream,” the interim Everton manager, Chris Roberts, said. “It was exactly what we had planned for – to be really hard to break down in the first half and be defensively strong and to try and pick them off as they were coming on to us.”
Emslie’s goal was not in United’s script. It is “imperative”, Skinner said, that United’s women’s team feel like Old Trafford is a second home so they are not overawed when they play here. “It is like breathing is to being alive, we need to experience this together. When you play at a level where you’re always reaching, reaching, reaching, you never feel settled in that space. So, we’re going to continue to expose the players to those experiences so that when they arrive, they are ready. Today, first 20-25 minutes we probably hadn’t arrived – when Everton scored, it woke us up, it was almost a slap of cold water in the face.”
In the 35th minute United had the leveller that would breathe life into a flattening match. The right-back, Ona Batlle, sent a cross in and Russo, leaning back, flicked a looping header over an at-sea Sandy MacIver.
Shortly after Ella Toone skied a shot over the bar from the edge of the six-yard box, the ball perhaps not bouncing too kindly for her, United took the lead. Lucy Graham, on at half-time in place of Nathalie Björn, lost the ball to Martha Thomas and then clipped the forward’s feet as she tried to recover, conceding a penalty. Zelem stepped up and blasted her spot-kick into the roof of the net.
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They should have been two up soon afterwards as Thomas bundled in the rebound after MacIver did well to keep out Maria Thorisdóttir’s effort, but she was ruled offside despite Graham playing her on by a significant margin.
United eventually extended their lead, with Russo heading in again, this time from a Zelem corner, and the party atmosphere resumed as the clock ticked down on a historic outing. “I hope they come to support us at Leigh as well,” Skinner said of the fans. “It’s important that we don’t just stamp it and move on, we have to keep the noise moving.
“Hopefully they go away proud of their team today because I certainly am and I’m proud of them for turning up. Our message to them is: ‘We love you.’ We heard our barmy army fans in the far corner, it was a wonderful moment today.”