Casey Stoney waxed lyrical about the mentality of her Manchester United players after a goalline clearance by Demi Stokes deprived them of a phenomenal comeback win against their bitter local rivals in the Women’s Super League.
“You can’t understate it,” she said. “It’s their strength of character, their resilience, their belief that at 2-0 down, sitting in that dressing room, they can turn it around. At 2-0 down, you can fold. They didn’t. They went out, they put their shoulders high, they knew what they had to do and they did their job brilliantly.”
City had dominated the first half of the Women’s Football Weekend opener with such brutal efficiency that it looked impossible for the home team to claw their way back. But goals from the USA forward Tobin Heath and the half-time substitute Kirsty Hanson ensured United remain top of the league and undefeated, while City stay fifth, a point behind Everton having played a game more.
“I have to take an element of responsibly for that first half,” said Stoney. “I’m not sure I got the press right and we had to change things at half-time.”
All the talk before this derby was of the power shift seemingly under way in Manchester; by the break it was all about the “tower of power” – Sam Mewis. Where Arsenal had crumbled under the high press of United on Sunday, City seemed more alert to the threat, cooler in possession and their quick, confident, one-touch passing left the red shirts chasing shadows. Mewis, as tall and as strong as her nickname suggests, was central to their establishing a rhythm.
It helped that she was left unfathomably unmarked. The Dutch forward Jackie Groenen, a reliable terrier for United this season, seemed to have decided to leave the American star to it in the knowledge she would not be physically capable of taking her on.
“She’s a winner,” said the City manager, Gareth Taylor. “She drags people with her. She can mix the game up, she’s technically good, she can score goals and she can handle the physical part of the game.”
Within 10 minutes City had the lead. After an Alex Greenwood corner was scrambled high by United, Chloe Kelly attempted to bring the ball down and clip it goalwards but it was cleared as far as Steph Houghton, who poked a scuffed pass back towards Kelly. At the second time of asking and with her back to goal, she flicked the ball sharply in at the near post.
By the interval they had doubled their lead, though United were aggrieved that Kelly was not flagged offside in the buildup. A long-range effort from Mewis was tipped into the path of the former Liverpool midfielder Laura Coombs, who lashed a rising strike past the England goalkeeper Mary Earps.
In the dressing room at half-time, Stoney gave the players a few moments to “digest and self-solve”. She said: “They didn’t need me to go in and turn the kettle on or get the hairdryer out, they knew it wasn’t good enough and they don’t need me to tell them.”
It was a mistake from Lucy Bronze, the 2019 European player of the year, that opened the door. Her poor pass under pressure was pounced on by Heath, who cut on to her right before smashing beyond Roebuck.
The US playing rights to Heath and her compatriot Christen Press had been picked up by Louisville City FC in the NWSL expansion draft on the eve of this key encounter. “It’s really strange,” said Stoney. “The first thing I did was check in with them because I can’t ever imagine having no rights as an individual to where I’m going to go and who I’m going to play for. I find it bizarre. I can imagine it’s very uncomfortable. I just wanted to make sure they were OK.”
Heath’s loyalties were clear in her celebration as she tapped the United badge. The goal breathed life into United and on the 74th minute they had a deserved leveller. Hanson, on at half-time for the forward Jess Sigsworth, forced a fine save from Roebuck but the young keeper could not keep out her point-blank rebound.
With the clock ticking down, a corner from Leah Galton was headed goalwards by Lucy Staniforth and Stokes scrambled it away from behind her goalkeeper. A let-off for City, but Taylor’s side desperately craved the three points to boost their title aspirations.