At first glance, the scenes outside Old Trafford were familiar to those who regularly attend matches at the home of Manchester United.
Thousands of fans thronged Sir Matt Busby Way an hour or so before kick-off and queues formed around merchandise stalls, with T-shirts a popular purchase on a lovely spring day. A stone’s throw away from the ground, business was brisk at the fast-food outlets selling burgers and chips.
But on closer inspection, this was not like other matchdays at Old Trafford.
The autograph hunters were not after the signatures of Cristiano Ronaldo or Paul Pogba. Instead they wanted Alessia Russo, Ella Toone and Jackie Groenen to sign their shirts.
A giant poster stretched above the front of the megastore carried the words ‘This is Power’ and featured six of Manchester United’s women’s team, including goalkeeper Mary Earps.
Women’s Super League fever had arrived at the Theatre of Dreams. On a historic day for the club, United’s women’s team played in front of fans at the iconic stadium for the first time.
Watched by a crowd of more than 20,000, Russo scored twice as Marc Skinner’s team beat Everton 3-1 to keep their hopes of qualifying for next season’s Champions League alive.
“I don’t want rubbish cliches but I think women’s football won,” Skinner said afterwards.
‘A bigger plan in place’
This was a day to savour for fans who had followed the team since it was reformed in 2018.
United’s last home game – against Leicester at Leigh Sports Village, their usual base about 15 miles from Old Trafford – attracted a gate of 1,303.
Sunday’s attendance was a season-high WSL crowd of 20,241.
Ticket prices were kept deliberately low – at £6 and £3 – to try to attract a healthy attendance. It paid off.
Supporter Natalie Burrell hopes more will now be tempted to make the journey to Leigh, where United have been averaging just under 2,000 this season.
“I know a lot of people who haven’t watched the women’s team live before but made the effort to be here because it’s at Old Trafford,” she said.
“They might have watched WSL games on television but they haven’t been to Leigh because it’s hard to get to unless you drive.
“If we can get some of the 20,000 to come back regularly, it’s going to make it a fortress at Leigh.”
Jonathan Foster paid £39 for a United women’s season ticket and makes regular 180-mile round trips from Stourbridge in the West Midlands to watch the team.
“It’s really good what the club have done to raise awareness of the women’s game by staging a game at Old Trafford,” he said.
“To get 20,000 is amazing. However, there is a bigger plan in place and we need to make sure that some of the fans who were here today do come to Leigh Sports Village.”
‘Wonderful way to seal a dream’
Old Trafford staged a WSL game last season but there were no fans present because of the coronavirus pandemic.
One year on, there was a carnival atmosphere inside the ground.
Fans occupied the lower tier of all four sides, while the away section housed the dozens of Everton followers who made the short journey.
Both sides emerged from the tunnel to ‘This is the One’ by the Stone Roses, the song the men’s team walk out to.
Fans jumped from their seats and punched the air when Russo, who grew up watching the likes of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney in the red shirt she now wears, scored the first of her two goals to cancel out Claire Emslie’s exquisite finish.
Yet it was Katie Zelem who provided one of the storylines of the match.
Growing up in Manchester, United’s captain used to wave the Champions League banner in the centre circle when the men’s team walked out for European fixtures here.
In the 54th minute of Sunday’s game she stepped up to score a penalty in front of the Stretford End to put her side 2-1 up before providing the assist for Russo’s second goal.
“I tried to speak to Zel afterwards,” added Skinner.
“But, for her to score a penalty in the Stretford End, and then for Alessia to score as well when she’s probably got a million dreams of that happening… what a wonderful way to seal a dream.”
‘Why can’t we fill Old Trafford in future?’
Old Trafford is no stranger to hosting competitive women’s football. During the 2012 Olympics, Alex Morgan hit a 120th-minute winner against Canada in front of 26,630 fans at the venue as the United States closed in on a gold medal.
The ending on Sunday might have lacked the late drama of 10 years ago, but Old Trafford – which hosts the opening game of Euro 2022 in 101 days time – still provided plenty of excitement.
Skinner said it was important United played a key part “in helping develop and push women’s football forwards”.
“Playing in big stadiums will expose us to better experiences,” he added. “Do you do it all the time? Maybe not right now, but we continue to work towards where we can attract 20,000 people.
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