Casey Stoney shakes her head. As a female manager, getting animated on the touchline seems to cause all manner of social meltdowns. “That’s the thing that frustrates me,” she says, “a male does the same thing and he’s passionate. I do it and I’m angry. Are we not allowed emotions?”
It is a familiar trope that the Manchester United women’s head coach points to, from the United States national women’s team’s emphatic celebrations after scoring 10 goals against Thailand at the World Cup, to Serena Williams at the 2018 US Open final – sportswomen facing criticism for showing anger, passion or frustration. Stoney’s words take on a timely significance this week, as a video of Pep Guardiola gesticulating incredulously in the fourth official’s face, about his team’s penalty claim against Liverpool, began circulating online. The video has been turned into countless memes shared in the thousands, all iterations embracing the hilarity of the moment, not the anger.
Meanwhile, the last time Stoney expressed any hint of disagreement with an official, by feigning to kick a bottle on the touchline during United’s win over Liverpool, a national newspaper accused her of “failing to set an example to the fans”, in the same match some were reportedly singing offensive Hillsborough chants. It is because of these double standards that Stoney believes no female coach will lead a senior men’s team in this country anytime soon. But Chelsea women’s manager Emma Hayes was linked to the club’s men’s job during the summer? Stoney is unconvinced. “I just don’t see it in my lifetime,” the 37-year-old sighs. “If it does, would it be a PR stunt? I’d love to see it, there are some fantastic female coaches out there. But every manager has a bad spell at some point, I don’t think you’d be afforded that luxury if you were a woman.”
Coming from one of the leading female football coaches in the UK, it is a serious reminder that progress in the women’s game – with record attendances and investment at an all-time high – still has some way to go. But Stoney makes clear she is not here to appease the narrative, nor is she one to shy away from her opinions. With the Australia women’s team announcing historic equal pay contracts this month, does she think there should be more conversation on that subject in England? “No, I don’t. I’m quite set on this,” she says, matter of fact.
But what of equality? In Stoney’s mind, the issue lies in the numbers, which is why she supports the US women’s team’s equal pay lawsuit against their federation. “They should be getting paid more, because they bring in more money [than the men]. It should be based on the revenue.”
Hosting at big stadiums is another sticking point for her, she explains. The inaugural Women’s Football Weekend will see four out of six WSL fixtures played at their clubs’ men’s stadiums on Sunday, but the United manager is unconvinced. “My feeling is, let’s play at Leigh Sports Village,” she says, referring to United’s 12,000-capacity home ground. “Let’s make sure we invest marketing in selling that out consistently, which creates an incredible atmosphere. Rather than 20,000 fans in Old Trafford where it will feel like a ghost town.”
It is a fair point, especially considering Reading’s disappointing attempts to bolster crowd numbers at the Madejski Stadium, with barely 700 fans turning up for their tie against Lewes in the Continental Cup. But how about the success of the opening weekend of the season, when Chelsea and Manchester City hosted at their men’s stadiums to the tune of over 63,000 total attendance across the WSL over two days?
“Maybe I’ve got a controversial view on it,” she says, pausing for a moment, before shrugging as if to shake off any inhibitions she was harbouring. “But Chelsea gave away their tickets. It was 24,000 that attended, so it wasn’t a ‘sell-out’ – they didn’t sell any tickets anyway. It’s great for the players in terms of playing under pressure but there was no carry-over to the next game. Am I saying there won’t ever be a game at Old Trafford? No, of course there will be. But for now I just think they’re one-off games [that] don’t pay off.”
This weekend United play league leaders Chelsea at the west London side’s usual Kingsmeadow ground. Despite being newly promoted to the WSL, Stoney’s team are in fourth place and currently on a five-game winning streak in all competitions – including a Continental Cup victory over holders City. “I think we’re on track,” she says measuredly, after signing a contract extension to 2022 with the club last week. “We’re probably exceeding expectations. I try to keep my players grounded, but yes there’s a lot of noise around them doing well.”
This “do not believe your own hype” approach clearly runs through her views on wider policy in the game too. At a moment where women’s football is steamrollering into a new era, Stoney is calling for caution and asking expectations to be reeled in somewhat. The former England captain’s more private musings have been up for analysis this week too. Thinking she was no longer on air during her FA Player commentary of the Lionesses’ win over the Czech Republic, she was caught calling American player Jaelene Hinkle “schizophrenic” in regards to her refusal to play for the US last year because she believed her Christian faith prevented her from wearing a shirt honouring LGBT pride month. Stoney has since apologised.
Stoney credits former England coach and fellow WSL manager at Brighton, Hope Powell, as having helped mould her into the coach she is today. As the national team coach for 15 years, Powell was never one to mince her words, which made her unpopular among some players – and Stoney admits she could sometimes be “a little too harsh”. But Powell’s immeasurably positive impact on the game ran parallel with that, as she secured groundbreaking full-time central contracts for players in 2009. Stoney says Powell literally “changed my life”.
One thing those contracts did not consider though was maternity policy, something the United manager experienced first hand. As a mother on the England team, Stoney was not contractually guaranteed time off when her partner Megan Harris gave birth to their twins in 2014. So too her team-mate Katie Chapman, who accused the Football Association of punishing her for being a mother after she was dropped from the squad.
“It’s been a taboo subject, there’s a reason women in football don’t get pregnant,” Stoney says. “More often than not you don’t get the support you need. We lost Katie from the England team and that shouldn’t have happened. I can only speak for our club, [but] it is changing.” United have an “enhanced” maternity policy in place, which pregnant goalkeeper Siobhan Chamberlain is benefiting from.
Along with contractual elements, showing her players they can have football careers and be mothers is important to Stoney, and part of the reason she often brings her children – five-year-old twins, Tilly and Teddy, and one-year-old Willow – to the United training ground. Thus, her otherwise slow and steady approach should not be mistaken for an aversion to progress: she knows first-hand the impact female representation can have thanks to her children.
“Teddy met Ole [Gunnar Solskjaer] the other day, I was gutted because he went into school after and said, ‘I want to be a football manager’ and the teacher said, ‘What like Mummy?’ And he was like, ‘No, like Ole!’
“But [Teddy] wants to manage the women’s football team when he grows up. It’s incredible, when he was about 3½, we had a Premier League game on TV and he said, ‘Mummy, boys play football too?’ Shows what world he’s growing up in.”
- Changing the Game: Fantastic Female Footballers by Casey Stoney is on sale now (Studio Press/£12.99)