Katie Zelem grew up watching her beloved Manchester United deliver trophy after trophy – in the men’s game. But she didn’t have a women’s team to look up to.
She now has the chance to fulfill her childhood dream of leading her side to Wembley Stadium for their first Women’s FA Cup Final appearance.
“When I was younger and started playing, I didn’t really have any female role models,” the 27-year-old midfielder said.
She joined the club’s academy aged eight, but had to leave aged 17 to launch her professional career as United disbanded their senior women’s team in 2005. She moved to Liverpool, then at Juventus.
When United reformed in 2018, Zelem didn’t hesitate to return – even though he was in the league at the time.
After helping the club rise to the top of the Women’s Super League, Zelem will lead them against Chelsea in Sunday’s FA Cup final as they seek their first major trophy.
“It’s a club I’ve been at for a very long time now and have supported all my life. I think that’s what childhood dreams are made of,” she said.
“Manchester United lives firmly in my heart. Captaining Manchester United and making my debut, and then this moment, will definitely be up there in my highlights.”
‘It’s almost immeasurable’ – Man Utd’s five-year journey
Since reforming five years ago, the Manchester United women’s team has grown on and off the pitch.
They train full-time in Carrington, where the men’s team are based, and crowds have grown at their usual home of Leigh Sports Village since their promotion to the WSL in 2019.
Their occasional appearances at Old Trafford also attracted over 20,000 spectators.
United have finished fourth in three successive league campaigns, missing out on a Champions League spot, but remain on course for a league cup double this year.
“To be honest, it’s a bit surreal. When I first signed five years ago, everyone came from different backgrounds, different experiences,” Zelem said.
“It was my boyhood club but I had just won the league and entered the Champions League at Juventus, so it was a huge bet for me to come back and play in the league.
“If you look at where we were then to where we are now, it’s been a crazy journey. It’s been a real roller coaster ride with ups and downs. We’ve definitely come a long way.
“Of certain girls, [having] never played full time to be now at this stage of the season competing for the double – it’s almost immeasurable.
“If in five years we are this advanced, then Manchester United will definitely be one of the greatest teams in Europe. I’m so proud to have been part of the whole journey.”
The “originals” sharing a special link
Zelem will be one of four players in Sunday’s squad to graduate from United’s academy and return under former manager Casey Stoney in 2018.
For young ladies coming through the ranks at United now, there is an opportunity to play for the first team immediately, which was not the case for Zelem.
“There are four originals left and that’s a bond we will always share,” Zelem said.
“It’s something I’m most proud of – no matter how much we earn – it’s such a proud feeling to know that we can inspire the next generation.
“There are people who can look up to us and want to be like us, follow in our footsteps. For them to have the path to follow, it’s a lot easier for them and it’s amazing.”
“It’s the rotating season”
Having joined the WSL late, United had to catch up with the most successful women’s clubs in England – Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City.
But Zelem thinks United, top of the league and in a first FA Cup final, can finally shrug off the ‘outsiders’ label.
“Certainly in previous seasons we went into these kinds of games as underdogs and now we don’t feel like that at all,” she added.
“We don’t change now for other teams, whereas maybe in the first few seasons it was more about staying in the game, getting a point or getting a win.
“Now we dominate possession, we dominate the ball. We sincerely believe we can win and that’s what we accept now.”
Sunday’s success could be just the start for United.
“I think that’s just a baseline of where we want to be,” Zelem said. “We’ve always said we want to be in the Champions League and we’ve always been close but not close enough.
“It’s the season that turns. Before it was top three… and Manchester United. Now it’s solidly top four. We know we can compete and win things.”