The Reds Are Blue – On A Troubling Summer On Both Sides Of Manchester

It’s not been a good time to be a Manchester City fan. A heartbreaking loss in the FA Cup Final, followed by the news breaking last Monday that Georgia Stanway is definitely leaving the club to go to Bayern Munich, and that other senior players like Lucy Bronze, Caroline Weir and Keira Walsh are all looking at the exit door. On the Red side of Manchester, too, there’s increasing disquiet about a club seemingly maintaining complete radio silence on goings on at Leigh Sports Village. So…what’s going on in one of Britain’s biggest football cities? Paul Wheeler has a few theories…

On the face of it, Manchester City should be heading into this summer with renewed optimism after a disastrous first half of the season. Since losing 1-0 to Chelsea in January they didn’t lose again until Sunday, scored 45 goals and in many people’s eyes looked like the all-conquering oil-money-funded powerhouse that the WSL has been used to the past few years.

After finding struggles during the first half of the season Gareth Taylor effectively reset his Playstation and returned to managing like he was playing FIFA on “easy” mode, using the fact Man City have some of the best individual players in the league and half the England team to bail himself out of any questions about whether or not his managerial style was being found out – after all, when your coaching style the past few years has basically been “use half the England team as a cheat code and if in doubt, throw money at the best players both foreign and outside of the rest of the WSL top 3” class will eventually out, and it did in the second half of the season.

At this poinf Manchester City fans are already probably firing up their keyboards to claim this is not the case and talk about losing players like Rose Lavelle (who was barely used by Taylor) and Sam Mewis, so let’s just look at the incomings for Man City this sesaon.

Vicky Losada (Barcelona) – Champions League Winner
Khadija “Bunny” Shaw (Bordeaux, top scorer in Ligue 1)
Fillipa Angeldal (Hacken, Swedish international)
Julie Blakstad (Rosenborg, Norwegian international)
Hayley Raso (Everton, one of the best wingers in the WSL and Aussie Olympian)
Ruby Mace (poached from Arsenal)

Never mind what players were already there…at the start of the season Man City had the England starting goalie and half of the defence, two-thirds of the England midfield and two-thirds of the starting England strikeforce. This is, on the face of it, the kind of club players should love playing for. This is one of the biggest, richest women’s clubs in the world – one Man City fans love to point out has developed most of the current Lionesses (though to do so they include Lauren Hemp, which Bristol City might have a thing or two to say about).

So, this summer, why do (at a minimum) three of their key English players they’re so proud of (Bronze, Walsh, Stanway), one of the best attacking midfielders not just in the British Isles but probably Europe (Caroline Weir), and the aforementioned Bunny Shaw (9 goals despite only playing less than a third of the available league minutes) already have rumbles of looking elsewhere?

The problem, as is usual with these cases, might be with management.

Let’s look, for example, at Georgia Stanway. This is one of the hottest young properties in English football – a skilled midfielder who can score goals and easily be the heartbeat of a team. She’s played the third-most WSL minutes of any player at Manchester City this season, so playing time is decidedly not an issue. She is, in short, the kind of player any manager and club would love to build a team around. And yet, for some reason, coming towards the prime of her career, established in the England team and seemingly poised to be one of England’s important contributors at the Euros, she wasn’t considered part of Manchester City’s plans, with reports saying that the Etihad management didn’t even start contract negotiations with her and effectively were nudging one of their brightest young stars towards the exit door in January.

Speaking of not offering new contracts – Manchester City’s hierarchy also elected, apparently, not to offer Lucy Bronze a new contract for “footballing reasons” leading to her, too, deciding to leave the club. Now, there may be some discussion over what the player herself will admit was not a season that saw her at peak performance last time out, but on marketing power alone Lucy Bronze is probably still one of the most powerful players in the women’s game. She’s also undeniably talented and a massively experienced England international who is, realistically, still Man City’s best right back. So not offering her a new contract for “footballing reasons” seems a smokescreen for…well, something else when you consider this offseason as a whole. Couple that with Jill Scott leaving due to no longer being able to break into the Man City team and Caroline Weir apparently looking elsewhere and that is a LOT of experience and talent all suddenly deciding to leave Man City in one season.

(by the way, Man City’s squad has now lost over half of the players Gareth Taylor inherited and when one looks at the way talents like Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis were arguably wasted last season after much fanfare, it is interesting to see City now spinning this summer almost as a rebuild.
The acquisition of Deyna Castellanos, Leila Ouahabi and Laia Alexandri, the latter two of whom come into a squad that, let’s not forget, already has both of England’s top-two left-back squad options (which means one of Leila Ouahabi or Demi Stokes is likely going to be fighting for playing time even before Laia Alexandri comes into the picture, or one of those players is going to be moved sides to cover for Bronze, which will doubtless make Esme Morgan wonder just where SHE fits in, never mind Ruby Mace) seem simply a case of playing fantasy football right now – it’s hard to work out where they’ll fit in.

Gareth Taylor’s squad building so far this summer has looked disjointed and when you couple that with some of his comments as a coach (for example referring to how it was “hard to keep 25 young females under control” last season…you wonder exactly how long before the cracks in his approach show this time round…he’s not a coach that strikes you as one ready for a rebuild or indeed with a coherent plan based on the evidence.)

But speaking of coherent plans…at least Man City are doing SOMETHING. Across Manchester in the red half of the city, discontent is growing by the day at a team seemingly content to maintain radio silence while hurrying up and waiting on delivering the promises made by the hierarchy after the much-publicised issues believed to have contributed in part to the departure of Casey Stoney last off-season.

The problems at LSV are many, with few solutions apparent right now. A Director of Women’s Football was promised as an appointment by the club some months ago, with nothing said since. Key players like captain Katie Zelem are coming close to contract expiry with no mentions of renewal or even negotiations. The club currently has one fit centre-back in Maria Thorisdottir and transfer activity at LSV has been notable only by its absence so far this summer.

With the men’s side in turmoil but committing very publicly to a new era, worries are growing amongst Man United Women fans (some of the loudest and most vocal in the WSL) that once again the women’s team is being put very much on the back burner and almost left to wither on the vine, with the club ownership content for their women to sit as “best of the rest” in the WSL behind the top three for another season and risk being overtaken by the likes of Spurs in the meantime. Concern at the rhetoric from manager Marc Skinner about how last season was a “building season” and almost the fear that the club might be getting their excuses in early for next season after a disappointing end to last season is rife, as is the fact that Manchester United are being linked with players like Adriana Leon from West Ham as key transfer targets – while Leon is no doubt a solid player, there is a feeling among fans that a club like Manchester United should be committing the resources and effort to chase the top players available rather than what many would consider almost the “second tier” of summer acquisitions.

The problems in both Manchester clubs seem to be off the field, with two talented groups of players being let down either by their manager in the case of the blue half of Manchester – doubts continue to remain over the ability of Gareth Taylor to effectively get the best out of a very talented squad with some observers even questioning if Man City’s epic second half of the season was mainly player-driven rather than from any manager influence.

The choices made so far over key players this summer have raised eyebrows to say the least or those in the boardroom in the red half of the city – the inertia behind the club and seeming lack of urgency in retaining key players or even putting any news out at all about what is going on at LSV is beginning to make the fanbase worry that the malaise and mistakes that have been made over the past few years with the mens’ club is now infecting the women’s side once again too. Or even worse that the women’s team simply isn’t a priority this off season.

What is certain is that in their own ways both Manchester clubs still have a lot of questions to answer this offseason ahead of next season and every day that passes without a clear answer is a day where tension rises in the fanbase and in some cases increases the disengagement between the club and the fanbase, particularly in the case of the Reds – a fanbase that the owners can ill afford to lose).

Manchester is a football city that always demands the best, and right now, there are more questions floating around the M postcode than answers. That needs to change on both sides of the divide. Soon.