Manchester United have been crowned champions of the WSL Academy League following a 6-2 aggregate victory over Chelsea in the final play-off on Wednesday afternoon.
The club’s next generation had already lifted the WSL Academy Cup earlier this season – they were subsequently introduced to the crowd at Old Trafford and invited to do a celebratory lap of honor – when the first-team faced Everton in front of 20,000 people.
Now, the decorated youngsters have added a league triumph to their trophy collection under the guidance of academy team boss Charlotte Healy. They already led 3-1 from the first leg and extended that lead with a brace from Keira Barry, before 16-year-old Megan Sofield added another.
Chelsea pulled one back before the end, but the tie was already well out of reach, handing United an impressive league and cup double.
First-team boss Marc Skinner, as well as a number of senior players – including England internationals Ella Toone and Alessia Russo – were in attendance, as was ex-men’s team boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as a regular watcher of his daughter, Karna.
Maria Edwards and Karna Solskjaer are two of the leading names fans will hope to see make the step up to first-team level before long and keep the club’s traditions strong. But there are others like Carrie Jones, who was brought in at 16 but has already played for the first-team and for Wales at senior international level, and Rebecca May. Chloe Williams is another Wales international.
Developing young players is a philosophy that runs strong on both sides of the club. The men’s team has famously included at least one home-grown player in every single matchday squad for nearly 85 years since October 1937.
When the women’s first-team was reformed in 2018 – United only offered girls’ football up to the age of 16 from 2005 until then – a number of those initial recruits had spent time at the academy before heading elsewhere. That includes Katie Zelem, Millie Turner and more famously Ella Toone.
United envision a path from the academy side to the first-team, essentially recruiting from within, and plans to properly prepare the graduates for that step up are already in place. Academy team manager Healy works in close conjunction with first-team boss Skinner, as well as consulting with men’s academy chief Nick Cox on best practices.
“It’s such a big gulf and we’re working so hard, whether that’s experience and training with us or pre-season with the first-team – all different things that can help them bridge the gap,” Skinner explained in the wake of the WSL Academy Cup final victory.
“What you have seen is a wonderful base talent. If we can recruit from our academy, that would be the ideal for me. Realistically, you can’t put all of them in at this moment. They might join us a little bit later, but we’re going to keep that experience going.”
for more from jamie spencer,follow him on Twitter and Facebook!