Lingering Manchester derby moments should ensure WSL masses return

A bumper Women's Super League crowd watching Manchester City overcome rivals Manchester United need not be a one-off on Saturday's evidence.

Janine Beckie (R) on Abbie McManus during the Barclays FA Women's Super League derby match between Manchester City and Manchester United at the Etihad Stadium.   -  Getty Images

The worst part for Abbie McManus was she knew what was coming.

England defender McManus, formerly of Manchester City, made her debut for United in Saturday's Manchester derby before a record Women's Super League crowd at the Etihad Stadium.

Casey Stoney's top-flight newcomer had the better of the first half, with Ellie Roebuck forced into a remarkable point-blank save to deny Jane Ross – another of United's ex-City contingent.

Then, in the 48th minute, Caroline Weir collected a loose clearance 25 yards from goal, sized things up and let fly left-footed.

"The shots from distance from Georgia Stanway and Caroline Weir we knew about but, unfortunately, on that one goal, we didn't get tight enough to her," McManus said, thoughts of training sessions past undoubtedly having flashed through her mind. "It was an unbelievable strike by Caroline Weir."

READ | Weir gives Man City derby joy as Women's Super League attendance record is smashed

The vast majority of the 31,213 in attendance rose to their feet as Weir tore away in celebration, soon subsumed by her team-mates. Ideally, all big sporting events need their moment, and City's matchwinner provided it when securing a 1-0 victory.

These are buoyant times for women's football in the UK, following a World Cup where England captured the imagination of millions on its way to the semifinals.

"It's a great moment for women's football coming back off the successful World Cup. It's a turning point for women's football," Weir said, in acknowledgement of the bigger picture despite her VAR-laced heartache during the group stages with Scotland. "Support is coming from all places. It's about pushing on and improving at all levels."

The Football Association has shrewdly looked to grasp the sense of positivity by staging showpiece fixtures at some of England's premier venues on this opening weekend of the WSL season.

The Manchester derby crowd was a six-fold improvement on the league's previous best attendance, although the record will not have a chance to dry in the books before a near-capacity crowd watch Chelsea entertain Tottenham on Sunday.

Steph Houghton, City and England captain and the lynchpin of a defence placed under greater scrutiny than they might have imagined at the Etihad, knows these are changing times to be seized.

"We played here a few years ago and there were only 2,000 people," Houghton said, recalling the 2014 Continental Cup clash with Everton, where the attendance actually failed to breach 1,500.

"To get a record-breaking crowd and attendance, and for us to make sure that Manchester stays blue, it was unbelievable. There are a lot of big games going on this weekend. I think it's important that we get bums on seats as much as we can."

Houghton is hopeful plenty of those who revelled in derby delight will follow the team back across Alan Turing Way to its usual home at the City Football Academy.

At that stage, when sunlit September afternoons become an inevitably bleak English winter, the domestic football season reverts to a slog that feelgood factors and a sense of novelty alone cannot sustain.

The good news is the evidence in Manchester and beyond is of sport repeatedly capable of capturing the imagination on its own terms.

Before the derby, lifelong City fan Keira Walsh said with relish that she wanted to "absolutely smash" United and her calm, crisp passing granted early control to Nick Cushing's side.

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However, the brilliant Netherlands midfielder Jackie Groenen turned the contest in United's favour and, when the visitors seemed to have faded as an attacking force inside the final 10 minutes, she bundled against the base of the post.

In between heroics from Roebuck and Weir, Groenen found herself briefly squared up to the City goalscorer – a late tackle having touched a calf and a nerve. Every one moment stitching new storylines on to the tapestry of a grand old rivalry, with threads everyone involved will be itching to pick up next time.

"The style of football we've just played and both teams have put on, it's a good show," McManus added.

"I hope it's not classed as women's football anymore and I hope that we get the men's fans in now. It's getting bigger and better and the crowd make it a little bit more exciting for us. We hope to see those fans back."

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