Casey Stoney praised the “mature performance” and workrate of Lauren James after the 19-year-old scored the opening goal in a 2-0 defeat of West Ham as Manchester United’s women’s team made their historic bow at Old Trafford.
The day was not so memorable for the visitors, who finished with 10 players. But while there may have been no fans, the Barmy Army banners may have been dwarfed in the huge ground and coverage limited to the FA Player and radio, it is hard to overstate the presence of Stoney’s team at the Theatre of Dreams. This was confirmation by one of the world’s most-followed clubs that the women’s game matters.
“The club did a great job of showcasing the game for the players today. I’m slightly jealous they were playing on this surface, I never got to play on it,” said the United manager.
Clearly not suffering from being overawed by the occasion, United were dominant against the WSL’s bottom club but could not make it count early on. Their 75% possession in the first half yielded just one shot on target, a 13th-minute strike from James from the edge of the penalty area that was read well by the West Ham goalkeeper, Courtney Brosnan. The visitors, in contrast, had two shots on target.
James was United’s driving force. The Arsenal academy graduate and sister of Chelsea’s Reece James has always been one of the most technically gifted players in whichever team or division she has played in, but this season there seems to be another level of maturity to her game.
Under the tutelage of Stoney, who is a firm but hands-on manager, James looks to be thriving on and off the pitch. The England forward has spoken out against racist abuse received online. At Old Trafford, James looked at home, stalking the wings, ready to collect, accelerate and turn players inside out with her twisting runs.
It is, however, her movement off the ball, her contribution to the whole and an appreciation of how she can improve the players around her that have moved up a gear.
“The out of possession stuff here is nonnegotiable [because of] the way I want to play, the way I want to press, the way I want to go and get the ball back,” said Stoney. “She knows if she wants to play she’s got to do that, that’s a choice for her now and she’s making that choice more often than not.
“She’s physically in a good place which enables her to do that. She showed real desire today to want to work for the team. I’m glad people are picking up on the workrate because we all know that talent she’s got.”
West Ham have continued to struggle to find any consistency under their new manager, Olli Harder, and sit at the bottom of the table while United fight for a place in the Champions League, something Stoney has said would put them “ahead of schedule”.
The Hammers have been a bit of an enigma of late and their performance in Manchester only added to the intrigue. They did well to hold United’s relentless pressure at bay and stifled the potent front three of James, Christen Press and Ella Toone.
It spoke to the potency of James that whenever the forward was on the ball the West Ham strategy seemed to be to put as many bodies as possible between her and the goal. Weirdly, it worked.
It would be James, though, scorer of her team’s first ever WSL goal, who would head her team in front from close range, before the World Cup-winning USA forward Press added a second after a neat through ball from the midfielder Jackie Groenen.
West Ham’s woes were compounded by the sending-off of Laura Vetterlein with 10 minutes to play after she tripped Kirsty Hanson and was shown a second yellow.
Victory gets United back on track for European football following defeat at Arsenal last week. The players have now tasted and tested what it is like to play at Old Trafford before they do so in front of fans and the pressure has been lifted on the club, who have had to field constant questions about when they would open the doors of their famous home to their women’s team.