With 500 days to go until the 2021 Women’s European Championships kick off in England, Phil Neville has announced that the first game of the tournament will be played at Old Trafford.
The 76,000 capacity stadium is the largest domestic stadium in English football and up there with some of the biggest in the world. However, it’s not just size that matters. The stadium, for many, is one of the greatest for character in the country, much better than the ‘soulless bowl’ that Wembley Stadium all too often becomes.
Not only is Old Trafford a symbol of English football in general, it helps to better represent how Northern the current Lionesses side is. Only three players in the squad that Phil Neville took to the 2019 World Cup were from below Nottingham, and many are from the north-east.
It helps the generation coming through to see, in a game that is so international orientated, that it is still in touch with a large portion of the country’s population that seems to have been lost touch with by the current men’s international footballing establishment.
How special will Old Trafford be?
The stadium is also a place that is very dear to the Lionesses manager’s own heart. Coming from Bury, Phil Neville made 263 appearances for Manchester United and became an all time great as part of the class of 92. Neville told the press this week that will be a special occasion for all involved.
"I was there the other day with the trophy for the photocall and it will be amazing," Neville said.
Euro 2021 has been in planning for many years, and the use of Old Trafford shows the changing shape in the women’s game over time. Neville explained that the initial plan had been to fill as many small stadiums as possible. Old Trafford is certainly not that.
”Thinking about the planning of the tournament, it probably started five or six years ago and the level of the stadium we were looking at then was to get as many people as possible into a smaller type stadium" the England boss said. "And now we're thinking Old Trafford for the first game of the Euros.
"I think we should all be proud of the work that's being done. It is a brave and unbelievable correct decision by the FA to say the game has gone so far so let's take it to a bigger place and I think it will be one of those occasions you will remember for a long, long time in your career."
The whole occasion will help to boost morale between the players and give an extra sense of competitiveness for players who want to get into a squad that is full of talent.
”When the players find out on Sunday night, I think particularly the younger ones who want to be involved in Euro 2021, when they go to the gym and we ask them to do 10 reps, I hope they go and do 12 or 14 instead because now it is the real deal and to get to Euro 2021 they know there is a big carrot there and it is so exciting.”
With a capacity of up to 74,879, Old Trafford promises the potential of superseding the previous UEFA Women’s EURO attendance record of 41,301 in the 2013 Final in Sweden, and the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 Final attendance of 57,900 at the Stade de Lyon.
Will Old Trafford carry additional pressure?
With Women’s Euro 2021 undoubtedly one of if not the biggest moments in recent history for Women’s Football development in England, the occasion could carry additional pressure for the players with it set to be such a big occasion.
“It’s amazing really because I didn’t realise the effect Old Trafford had on people until I went there with Everton. It was just home [when I played for United]. You went there, played football then came home.
"My first game with Everton... you’re driving to the stadium and the coach is silent. You get there and all the players are looking up and you realise the effect Old Trafford has, the theatre and history of the club.”
It won’t be the first time that the Lionesses have played in a larger stadium, with over 75,000 attending the fixture with Germany back in November, but for many it will be even more special.
“It happened here in November - that starry eyed player that always wanted to play at Wembley, getting that chance. We are going to have to handle that. If you want to play for England and be successful, those are the days, the types of occasions that you should be excited about, motivated for and dream about.
“Abbie McManus is a Manchester United fan and I would have thought it will be the best moment of her life if she gets that opportunity.”
Neville, who has been the manager since Mark Sampson departed in 2018, is up for the occasion despite the obvious pressures involved.
“I heard stuff the other day about having a Euros in your home nation and the pressures, expectations of that and all those negative things.
"But it’s at home; we should be seeing it as a massive advantage for our players to go out there with 75,000 England supporters.
“What we have to do now - which started in Middlesbrough in terms of our programme over the next 12 months - is to expose our players to big occasions so when they come to Old Trafford it’s just like another occasion - it’s like going into your grandmother’s front room, having a cup of tea.
"That’s how it should be. There were 30,000 at the Middlesbrough game, then the Wembley game which was another bit of expectation and handling the pressure.
”The games next year will reflect the venues we hope to choose from - it’s all part of the process.
"We have to protect and care for the players, that’s what we have to do. We have to show that when we get to Old Trafford, me, Wendy [press officer], my psychologist, the nutritionist; everyone has done their job in terms of providing a platform for the players to perform. That will be part of our challenge."
Will it be more accessible for fans to get to big stadiums?
Too often, women's matches are held in stadiums where fans aren't used to travelling too. United's women's side play at Leigh Sports Village, a good drive away from Old Trafford and a ground that United's fans aren't always willing to travel to.
Neville was questioned about this and said he hopes the game being held at Old Trafford will encourage more people to come:
“The traffic is horrendous outside Old Trafford!” Neville joked “There’s a nice hotel over the road... I think it’s easier to sell - going to a game at Old Trafford because there’s that excitement," he said.
"There’s probably parents of young children that have dreamt to go to Old Trafford. That’s why it’s such an exciting occasion.“
The Lionesses boss also stated that he hopes that the Euros can help to push WSL attendances, something that this summer’s World Cup run was able to do:
"You hope the spin off from that is that they want to go to Leigh Sports Village when the season starts after. That’s the spin-off and we’ve not quite had that at some of the venues for WSL games. We have still seen sell-out crowds at Boreham Wood and Kingsmeadow. It’s a fantastic atmosphere at Kingsmeadow, I love going there. It’s like a proper game of football.
"You go to Old Trafford and sit in the box and hear the supporters in front singing like mad. It’s what a football ground should be like. We are getting there in terms of atmosphere.
"Occasions like we are having in the WSL, at Wembley, at Middlesbrough and soon Old Trafford, inspires people to go to the stadiums for their home clubs.”
For those who have been in the side for a long time, the ability to feature at Old Trafford shows the changing tides of the women’s game:
“They had the opportunity [to play at Old Trafford eight years ago]. I was speaking to Steph [Houghton] and Jill [Scott] yesterday and they spoke about probably not getting as far as they would have liked to get to. That is the motivation.
"When we announced going to Middlesbrough I will never forget the north east girls in the squad saying ‘I have to go to that game, we have to stay in this hotel, there’s a Pizza Hut over the road or whatever!’ There is a genuine excitement for them to get to a venue and Old Trafford will be one of those that they will be thinking now will be special. It’s ones where they have been watching, growing up, some of the best full-backs in the world play.”