It is 7 p.m. on a chilly Manchester evening. The pre-match Champions League music is bellowing out, though not the spine-tangling tune that plays before every men's Champions League match. Instead, the Women's Champions League anthem—a modern, dubstep tune, rather than the classical music of the men's version—is playing before Manchester City's match with St. Polten.
The atmosphere is notably different from men's football, at the Ethiad Stadium or elsewhere. The combination of cheaper tickets and the compact academy stadium give the game a more egalitarian, democratic feel, so that the players feel more like extended family than the untouchables at the top of the men's game. A drummer in the crowd dictates the mood; with Man City's progress to the next round virtually assured after a 3-0 victory in the away leg against St. Polten, fans can enjoy a tension-free evening of football. While taking in City's smooth passing football, the crowd delight in practising their chants. There are odes to celebrate both the team ("We love you City, we do" and "Oh when the Blues go marching in") and the players ("There's only one Ellie Roebuck," "Here's to you Izzy Christiansen, City loves you more than you will know," and, to the tune of "Will Grigg's on fire," 'Nikita's on fire', after Nikita Parris scored the opening goal of the evening).
As the crowd walk out, contentedly celebrating a 3-0 victory, they have a last-16 place in the Champions League to look forward to. Only, this achievement does not come with any bragging rights in Manchester: Manchester United do not even have a women's team at all.
It was not always this way. By the end of the 1970s, the Manchester United Supporters Club Ladies were established and unofficially recognised as the club's women's team. They became founding members of the North West Women's Regional Football League in 1989. In 2001, the team formed an official relationship with Manchester United.
Four years later, it was dead. They were floundering on the pitch and were in the third tier of the English game. But what really killed them was developments off the field.
In 2005, Malcolm Glazer completed his takeover of Man United. Within a few months, the women's team was abolished; Man United explained it wasn't in their "core business" interests . "They don't even tell us to our faces that we're no longer needed. It's insulting," complained one female player at the time, per the Manchester Evening News.
Today, Man United are one of only two Premier League clubs without a women's team; the other, Southampton, at least have an U-21 women's side. Even FC United of Manchester, the phoenix club formed by Man United fans disenchanted with the commercialisation of the modern game in 2005, created a women's team in 2012.
The Red Devils' lack of a women's team can only be properly understood in the broader context of how the sport has historically treated women as second-class citizens.
At the start of the 1920s, women's football was thriving in England. There were around 150 teams, and matches between leading sides attracted crowds of 50,000. But in December 1921, the Football Association declared: "The game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged." Clubs were banned from allowing women to use their pitches, decimating the women's game. Only in 1971 did that ban end.
For all the progress that has come since, the popularity of women's football remains far below the men's game. Prize money for the women's game is minuscule in comparison too: there was £22 million in prize money for the last men's football World Cup, but only £630,000 for the women's tournament. In the last full season of the FA Women's Super League, total attendance for matches was 72,192; in the last season of the Premier League, the total attendance was 13.6 million.
So when the Glazers were assessing the women's team in terms of crude profit and loss, it was deemed a loser and hence not worth continuing to run, even though its annual costs at the time were only about £60,000. Today, leading Super League teams like Man City spend around £1 million a year on their women's teams. Despite sharing facilities with the men's team keeping costs down and the team's growing popularity, Man City still make an overall loss from the women's side.
The dynamics of Man United's board may also help to explain why the club lacks a women's side. The 12 members of the board include six members of the Glazer family and just one woman, Darcie Glazer Kassewitz, the daughter of Malcolm. The composition of the board falls well short of the 30 percent of women who are considered a tipping point to changing a company's attitudes.
"There are no women with independence from making profit out of the club, and perhaps therefore no representation on the board who sees the lack of a women's team as problematic. This is of course an assumption," says Lucy Piggott, a women's sport researcher at the University of Chichester. It might be relevant, too, that the Glazer family's other experience of sports ownership is their ongoing ownership of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in American football—a sport in which women are best known as cheerleaders.
Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at the University of Salford, believes the board are also generally more conservative than those of rivals. He said: "United sometimes outwardly appear to have a very cautious approach to doing business. For example, the club seemed to be very late adopters of Twitter."
And so, even as women's football has soared in the 12 years since they closed their team, Man United have steadfastly refused to reintroduce it. A petition calling on them to create a team in 2013, signed by more than 3,000, did nothing to change minds.
Without the spectre of Man United to worry about, Man City's women's team have soared since joining the Women's Super League in 2014: they won the league in its last full season in 2016, the FA Cup in May and reached the semi-finals in the Champions League earlier this year. Seven Man City players featured in England's European Championship opener last summer.
While Man City's recent embrace of women's football has helped the game in Manchester, Nicola Armstrong, who is the chairperson at Manchester Stingers WFC, believes the gains could have been even greater had Man United had a women's team too.
"City are good at doing work within the community, and it's definitely helped to raise the profile and professionalism of the game. City having a team has increased popularity in watching the game and we have seen a small increase in spectators," Armstrong said. "I would also say it has raised the profile within the men's game and within the coaching world and I have definitely noticed a higher level of coach choosing to coach and manage women's team." In contrast, Armstrong says, "Man United not having a team is an absolute joke as far as I'm concerned. How can such a successful and rich club not want to promote the women's game? It doesn't make any sense to me."
To Piggott, the lack of a women's team amounts to "a waste of resources," that needlessly holds the sport back. "United already has the best facilities in place, and has the capacity and money to recruit the best people to develop a new women and girls' structure. It seems such a waste and shame for this not to be utilised. And such a famous club is not going to struggle to recruit good players with the right setup. Who doesn't want to say they play for Man United?"
Today, Man United are the richest club in the world, according to the Deloitte Football Money League. In 2015/16, Man United recorded revenue of £515.3 million. Their unwillingness to spend a minuscule amount of this on a women's team—even £500,000, under 0.1 percent of Man United's total revenue, would probably be enough to develop a competitive side—gives the impression Man United "don't care," Piggott believes. "And for the one of the biggest clubs in the world to put across such a strong message is damaging and disappointing."
Oddly, Man United are actually involved with a good under-age system for women's football. The Manchester United Foundation has coached over 3,000 girls in the Manchester area in the last 12 months. The Foundation manages the FA Tier 1 Girls' Regional Talent Club and also runs girls' teams, up to the under-16s, who reached the FA Youth Cup final for the first time in their history in 2016.
Yet once they advance from the U-16 team, players must find a new club. Bizarrely, the Manchester United Foundation's work with girls effectively trains them for the benefit of Man United's rivals. Last summer, England Under-17 goalkeeper Emily Ramsey, a Man United fan from Salford who had played for the club since she was eight, moved to Liverpool. Alethea Paul, a midfielder who came up through Man United's underage teams, has also moved to Man City to pursue her professional career.
So it is not true that Man United do nothing to develop women's football. It is just that, to many football supporters in Manchester and beyond, it seems pathetic set against what Man City and other Premier League rivals do.
Barbara Keeley, MP for Worsley and Eccles South and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women's Sport and Fitness, wrote to David Moyes, then Man United's manager in 2013, asking why the club did not have a women's team.
"He gave me assurances that the club would review the decision on whether to have a women's team. Yet four years later nothing has changed," Keeley said. "It is very disappointing that Manchester United are still not taking the opportunity to inspire the next generation of women and girls to take up football."
All the while, the threat grows that Man United's reticence to introducing a women's team will put off fans who will see that, while the world of women's football has changed, Man United have not. "Women's football has gone from strength to strength since United last had a senior women's team in 2005, but the club doesn't seem to have kept up with the times," says Kate Green, the MP for Stretford and Urmston. "It's a shame that young women in my community, who've grown up watching the success of the Lionesses on a national level, are denied the opportunity to go and watch their local women's team in the Theatre of Dreams, or to believe that, one day, they could play in a United shirt. I hope United will move forward swiftly to establish a senior women's team."
One intriguing question is whether Man United's reticence to introduce a women's team leads to Man City making gains among women in men's football too. Man City think the women's team, as well as being an end in their own right, can also double as a gateway to following the men's team, because it is cheaper, the ground is smaller and more accessible and kick-off times—2 p.m. on Sunday is a favourite—are more family friendly. About 40 percent of home fans at Man City's women's matches are women, compared to about 20 percent at their men's games.
While Man City still make a loss on their women's team, the expectation is that the side will be profitable within a few years. Interest grows with every season. In 2016, Man City's average attendance was 2,253, which was the highest in the entire country and more than double their 949 average attendance in 2014. Their victory in the FA Cup final in May was watched by 35,000 at Wembley, with an additional 1.2 million watching on TV in the UK. Man City also streamed three home Champions League matches on Facebook live last year which were watched by a total audience of 12.1 million.
For now, this revolution will continue to pass Man United by. "While there are no current plans for a senior women's team, it is a matter that is under review and a detailed analysis is currently being undertaken," a Manchester United spokesperson said.
How could this change? Rachel Brown-Finnis, the former England goalkeeper, has suggested the Premier League make it a stipulation for any men's team to run a women's team too. That would seem to accord with the Premier League's stated commitment to equality, but there are no plans to make a women's team a requirement of clubs.
The Football Association have also declared their hopes that Man United launch a women's team. "They're a smart organisation and I think the incentives for competing in the Super League are going to continue to grow," chief executive Martin Glenn said recently, per Ben Rumsby of the Telegraph. "So, I think they will, in time, figure out it's in their interest to do it." Glenn said that he hoped that the FA's bid for Euro 2021 could help to convince Man United to set up a team. When contacted by Bleacher Report, the FA declined to comment officially.
Perhaps most likely is that, within a few years, and regardless of any external pressure, Man United will deem it in their commercial interests to launch a team. Yet even if they did so, being latecomers to the show will risk creating the impression their team is an afterthought. And, as standards in women's football—not just playing, but coaching, talent identification and team-building—soar with every year, so does the disadvantage that Man United will face as last movers. It could be many years before their team becomes as good as Man City's and could hurt Man United's chances of making money from any women's side as the women's game becomes more profitable.
How ironic it would be if a decision made for commercial reasons, to save a little cash, eventually ended up costing Man United many times over.