Once Casey Stoney’s players were through the door it seemed as if they had entered another country. It was a land inhabited by some scary creatures, with Madagascan hissing cockroaches, giant African land snails, a tarantula and a couple of snakes all making quite an impression on Manchester United’s squad.
It was one of Stoney’s regular team-bonding exercises and United’s manager had spent months negotiating with the club’s security staff and risk assessors before a zoologist finally entered the room and opened his cages.
The moment had come for the players to confront and overcome their fears and, leading by example, Stoney stepped forward first, her hand shaking slightly as the tarantula crawled across an outstretched palm.
“You have to learn to be OK with being uncomfortable in certain situations,” said the former England captain. “Things like this bring people together and remind us we’re all in it together.”
That was in 2019 when United were yet to reach their first birthday but, thanks to Stoney’s management, were heading for promotion from the Championship to the Women’s Super League. This season they finished a creditable fourth, narrowly missing out on Champions League qualification before, on Wednesday afternoon, Stoney stunned her players by announcing she was resigning.
On Thursday she celebrated her 39th birthday and prepared to face a new challenge, quite possibly in the United States. Stoney is much admired by those behind the new Californian women’s franchises in San Diego and Angel City but may be wanted in Oregon, where Portland Thorns could soon be seeking a new head coach.
Wherever she ends up, Stoney can be expected to approach her role with the amalgam of no-nonsense honesty and emotional intelligence that has proved her hallmark since the day, in February 2014, she publicly announced she was gay. “How do I expect other people to speak about themselves if I’m not prepared to be honest too?” reasoned the Basildon-born centre-half. “How do I tell people to be comfortable with themselves if I’m uncomfortable with myself?”
By June 2015 Stoney was in the lobby of the V Suites, a since-demolished three-star hotel in Moncton, eastern Canada, talking to a small group of journalists covering England’s World Cup campaign about her receipt of the MBE.
Typically she immediately dedicated the honour to the players of past years who “created this platform for us in the women’s game but didn’t get any accolades or media exposure”. When Jen O’Neill, the editor of the influential She Kicks magazine and a very decent former Sunderland player, offered her congratulations, Stoney’s response was to tell everyone of the important part O’Neill played in the evolution of women’s football.
England, then managed by Mark Sampson, exceeded expectations by beating Germany and collecting bronze medals in the third-place play-off at Canada 2015. Stoney was also part of the squad that reached the semi-finals of the 2017 European Championship but by then her thoughts were turning to coaching, and when Phil Neville took charge of England he was delighted to name her as his assistant.
That relationship was broken by Manchester United’s overtures and the not inconsiderable challenge of building a professional team from scratch. Those who had long predicted Stoney – by now happily settled with her long-term partner, Megan Harris, and their three children – would morph into a leading coach were about to be proved right.
“I’ve never had a manager that believes in me as much as Casey,” said the United winger Leah Galton this year. “She’s made me so much more confident on the pitch. And because she’s so recently been a player she knows how you feel. Sometimes in training she’ll join in and help us to figure out situations; she’s even marked me occasionally! If you need extra help, she’ll stay on and keep working with you after training.”
Stoney, a longstanding student of psychology, worried greatly about the mental harm inflicted during more than a year of Covid-induced restrictions and devised some novel ways of keeping boredom at bay. “Casey’s unbelievable at team-building and bonding,” said United’s captain, Katie Zelem, recently. “During lockdowns we’ve done a lot on Zoom; we’ve had things like ‘food Friday’ where we all cooked a meal from a different country each week and videoed it. There were special judges; on Spanish night, Casey got Juan Mata to choose the winner. We also had a skills competition involving kicking balls into black rubbish bins.”
During Zoom-enabled press conferences throughout the pandemic Stoney never shied from challenging questions, exhibiting the sort of willingness to face up to awkward situations she demanded from her team.
Over Christmas, leading players from assorted WSL clubs headed for winter breaks in Dubai, many returning with Covid and forcing the postponement of games. While other managers avoided journalistic inquiries, sometimes ducking press conferences, Stoney simply apologised for a “poor error of judgment” in allowing United players to fly to the United Arab Emirates. “The buck stops with me, it was a mistake and I take responsibility,” she said before adding that “there obviously does need to be a lot more transparency in the women’s game”.
While Manchester United are surely regretting not furnishing Stoney with the training facilities and infrastructure she demanded, her next employer should start counting their lucky stars.