Peter Schmeichel. Carlos Tevez. Abbie McManus. In either the men’s or women’s game, it’s always a slightly controversial decision to switch sides in Manchester, but that is just the move defender Aoife Mannion made this summer.
Having signed for Manchester City in 2019 from Birmingham City, Mannion was unable to make her mark on the blue side of the city.
A serious ACL injury in October 2019 – just three months and 10 days after joining the club – saw her out of action until February this year, keeping her off the field for 458 days. She made just 11 appearances for City before leaving at the end of her contract last season.
“It was a struggle two-fold – just the length of the injury lay-off and also that the rehab straddled the pandemic,” Mannion explained ahead of Friday’s Barclays FA Women’s Super League curtain-raiser against Reading, live on Sky Sports.
“I did a lot of my rehab in my parents’ garden so I think everyone feels like a different person coming out of the pandemic and that’s the same for me. Coming back from that means I don’t take for granted being able to play.
“We played a pre-season match in Scotland and I had to remind myself that it was only the third full game I’d played since 2019, obviously due to the pandemic and then the injury. I really feel like a new kid at school, just finding my feet and really enjoying each game as it comes, which is a shift in perspective on how I’m seeing things.”
Mannion eventually signed for Manchester United in July, but it is not the first time she has been bold with her choice of club.
A native of Birmingham, she made her senior debut at Aston Villa before switching to Birmingham City in August 2013. From there, she made the jump to Man City, one again challenging herself, but Mannion insists her decisions have not been deliberate.
“It’s definitely not something I’ve actively looked for, it’s funny how things just pop up and it’s easy to put the dots together looking back,” the defender said.
“It makes quite a compelling story and I find myself looking back thinking ‘maybe, subconsciously, is that what I have been looking for?’. But I don’t think it’s like that at all. When I set out at each club, it’s with the full intent to be there.
“But something that speaks true of football is that it’s quite an emotive sport, it involves a lot of passion from the fans and everyone involved, so these moves really galvanise the supporters’ interest so moving from City to United is going to spark that. So I think it is something that we like that those moves spark a bit of emotion.
“I think the attraction of United speaks for itself. It was a really exciting prospect and I knew a few of the girls and the journey they seemed to be on. It seemed like one I really wanted to be a part of and so it felt natural.
“I did have some good moments in the two years at City and obviously there is always going to be talk when you go from one side of the city to the other, but all in all, I’m really happy, I’m really settled and I’m quite excited for the season.”
Mannion’s arrival at United sees her reunited with Marc Skinner, who she knows from her time at Birmingham. The 25-year-old played for two-and-a-half years under the manager, with the pair leaving the Blues months apart and joining United within three days of one another.
Both have faced different challenges in the interim. Skinner, who was credited with a huge turnaround in the culture at Birmingham during his tenure, spent two years with Orlando Pride and Mannion has noticed changes in his training routines.
“His personality and him as a character is incredibly similar, but there are little things in training that I say ‘did you pick that up in Orlando?’,” she said.
“The league over there is so different, they had different challenges and the style is so different so I’ve noticed there’s some bits he’s taken and brought back to the WSL. His training regime has evolved, and I really enjoyed it before so I would say it’s even better now, if that’s a thing.
“As a coach, he’s really engaging. He’s quite expressive, he’s very appealing and engaging when he talks – he’s someone you want to listen to.
“He’s got a really detailed way that he wants to play. He wants to play aggressive football, the connections on the pitch, he wants to dominate teams that he plays against so it’s quite exciting to play under that. He’s only been here a month but you can already see the effect it’s had on the team.
“Coming in as a newbie, I know there were great foundations laid before Marc and I came in, he has really stressed it’s about building on those foundations and evolving it where he can. I guess the proof will be in the pudding once the WSL starts so all is yet to be revealed, but anticipation and hopes are high amongst the group.”
United have the honour of kicking off this season’s Barclays FA Women’s Super League live on Sky Sports, the new primary broadcasting partner for the league, and will host Reading on Friday evening.
It will be first chance to see Skinner’s United in action, and hopefully Mannion’s debut in the famous red shirt, as they attempt to break the ‘big three’ stranglehold at the top of the WSL.
Mannion said: “I expect it to be a really tough match. Reading have always been a tough team to beat and also they’ve had a lot of turnover in their players so it’ll be hard to know exactly what Reading we’re going to face and what kind of challenges they’re going to pose us in the game.
“The season has come around so quickly, I’m not sure where pre-season has gone and it definitely feels like we’re starting to add the final little cherries to the cake of our preparations. There’s a lot of excitement and we hope to hit the ground running with a great performance, and on the day, hopefully that’s going to warrant a win.
I’d love to be involved. It’s a really exciting prospect to be involved with a squad with a new coach, maybe a new look to the team. For a footballer, the more football you play, the better. If you get to play at club level and are lucky enough to play for your national team, then it makes it even better. But we’ll see what happens and see what we’re asked to do.
“We know that top three means Champions League this year and the supporters have been very vocal on social media that they don’t want to settle for anything less. We match that and we wanted that as well.
“At this moment that we’re in, we’re going game by game, step by step so it’s hard to see how things will shape up. But definitely from a team point of view and a personal point of view, we want to be in the Champions League, we want to be in the finals of things and winning trophies.”
To use an old cliche, the last two years have certainly been a long journey for Mannion, but now feels like her time to show the WSL what she can do and hopefully fire United into their first Champions League campaign.
In March, Sky Sports announced a three-year deal with the FA to become the primary broadcaster of the Barclays FA Women’s Super League from September 2021, becoming one of Sky Sports’ flagship offerings.
The deal will see Sky Sports show at least 35 games exclusively live per season and further strengthens the broadcaster’s commitment to women’s sport.
The WSL will get the full Sky Sports treatment with lengthy build-ups and reaction to all live matches, plus daily news from the competition across Sky Sports News and Sky Sports’ digital platforms.