When Sir Jim Ratcliffe admitted he and the club are yet to lay out a detailed plan on the future of Manchester United Women, he inadvertently exposed a glaring oversight in the new ownership’s approach.

After the 71-year-old billionaire purchased a minority stake in the Red Devils earlier this year, there was a renewed sense of optimism after years of neglect from the Glazers. There was finally a reason to be excited about the future and what could be achieved – yet that hopefulness is yet to transpire to the women’s side.

Ratcliffe’s lack of interest in Marc Skinner’s team was evident in May when they made history to win the FA Cup, their first piece of major silverware in the women’s game, beating Tottenham Hotspur in the final at Wembley. While Spurs had club chairman Daniel Levy watching on in the stands, United’s new co-owner instead chose to be at Old Trafford for a Premier League game against Arsenal. A simple good luck message had to do.

Therefore, it’s hard to blame United fans for being even more incensed by the INEOS CEO’s recent comments when asked about the plans and developments of the women’s team. 

“We haven’t got into that level of detail with the women’s football team yet,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg that was released last week. “We’ve been pretty much focused on resolving the first team issues and that’s been pretty full-time for the first six months.”

The interviewer went on to ask: “So to be confirmed?”

“Correct,” he replied.

Katie ZelemKatie Zelem

Man Utd’s women’s team won this year’s FA Cup / Visionhaus/GettyImages

Ratcliffe’s remarks, outlining that full focus has been on the men’s senior side following his arrival earlier this year, reveal a troubling complacency that leaves the club walking a fine line in terms of their status as a significant power in the WSL. They only have to ask rivals Liverpool what years of neglect and a lack of vision or direction can lead to.

Skinner and co are on the brink of a critical period. A handful of senior players, including goalkeeper and England international Mary Earps, are out of contract this summer and there has so far been little movement with regards to a new deal. 

Earps spoke very candidly after the curtains were drawn on a very mixed season for the Red Devils. FA Cup glory aside, their league form was far from consistent and they slipped out of the top four, with Liverpool claiming their spot in the latter stages of the campaign.

“The honest reality is that conversations are still ongoing,” the England shot-stopper said in an interview with Sky Sports last month. “I’ve been clear I don’t want to make an emotional decision.

“The beginning of the season was really tough, I felt really upset about things that were being said about me and things that came out that weren’t true. I’ve tried to be professional, keep my head down, work hard, [and] get on with my job, and that’s been hard. I’ve been a punching bag at times.

“I’ve tried to shoulder the responsibility of the team and the performance and where we fell short this season. That’s what you should do as a leader, and as a more experienced player, you have to stand up in those moments.

“I know I’ve given my heart and soul for the whole season. It’s a tough situation. I’ve asked the club for some confirmation on what they’re trying to achieve, and when I have those answers, I’ll be able to make a decision. It’s up to the club.”

Mary EarpsMary Earps

Earps could leave Man Utd / Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/GettyImages

It appears those answers are yet to arrive. If anything, Ratcliffe’s comments suggest Earps may be waiting for some time to receive clarity over the long-term vision and strategy of the club under the new co-owners. The fast-moving nature of football means time is not on their side and it remains to be seen what impact it will have on the futures of not only their current playing staff, but future and prospective talent, too.

The success of Manchester United Women should not, and cannot, be an afterthought. The team’s recent triumph in the FA Cup is at risk of being overshadowed by a lack of investment and strategic planning.

Polly Bancroft, United’s former head of women’s football, departed at the end of the 2023/24 season after less than two years at the helm. She has been replaced by Matt Johnson, albeit only on an interim basis, while the club work to appoint a long-term successor.

The landscape of the WSL is rapidly changing as clubs increase investment into their women’s teams. Liverpool and Tottenham are among the clubs no longer resting on their laurels and are now on a positive, upward trajectory. United need to make sure they don’t fall behind their rivals.

United’s women’s team are not a secondary priority and they should not be treated as such. The club’s co-owner must steer away from phrasing that reduces them to a mere afterthought; they are a first team in their own right.

Ratcliffe’s legacy at United will not only depend on the successes of the men’s senior side, but the women’s team also. Anything less than a clear vision and strategy for the future acts as a major disservice to the players, fans and the spirit of the club as a whole.

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