When Katie Zelem left Liverpool for Juventus she did not expect to be back in England so soon, but after one season in Italy, and the Serie A title, there was only one club capable of turning her head.
On Sunday, the 23-year-old midfielder is set to captain her childhood club, Manchester United, in a second derby when the Reds welcome City to Leigh Sports Village in the Continental League Cup.
“I really liked the lifestyle out there and it was sunny so that helped, but I had signed for two years, so if it wasn’t for United I probably would have stayed,” she says.
Zelem was one of many United centre of excellence products forced to find another club once they hit 16 because of the lack of a women’s team. However, with United taking advantage of the restructure of the pyramid to launch a team into the Championship last season, when the approach came from the new manager, Casey Stoney, it was a no‑brainer for the lifelong fan. “It’s incredible. When I was little I didn’t even think they’d have a first team, let alone that I’d be walking out at the Etihad in front of over 30,000.”
That showpiece opener to the new Women’s Super League season, which United lost 1-0, was followed by the visit of the league champions, Arsenal, to throw them into the deep end in their first top-flight campaign.
“When the fixtures came out I was like: ‘Cheers,’” says Stoney, sarcastically. “But I didn’t have to sell preseason, because we’ve got Manchester City at the Etihad, then we play the champions. Straight away, I knew where we were at.”
They held their own, though. “People are a little bit surprised,” says Zelem. “We conceded two goals against the two top teams, and then had two clean sheets.”
They are settled in fourth place in the league, with back-to-back wins against struggling Liverpool and Tottenham, who were also promoted.
The visit of City may be lower key than the game at the Etihad but the atmosphere at their home ground is likely to be as fiery, if not more so. “When we’re struggling, they’re loud, and that really helps to bring us up,” says Zelem. “When we’re going on the attack, you can hear them and you can feel the energy around the crowd and that certainly passes on to the pitch.”
One of the loudest is her father, the former Macclesfield goalkeeper Alan Zelem. “I’m surprised you can’t hear my dad,” she says with a laugh. He may be supportive but Alan is also her biggest critic. “He’s never on my side. I could have the best game of my life and he’ll tell me about the pass in the 12th minute that went too far to the left.
“So I’ll give him a few minutes to chat in my ear and then he’ll say: ‘Oh, you did well,’ and my mum’s going: ‘Alan, Alan, be nice.’ But he played football himself. He wants the best for me and he knows what I can do and he’s just pushing me and that’s so good to have.”