Manchester United spent around eight months recruiting the club’s first ever dedicated head of women’s football to ensure that they appointed the right person for such a crucial position.
A decision to hire former FA and UEFA staffer Polly Bancroft, who was doing an outstanding job as Brighton general manager, came during the summer. Following a notice period with the Seagulls, she finally started work at United in the second half of October.
It has been a vital and overdue step for United in the women’s football sphere. The club has been criticised in the past for lacking specialised knowledge, operating only with a de facto general manager – football finance director Steve Deavile, who had other more pressing responsibilities.
United probably overachieved by surging straight from being newly formed in the Women’s Championship to challenging for a Champions League place in the WSL within a couple of years, without all of the necessary structures in place to support and sustain that kind of growth.
During Marc Skinner’s first season as women’s team manager, he found himself also heavily involved with planning and strategising, utilising his years of experience in the women’s game but arguably diverting some of his attention away from the bread and butter of day-to-day coaching.
Bancroft changes that, heading up the whole of the women’s operation, planning the long-term development of the club beyond the pitch – at Brighton she was particularly keen on improving infrastructure, as seen in a new £8.5m training facility.
In this role, she is responsible for ‘overseeing all women’s football activities’, as well ‘driving forward the club’s long-term strategy to be at the forefront of growth in the women’s game from first-team level to academy age groups’.
Bancroft will not be hidden away in an office working 9-5 though. She is visible, has already been heavily involved with the first-team players and is taking a hands-on approach in the job, travelling with the squad for the recent WSL away fixture over Everton. She is ‘very personable’ with the players and it adds to growing the close bonds that already exist within the squad.
The new chief has quickly got to work holding regular meetings with staff and players regarding the future of the club and the key structures behind the scenes, 90min has been told.
“I’ve known Polly a long time so I know the quality job that she does and the quality of person that she is – I don’t have to say that at all. She is going to be great for this club,” Marc Skinner said of what Bancroft is bringing to Manchester United.
“She’s super intelligent in the forward-thinking processes of the club.”
United football director John Murtough recently described Bancroft as the ‘extra ingredient’ to take the club to the ‘next level’, while Skinner now expects her to bring ‘structure, stability and growth’.
One of the more obvious and most pressing first-team tasks this season is how the squad will look in 2023/24 and beyond. A considerable number of United players are out of contract in June – some with an option to extend by 12 months, some without. Alessia Russo and Ona Batlle, two of the best anywhere in the WSL, are in the latter category and would be a huge blow if lost.
Ella Toone, although not urgent in terms of timescale, has just extended her already long-term contract to pledge her commitment to the club. Retaining the club’s best players and improving the squad through the transfer market will be the most obvious signs of success, but Bancroft’s role and overall impact promises to be far more reaching.