“We want to play a major role in the WSL and a major role in women’s football. We’re building a very exciting project, we’re taking it very seriously and we’re very much looking forward to getting started.”
On 24 January 2021, Manchester City celebrate the seven-year anniversary of the launch of our women's team as a professional outfit.
In commemoration, we look back on an astonishing seven years, which has garnered seven trophies, documenting the extraordinary journey, as Manchester City transitioned from Ladies to League Champions and beyond...
Manchester City Women's Football Club was founded in 1988 by one of City in the Community’s original members, Neil Mather.
Back then, the Club was known as Manchester City Ladies; created after a series of successful local tournaments led Mather to suggest holding an event exclusively for female football teams.
The tournament proved a hit and several talented women took part. Mather then made a formal proposal to Manchester City’s Club Secretary Bernard Halford to set up a women’s team which would be run by CITC.
The Club’s first competitive game was a friendly against Oldham Athletic Ladies, played at Boundary Park. Transport and kit was provided by Manchester City and the women’s side went on to play many more friendlies before they entered into the regional league for the North West.
As the Club cemented itself into league football, they began to recruit more experienced players. The team went on to participate in tournaments and friendly games that often tied in with the men’s fixtures.
“Manchester City, one of the first professional Football League clubs to form a women’s team and affiliate to the WFA, have worked hard over the last 18 months to promote the club and women’s football and we are extremely grateful for their support.”
As City aimed to move away from the 1970s and 80s image of football as a male-dominated environment, the women’s team became more and more popular. They made an appearance in an episode of World In Action and one of our games was shown on the Saturday morning children’s programme, Wide Awake Club.
The team had many ups and downs over the years that followed – typical of many clubs before the advent of professionalism. The women who played for Manchester City and their coaching staff worked tirelessly to promote the Club, enjoying several prominent successes and experiencing many trials and tribulations along the way.
More than three decades later, City has retained its affiliation with the men’s side and in August 2012, the Club announced its commitment to the women’s team as part of a systematic rebuilding of the football club and the recognition of the need to formalise the relationship for the benefit of the women and girls’ game.
“The women's team had existed for a number of years. We always had the idea to bring it into the Club to share and offer the same support we offer to all of the other teams.”
The announcement marked an exciting new era for the women’s side, who had been promoted into the Women’s National Division – the second highest tier in UK women’s football. City would go on to finish fifth in the NPL – a notable performance and encouraging sign of things to come.
From the outset, it was the Club’s stated ambition to achieve entry to the FA Women’s Super League and in April 2013, this ambition was realised: City would compete in the top flight of the women's game for the first time in our history...
Preparations began to assemble a team capable of competing at the highest level. Trials were held and the hunt for experienced, quality players began. The management team were unveiled in November 2013, comprising former Academy coach Nick Cushing (First Team Manager) and City Ladies' Head Coach Leigh Wood.
Several members of the original City Ladies squad were retained, including long-serving players Krystle Johnston and Abbie McManus, while five England internationals were recruited in Steph Houghton, Jill Scott, Karen Bardsley, Toni Duggan and Izzy Christiansen.
For the surviving members of the Ladies' team, it was a completely new level, while – as Bardsley explains – it was a leap of faith for the Lionesses stars, especially those who had enjoyed success with their previous Clubs. However, the promise of professional football, world-leading facilities (with the state-of-the-art City Football Academy in development) and a strong commitment to growing the women's game proved major attractions.
"We took such a risk joining the team at that time," KB admits. "It was the Club's first go at it since the '80s. They'd really invested a lot. When you consider Steph in particular left really well-established Arsenal team to start a new adventure with a lot of uncertainty... it was a risk.
“I remember Gavin Makel [Head of Women's Football] drove to Manchester Airport to meet me and and have a conversation with a presentation [of the Club's plans]. That meant they were serious about what they were doing.”
For Bardsley, Houghton and Scott in particular, it was a leap which led them to achieve their dreams.
"It was a risk but it's a risk that paid off!" Houghton reflects. "For me, I really wanted to play full-time and I really believed in the vision City had when I spoke to Brian Marwood and Gavin Makel. I really believed that I needed to be part of this Club and I wanted it to be at the forefront. I wanted to be there at the beginning."
On 24 January 2014, the Club was officially re-launched as 'Manchester City Women' at a pre-season event at the Etihad Stadium – the name change reflective of a more modern outlook, challenging outdated perceptions and disregarding stereotypes.
Attended by former players and staff of the women's team, plus key names in the footballing world, including Manuel Pellegrini, Patrick Vieira, Claudio Reyna and Jason Kreis, the re-launch event showcased the 2014 squad and staff, including the Club's new star signings. Plans were also announced to develop and evolve local women's and girls' football with community coaching programmes.
“We are building a terrific team both on and off the field, blending existing talent with exciting new arrivals and this, together with the incredible support and access to resources of the wider organisation, makes this opportunity so compelling.”
A successful pre-season saw the team register three emphatic wins from an unbeaten five games and enjoy a team-bonding trip to La Manga in Spain.
Our very first competitive meeting took place in the FA Cup, as Reading visited the Manchester Regional Athletics Arena, situated next to the Etihad Stadium. Toni Duggan would earn the honour of netting the Club's first ever professional goal, as the home side nudged past the Royals to begin our journey on a positive note.
However, the joy was short-lived with a baptism of fire in the FA Women's Super League, as our first top-flight fixture pitted the newcomers against the reigning Champions Liverpool.
For many of the squad, the clash would bear their first taste of top tier football and also mark the first time they would play in front of a television audience, with the crowd in attendance also significantly outnumbering their regular band of followers: mainly friends and family. The first experience of television coverage came as a shock to some, as Nick Cushing explained...
“Not only was I preparing the team for the game - preparing a team to play against the Champions - I also had to do pre-match interviews, half-time interviews... There was even a camera in the dressing room...”
The Reds would edge the encounter with future City star and current FIFA World Player of the Year Lucy Bronze providing the assist for Natasha Dowie's solitary strike. While disappointing to have fallen to defeat, there was no shame in losing to the Champions – but the setback began a torrid run of form for City, who would then suffer losses in our next three games.
With only five of the first-team training full-time and the rest juggling evening sessions with work, study and family commitments, the team struggled to build consistency and an understanding of an all-new philosophy: on and off the pitch. Questions began to surface of whether the team were ready for top-flight football...
“A fourth defeat in a row - in our first five games. As a young manager, you question yourself. 'Are you ready for this at this level?'”
However, as the team gradually became more integrated, perseverance would pay off in game number six, when our Continental Cup journey began.
A landmark moment for women's football saw the team grace the Etihad Stadium pitch for the first time in our opening group stage clash against Everton. Locked at 0-0 with seconds to go, City snatched all three points through a Natasha Flint strike, sparking jubilant scenes and ultimately, kick-starting our campaign.
For Bardsley, it was a defining moment: the moment she believes City became a competitive force.
"We'd had a difficult start to the season and we were struggling to score," she recalled. "I remember a few times during the game, Nick kept saying: 'Just be patient. Stick to the methodology. Trust what we've been working on.'
"It was still 0-0 in the dying moments of the game and Natasha Flint scored. We ended up winning 1-0 and it was one of those moments when we really took a big step forward in believing in what we were doing and buying into how we want to play.
“The team had a belief in each other and that feeling of winning felt so good. We wanted to keep that momentum going. For me, that was the pivotal turning point for the Club.”
That iconic victory sparked a real upturn in fortunes and a rejuvenated City began to mount a real challenge. Losing just one of our next seven games, Cushing's side climbed the league table and cemented a first-place finish in the Conti Cup group stages to advance to the semi-finals. The summer break also welcomed new faces to the Club, while the squad became also fully-integrated with full-time contracts across the board, bringing the squad closer together both on the pitch and off it.
City would face heavyweights Chelsea at home in the last four with the game played at Hyde's Ewen Fields. Jill Scott believes the switch proved key to our success, as Duggan's solitary strike clinched victory to book our place in our first ever major Cup Final - in our maiden season!
"The sun was shining and the atmosphere was amazing. The fans were really close to the pitch and all of our families were there," Scott remembered.
"Sometimes, you just get a feeling that things are going to go well, especially if you've had a good week in training - spirits are high and you just think: 'There's no way we're losing this game.'
"It actually felt like we'd won the trophy, although it was the semi-final. It's true what they say: there's no better feeling than winning when the odds are stacked against you."
Although out of title contention, there was plenty to play for in the remaining weeks of the season with the squad desperate to earn a place in the Conti Cup Final against Arsenal.
Cushing's side would in fact impose a huge bearing on the outcome league title race when we faced Chelsea for the fourth time in the campaign in a thrilling final day of drama. A Duggan wondergoal claimed all three points for the home side to deny the visitors (one of three potential Champions) the crown and third-placed Liverpool ended up retaining the trophy on goal difference!
Duggan's strike would go on to win the Club's Nissan Goal of the Season award the following summer, as she became the first woman to collect the award...
Next up... the Final.
Facing the most successful women's team in the country, it was no secret that City headed into the encounter at Wycombe's Adams Park as underdogs, with the Gunners triumphant in all four previous editions of the tournament.
Cushing’s side held firm though to stifle the North London outfit and bagged the crucial goal with 17 minutes of normal time remaining, as Christiansen rose to head home Johnston’s cross and clinch City’s first piece of major silverware against all odds. Fittingly, it was a goal crafted by a member of the original Ladies squad and finished off by an England international – a pleasing combination!
Now regarded as one of the most technically-gifted midfielders in the game, lifelong City fan Keira Walsh announced her arrival into senior stardom with an exceptional performance that night, thwarting the legendary Kelly Smith, at the age of just 17! Her inclusion (though a surprise) signaled the Club's intent and desire to develop the country's brightest young talent – a commitment which holds strong to this day.
"When you looked at Arsenal’s line-up compared to ours – I remember looking at their line-up in the changing room – their quality was far greater," she said.
"We had something a lot of others teams didn’t have: determination, togetherness – and you could see that – but we had a lot of kids playing (me, Georgia Brougham, Natasha Flint, Alex Brooks) and players who were inexperienced at playing at the top level.
“Before we started the game, me and Georgia looked at each other and we were both so nervous. We were in the same boat, which helped a little bit and at one point in the changing room, we just started laughing, thinking: ‘What is going on?!’”
"It was such a big game – the first potential trophy we could win as Man City. Not that there was pressure – no-one expected it in the first season.
"I’ve still got a picture on my phone of me, Tash [Flint], Alex [Brooks] and Georgia [Brougham] all holding the trophy on the night. It’s a moment that will stick with me – to win that trophy, aged 17, with the Club I’ve supported since I can remember, with three of my best friends at the time, was a really special moment."
After a winter of celebration, the honeymoon period was over, and it was time for City to show the WSL what we were truly made of. While in retrospect, the 2015 campaign was one of fine margins, some falling the wrong way from our perspective, a statement was made: City were here to stay, and we meant business.
A new dawn rose again with the Club's move to the City Football Academy, as the men's, women's and Academy teams were integrated within the trailblazing facilities, while the newly-built 7,000-seater Academy Stadium would become 'home' for Cushing's side. The future was a bright shade of blue.
Not content to sit back and savour a more than respectable debut season in the WSL, the boss immediately got to work on developing an already strong core at his disposal by adding a few familiar faces. Liverpool's 2014 Player of the Season Lucy Bronze made the short trip across the M62 from the Champions, while promising 19-year-old forward Nikita Parris joined on loan from Merseyside rivals Everton. The defence was bolstered with the acquisition of Demi Stokes from South Florida Bulls and Jen Beattie from Montpellier, while Sarah Wiltshire and Natasha Harding added further competition up front after joining from Yeovil and Bristol Academy respectively.
"Watching City from the outside [in 2014], it was something new and when the girls won the Conti Cup, it was big," Bronze notes. "City were making waves and unsettling the apple cart.
“I remember when I signed, the first meeting reiterated: there's an excpectation level when you play for this Club. You expect excellence, you play a certain way and you win in a certain manner. It's about the badge and what it means to play for this football club.”
"City started to set the standard for the rest of the league... the rest of the world in fact. We always wanted to be leading the pack for something that we're doing - whether that's the way we play football or behind-the-scenes, changing the game and setting those standards."
Raring to go, Cushing’s side kicked off the season with a hard-fought 3-1 win over Doncaster Rovers Belles in the FA Cup but our league campaign began with a goalless draw at home to Birmingham. Returning to winning ways at Sunderland, we continued to build on our promising start, getting the better of Birmingham in the FA Cup quarter-finals but thereafter followed the daunting prospect of a trip to Liverpool, sandwiched between the visit of fellow title contenders Arsenal, and a league and FA Cup clash with Chelsea.
City held our own, but ultimately fell just short against Arsenal, and while Parris was once again on the scoresheet on her return to Merseyside, that 1-0 defeat to the Gunners was followed by a 2-1 loss at Liverpool.
It was a similar case of so close yet so far in the FA Cup, with Ji So-Yun’s late strike knocking us out at the expense of Chelsea but we did muster a hard-fought 1-1 draw at home to the London outfit a week later in the WSL when Duggan cancelled out Eniola Aluko’s opener.
With the World Cup on the horizon that summer, the season was curtailed for two months with City sitting sixth in the table but our position certainly belied the opponents we had faced, and the performances that we had put in.
The 2015 World Cup tournament in Canada sparked a watershed moment for women's football with increased media coverage sparking major interest around the world. Despite the time difference, record numbers watched on back home and England's incredible performance captured the hearts of a new fanbase, who had craved success on the international stage for so long.
With City's representatives starring, the Lionesses claimed a bronze medal and shone women's football into the spotlight. Their success had the desired effect with an increase in attendances and excitement upon the season's restart.
Meanwhile, during the break, the squad was bolstered in midfield with the signing of dynamic American Daphne Corboz, and a 16-year-old forward from Blackburn by the name of Georgia Stanway.
City’s belief that we were close to finding the winning formula was put into practice after the Lionesses returned from Canada in July, as Cushing’s side embarked on an imperious unbeaten run in all competitions which lasted until October.
We were fast out of the traps, recording back-to-back victories over Bristol and Birmingham in the league, and kicked off our Conti Cup campaign in similarly emphatic fashion with a 3-0 win at Doncaster.
However, just like the beginning of the season, for Cushing’s side to really show we meant business, results against the Chelsea and Arsenal in the following two matches were essential. We travelled south to face Chelsea brimming with confidence and took the lead inside 12 minutes through Duggan, before sealing a 2-1 win courtesy of a late Claire Rafferty own-goal... and City backed up that impressive scalp by edging out Arsenal 3-2 in a thriller at Meadow Park.
A disappointing draw away at Notts County aside, in which the hosts snatched two goals in the final ten minutes, we finished off August by cruising into the knock-out stages of the Conti Cup, winning all five group matches and conceding just a single goal against Doncaster, Durham, Sunderland, Everton and Liverpool.
Victories over Sunderland and Liverpool moved us within two points of league leaders Chelsea, and extended our unbeaten run in all competitions to 13, while our penultimate game of the season recorded our largest WSL win, putting Bristol Academy to the sword with a 6-1 triumph. Disappointingly, we would not retain the Conti Cup – eliminated in the last eight by a single goal away at Arsenal three days before the season finale at home to Notts County.
Sitting two points behind leaders Chelsea, Cushing’s side had to beat the Magpies and hope that Emmay Hayes' side lost at home to Sunderland in order to seal our first league title.
We held up our side of the bargain, with first-half goals from Parris and Christiansen helping us on our way to a 2-1 win and ten games without defeat in the WSL... but the Londoners had too much for Sunderland, finishing top of the tree courtesy of a 4-0 win. Nonetheless, our victory was enough to guarantee a spot in the 2016 UEFA Champions League - a huge step forward for the Club.
The 2015 campaign proved that City could compete on a domestic level but pitting our wits against the best Europe had to offer was an undoubted forward step. Progressing to the latter stages of both cup competitions and still in the title race on the final day, the foundations for a title-winning squad capable of going the distance in England and abroad were starting to take shape.
“I think the second season was probably an eye-opener. We added depth to the squad. We added new players – we added the internationals – and we achieved Champions League. I think from that moment, we all knew that the next one was going to be the league. I think that gave us that motivation.”
The skipper was right: the next target would be the FA Women's Super League crown - and City created history once again by lifting the trophy for the very first time: and in some style.
Cushing bolstered the squad once again with the signings of Jane Ross, Kosovare Asllani, Megan Campbell, Tessel Middag and Marie Hourihan and there was further cause for celebration in pre-season.
With the ever-growing fanbase and increasing level of interest, the first official Manchester City Women's Official Supporters Club was launched in February. Today, the Club now proudly have two OSCs affiliated with the women's team with membership numbers blooming.
“Being a part of the MCWFC Branch of the Official Supporters Club is about so much more than just football. We are a family and I can honestly say I have made so many amazing friends and met so many people from all walks of life. We celebrate together, we commiserate together, we laugh together, we help each other out and have each other's back. Joining the MCWFC OSC was one of the best decisions I have ever made.”
The Club enjoyed another historic moment on a pre-season trip to Abu Dhabi, contesting a friendly clash against Melbourne City Women as two City Football Group sides locked horns for the first time. Friendly wins over FC Rosengård and Piteå IF also provided plenty of encouragement ahead of our maiden Champions League adventure.
“In 2015, we'd qualified for the Champions League but we didn't win a trophy so going into 2016, we were really motivated and driven to win a trophy. We'd won the Continental Cup [in 2014] and that inspired us to win because winning is such an infectious feeling.”
Our league campaign kicked off on a promising note – but City were pushed to the wire by a plucky Notts County side. Houghton's injury-time free-kick eventually breached the visitors' defence, sparking jubilant scenes, as City 'fought to the end' to secure the perfect start.
Riding the crest of a wave, City mounted a six-game winning streak in the WSL, comfortably defeating Arsenal and Chelsea in the process. Frustrating draws against Liverpool either side of the mid-season break temporarily halted the Cty train but a thumping win over our opening day opponents Notts County reignited the charge.
Another six-game run of victories (including a 1-0 win at Arsenal) put Cushing's side in pole position for the title and with Chelsea the next visitors to the Academy Stadium, the stage was set to snatch the title away from the reigning Champions on home soil. With Chelsea having knocked City out of the FA Cup at the semi-final stage in April, there was even more fuel for the fire...
A record crowd turned out in Manchester, eager to witness history – the atmosphere charged with electricity. City needed only a point to clinch the league crown but keen to put on a show for the fans, Cushing's side produced a sensational performance to down the Champions, claiming victory courtesy of a deflected Scott header and Duggan penalty.
The celebrations were iconic. In another milestone for the women's game, Duggan's kneeslide adorned the backpages of the national newspapers – evident of the rapid rise of women's football sweeping the country.
Though there are plenty to choose from, the triumph stands as our skipper Houghton's all-time favourite game.
"I loved every single minute," smiles the captain. "It was amazing how many people came to watch us... The noise of the crowd was absolutely unbelievable.
“To go on to finish the season unbeaten and concede just four goals throughout was an unbelievable effort by everybody - not just the defenders but everybody. It starts from the front and everybody played a part.”
"It was one of my best moments in a City shirt, without a doubt. I think we spent about an hour and a half celebrating with the City fans!"
More than a month later, City would complete the league campaign, drawing 1-1 at home to Birmingham, as Demi Stokes' cross-shot salvaged the point needed to maintain the Champions' impressive unbeaten record. As Houghton explained, we would concede just four league goals in the process.
The team would not have too much time to enjoy the festivities though with just one week to prepare for our second Conti Cup Final. Having defeated Aston Villa, Doncaster Belles and Arsenal, the 2014 winners were handed the chance to regain the trophy – and unusually, on home soil with the Academy Stadium selected to house the showcase clash months prior.
City would welcome Birmingham to the home of the new League Champions with the ground split into an equal home and away allocation. A tense affair unfolded and without a goal to separate the sides in normal time, an additional 30 minutes was required to determine the winner...
Bronze would shine clinch the silverware, heading home the decisive strike and City held on to lift the prize for the second time in our three-year journey. The match-winner recalls the added pressure City were under...
"It was kind of fit for a fairy tale," Bronze says. "I remember all of us thinking: 'We have to get to the final. It's going to be a bit embarrassing if it's played on our stage when we're not there!'
"I remember walking out and thinking: 'Yeah, there's a lot of pressure on us' but I think those are the best games – games where you have more pressure on you to do well.
“I actually remember the celebration more than the goal. When I'd scored goals in World Cups and stuff, everyone always jumped on me. There aren't many people who could probably hold me but it was Beats [Jen Beattie] who was running towards me and I remember thinking: 'I get to jump on somebody!'”
Of all the games to require extra-time, this one was less than ideal for Cushing in particular. Two weeks overdue, his baby daughter was scheduled to be induced that very day with his wife Claire in hospital during the game!
“I remember the Cup Final day really clearly. I went to the hospital at 9am and my wife was induced. I sat with her until 1pm in Arrowe Park Hospital in the Wirral. I left and went to the game... The game went to extra-time... I got a phone call to say my wife was in labour and that the baby was coming. I got back to the hospital at 7:01pm and Heidi was born at 7:05pm.”
It was a day of celebrations all round but again, there was little time to celebrate as preparations began for City's first ever Champions League campaign. The 2016/17 Round of 32 would pit the Club against Russian opposition: Zvezda Perm. Having triumphed 2-0 on home soil, City faced the prospect of travelling almost 3,000 miles east to a city in the depths of Russia, situated near the Ural Mountains. Bardsley remembers the trip well...
"One fond memory was going to Russia – our first Champions League trip," KB explained. "We were so fortunate to be able to jump on a chartered jet and stay in a hotel. On matchday, we went to a café that was FRIENDS-themed! It was the weirdest thing to see in the middle of Russia! Those things stand out."
Despite the freezing temperatures, City stormed to a 5-0 away win to kick-off our European campaign in emphatic style and progress to the last 16.
Danish outfit Brøndby awaited and once again, City edged the home tie, thanks to lifelong City fan Walsh's first goal for the Club, and Duggan netted a wonder volley in Denmark to clinch qualification to the quarter-finals, completing a sensational 2016 for the Club.
The New Year marked a new era for women's football in England with the restructure of the domestic schedule. The WSL would switch to a winter calendar – aligning with the men's game – in order to increase player welfare, further grow and develop the league and attendances, aid Champions League performance, address issues around fixture congestion and provide the platform for a winning England team.
To bridge the gap between the 2016 season and new winter format, the FA launched a one-off tournament called the 'Spring Series' to provide playing time for the country’s international players ahead of the summer’s Euros in Holland. Each team would play each other once to compete for their division’s trophy. Meanwhile, the FA Cup would also take place and City's European adventure would continue with a trip to Fortuna Hjorring of Denmark in the quarter-finals set for March.
As always, the management staff were keen to bolster the squad but few predicted the statement of intent the Club issued with the sensational signing of two-time FIFA World Player of the Year Carli Lloyd. In the quest for a new challenge and eager to compete in the Champions League, the World Cup winner and double Olympic gold medallist signed a short-term deal but made a lasting impact...
“I’m always looking for different challenges. I always want to continue to get better and look for ways where I am going to be able to push my game. Coming here and being part of City is going to do that.”
With only nine games of the league season, there would be little margin for error and City stuttered to a disappointing start, drawing 1-1 at home to Birmingham.
Cushing's side would respond with four successive wins but a 1-0 defeat to Arsenal would severely dent our hopes of retaining the league's trophy, though victories over Sunderland and Liverpool would secure another top-two finish.
City's Champions League adventure resumed with a two-legged tie against Fortuna Hjorring. Lloyd marked her European debut with a goal to secure a 1-0 away win and a Bronze strike in the return leg would book our place in the semi-finals, where heavyweights Olympic Lyonnais awaited.
Sadly, the tie was lost in the first leg. Lyon struck from the penalty spot inside a minute and despite grabbing a leveller through Asllani, the French side rallied to bag two more away goals to effectively kill the contest.
City travelled to the Parc Olympique Lyonnais with nothing to lose and shocked the footballing world by triumphing 1-0 on away soil, courtesy of a second-half Lloyd effort. It would not be enough to progress but City could hold our heads high, having defeated Lyon on their own turf and having reached the last four of the competition at the first attempt.
Celebrations would follow however – and on the grandest of stages – as City would lift our first ever Women's FA Cup at Wembley; watched on by another record crowd.
Having defeated Reading, Bristol and Liverpool en route to the spectacular finale, the Conti Cup winners would face Birmingham in the Final and produced a sensational first-half performance to sail into a 3-0 lead, courtesy of goals from Bronze, Christiansen and Lloyd.
Charlie Wellings would pull one back for the Midlands outfit but Scott struck late on to cap an incredible display and write our name onto the trophy.
Lloyd's glittering CV may boast World Cups (and a hat-trick in the Final), Olympic gold medals and countless individual awards, but the US star says she regards that day at Wembley as one of her fondest memories.
“It’s something I’ll cherish forever. It’s every soccer players’ dream – being able to play in an iconic stadium like Wembley. "
“I have two wins from two there, which is incredible! I never thought I’d have the opportunity to play in that stadium again so then to go back years later and be able to play there in such a prestigious tournament in the FA Cup – and win it – is pretty cool!
“My name as well as my teammates’ is etched in history.”
The 2017/18 campaign welcomed the return of the full league season; in its new winter format. Eager to bounce back from the Spring Series setback, City continued where we had left off as Champions in 2016, emerging victorious in our first seven league games (thrashing Arsenal 5-2 in the process) before a goalless draw with Chelsea – admirable given the circumstances in which we lost Bardsley and Houghton to injury early on – halted the run. The point at Kingsmeadow introduced teenage goalkeeper Ellie Roebuck onto the scene, as the substitute shot-stopper coped superbly under pressure to thwart the hosts.
City responded with a 4-0 rout over Liverpool but a three-game run without a win proved costly in the title race, as defeats to Birmingham and Reading sandwiched what had been an impressive two-goal fightback against Chelsea, who would also edge us out of the FA Cup at the semi-final stage.
April would yield success as our Academy side enjoyed a day to remember: our Development Squad and Under-16s clinching the Development League Cup and Girls FA Youth Cup at St George’s Park.
“It's important that the players are able to experience days like this at a young age. I'd like to make a special mention for the Academy kids, who attended the games. It's important for them have role models too. In terms of the experience, if you want to play for City, you have to be used to big occasions and dealing with pressure and both sets of teams proved they're well-equipped for that.”
The Club celebrated its four-year anniversary with the launch of Same City, Same Passion – a campaign focused on promoting women's football by demonstrating that the same skills, same excitement and same passion exist wherever a ball is kicked. As part of the campaign, the Club introduced #SameGoals in March – an annual social media movement to encourage more girls to play football whatever their background. In the future, players would deliver coaching clinics in their hometowns, which would prove a roaring success.
“It’s been so exciting to be involved in this fantastic campaign. When I made the move here, I could see immediately how much the Club cares about encouraging youngsters to enjoy playing football. Having an opportunity like #SameGoals is something that I could have only dreamt of when I was younger.”
Back on the pitch, four wins in our remaining six league games secured another second-place finish and crucially, a fourth successive Champions League place, but admittedly, twelve wins from 18 games was a disappointing return by City's standards.
Cushing's side would fare better in the Conti Cup, reaching the Final once again, but lost out to Arsenal, as the Gunners gained revenge for the 2014 result.
“ It’s hard to take as it’s obviously a cup we have great memories with but full credit to Arsenal. They were the better team in the first half. We tried to pull it back in the second but it was too late. I just think it wasn’t our day.”
Eager to build on our maiden European adventure, which had earned the impressive feat of a semi-final spot, City cruised past Austrian side
St. Pölten and Norwegians Lillestrøm before triumphing 7-3 on aggregate in a thrilling two-legged meeting with Linköpings FC of Sweden. Once again, our Champions League adventure would pit us against the title holders with City set to face Lyon in the last four for the second time.
This time around, the home side produced a much-improved display in the first leg at the Academy Stadium, battling valiantly to hold the French heavyweights to a goalless draw. It was a statement display of intent, quality and progress with goalkeeper Bardsley in particular proving impenetrable.
Agonisingly, City fell to the narrowest of defeats in the return leg with Bronze, who had departed for the Champions League winners in the summer, striking the winner. Although a single goal would send the visitors through, it proved elusive and our incredible journey came to an end.
The level of improvement from the clash 12 months earlier was there for all to see and as Bardsley remembers, showed the world that City were heading in the right direction.
"One of the best games I ever played was against Lyon," KB recalled. "We drew at home and lost away. We'd made really good back-to-back seasons in the Champions League against top opposition.
"In the first leg, we were under the cosh and for a goalkeeper, to make so many saves and be able to keep a clean sheet against a team like Lyon was a real proud moment.
“In the second leg, Lucy scored an absolute screamer. It ripped my heart out! I got my fingertips to it. I remember thinking: 'Oh, come on!' We lost on aggregate and we were disappointed we didn't get through. We were there and it was a proud moment because the performance put the game within our grasp.”
Uncharacteristically, City would end the season without adding to our collection of silverware – but not for the want of trying, and the signs were promising...
Following the disappointment of the previous campaign, City were out for success in the 2018/19 season. Cushing’s statement of intent was clear to see with our summer transfer business with the captures of Caroline Weir, Lauren Hemp, Gemma Bonner, Tessa Wullaert and Janine Beckie.
In preparation, Cushing and co. headed across the Atlantic to America for the first time, competing in the Women's International Champions Cup to lock horns once again with Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain.
We kicked-off the season against reigning Champions Chelsea but it was fair to say the sides were cautious to give anything away too early on, as we played out a 0-0 draw at Kingsmeadow. The stalemate would not mark a sign of things to come, as Cushing’s side would go on to score an incredible 22 goals in our next five league games, including a 7-1 win at home to West Ham United and a 6-0 triumph away to Brighton and Hove Albion. Our Conti Cup campaign also followed suit, as we once again topped the group unbeaten, scoring 17 goals and conceding none.
Despite our dominant domestic form, our run on the continent proved frustratingly short-lived with City uncharacteristically eliminated from the Champions League in the Round of 32, following a 3-1 aggregate defeat to a strong Atletico Madrid side.
Pleasingly, our European exit did not affect our domestic campaign with our hunt for silverware beginning to gather momentum in the New Year. After booking our place in the Conti Cup knock-out stages in emphatic fashion, we recorded another thumping 7-1 victory at home to Brighton and Hove Albion. Nikita Parris’ 50th City goal was followed up by a Hemp brace, plus strikes from Caroline Weir, Claire Emslie, Georgia Stanway and Janine Beckie, to set up another huge semi-final clash with Chelsea.
Just under a month later, we made the trip to the capital to face Emma Hayes’ side and after a cagey first 45 minutes, the two teams went in at the break all square. In the second half however, it was the Parris show. The England international netted a brace to secure a 2-0 win and a place in the Final against familiar foe Arsenal.
The Final would be contested at Sheffield United's Bramall Lane and as with the first half against Chelsea, the clash against the Gunners proved another tight affair – so much so that after 120 minutes of football, nothing could split the sides and the game ended goalless after extra-time.
England number one Bardsley would prove to be City’s heroine in the penalty shoot-out, saving back-to-back spot-kicks, as we claimed our third Conti Cup triumph with 4-2 win. It would kick off an historic weekend for the Club with the men's side repeating the feat the following day with their own League Cup victory over Chelsea on penalties!
For Beckie, who netted the winning penalty to lift her first trophy with the Club, Lionesses shot-stopper Bardsley deserved all of the credit – evident as the Canada star raced towards her goalkeeper in celebration...
"You look down the field and you see Karen Bardsley stepping up in goal with penalties being her absolute masterclass," she hailed. "We're all standing – just watching her do her thing with full confidence that she's keeping at least one of them out of the goal.
“There's really no feeling like scoring the winning penalty. It's one of those moments you never forget. I started to run to the team and I thought: 'Shoot, I need to go run to KB!' She really was the MVP in that game.”
Having clinched our first domestic trophy of the season, Cushing’s side now set eyes on the second: the FA Cup. A pair of 3-0 wins – first over Watford and then Tottenham Hotspur – followed by a 1-0 victory over Liverpool set up yet another semi-final clash against old rivals Chelsea.
Once again though, it was City who would triumph as a dramatic, last-gasp own-goal handed us a 1-0 victory and our second semi-final success of the season over the London side.
With second place confirmed in the WSL with one game left to play, City had no plans to be runners-up in the FA Cup Final and we ran out convincing winners over West Ham United at Wembley.
Three second-half goals from Walsh, Georgia Stanway and Hemp earned a 3-0 win and capped a memorable afternoon under the famous arch, as we secured our second FA Cup triumph in three years.
“It will definitely go down as one of my favourite goals: scoring at Wembley on such an occasion to help us win the FA Cup with so many people there, so many City fans... It was incredible. ”
"I’d tried so hard all game to try and score. I'd had a few shots and I'd snapped at a few. I'd had one that was quite close... Then, Keira Walsh scored the first goal and knew then I had to try and score and get in tie with my mate!
"For me personally, it was a big game. I’d always wanted to play well on a big stage. In that game, I got Player of the Match - and I scored. There's no better feeling than winning and lifting the trophy was incredible."
The following week, we almost achieved the feat of completing the league season unbeaten for the second time – but were defeated by Champions Arsenal on the final day.
Despite the loss, Cushing and co. once again enjoyed another successful season, adding two more trophies to our ever-growing honours list.
Forward, Parris was also recognised with individual acclaim, as the England international was crowned FWA Footballer of the Year.
After an off-season that lasted nearly four months and another busy summer of recruitment, Cushing and his side were more than ready for the season ahead... but nobody could have predicted what the 2019/20 campaign would bring.
The summer of 2019 was a shining light for the women’s game. The World Cup in France drew record numbers, and after a successful campaign from Phil Neville’s semi-finalists England, women’s football was alive and kicking across the country.
The Lionesses' star of the summer Ellen White had announced she was joining City before the tournament and the striker gave her new fans a taste of her talent after finishing joint-top scorer of the tournament in France with six goals.
“Watching City win the FA Cup and the League Cup made me really want to experience that. I want to be involved in that winning mentality again and hopefully, I'll bring passion and commitment, and score some goals. I want to lead off the pitch as well as on it.”
There is no doubt excitement was brewing amongst the City faithful and that anticipation hit fever pitch when the fixtures were announced. The season's curtain raiser was revealed to be a first ever professional women’s Manchester Derby against newly-promoted United – to be contested at the Etihad Stadium. What better way to ignite the new campaign?
A then record WSL crowd of 31,213 packed into the home of the Premier League Champions to witness history and City gained the perfect start (as well as the local bragging rights), as a stunning strike from Caroline Weir claimed a memorable 1-0 victory.
The triumph marked new recruit Aoife Mannion's debut for the Club and an occasion she will never forget.
“ It was great to be part of such a special occasion. It was incredible to see so many people at the game, and the way we won it - with a worldie goal from Caroline Weir - it was really memorable. It was a brilliant goal and it's incredible when things like that come off. ”
After a superb start in domestic competition, attention turned to the Champions League Europe and after a suffering disappointment in the previous European campaign, City were looking to put things right.
Cushing’s team took on Swiss side FF Lugano in the Round of 32, storming to an emphatic 7-1 victory in the first leg and 4-0 win in the second to wrap up a resounding 11-1 victory on aggregate.
However, a month later, Atletico Madrid – City’s nemesis from the previous year – would once again knock Cushing’s side out of the competition, edging City 3-2 on aggregate.
Once again though, we rallied from our European exit, as Cushing and his team continued to flourish domestically, winning 10 games from 11 league matches, leaving City top of the Women’s Super League entering the final quarter of the season.
However, as the New Year began, an era ended when manager Cushing announced he would be leaving his role in February to become assistant manager at New York City FC. The 2016 WSL Manager of the Year described the emotions of his departure as those equivalent to 'splitting up with a girlfriend', as he called time on six unforgettable, trophy-laden years at the helm.
“Making the decision to leave MCWFC has been incredibly difficult given the fantastic players and staff that we have here and the incredible success that we have achieved together – it isn’t one that I have taken lightly," he said.
“Although it would never be the right time to leave the women's team, we've developed it to a level where it's self-sustainable. Somebody can come in with fresh ideas – a fresh face – and a fresh voice. Both teams will hugely benefit from the transition.”
Until his move in February, Cushing would continue to take charge of the team with Alan Mahon ready to step in as interim boss for the remainder of the campaign, while the application process for a suitable replacement began.
The beginning of the new decade also bore the beginning of our FA Cup campaign and holders City were out for success once again. Our first task at defending the crown came in another eagerly-anticipated Manchester derby as we took on United at Leigh Sports Village. A brace from White and a goal from Scott again meant the bragging rights remained in the Blue half of Manchester as we ran out 3-2 winners.
February signalled the end of Cushing’s reign, and the beloved boss bowed out on a winning note, as his team gained revenge for a midweek Conti Cup semi-final loss by defeating by Arsenal 2-1. The victory proved a fitting finale for Cushing's unforgettable era.
With Mahon stepping in to take charge, City were victorious against Bristol City in the league and secured FA Cup progression with a record-breaking triumph in the fifth round – emphatically thrashing fourth-tier Ipswich Town 10-0 at the Academy Stadium. There were three hat-tricks scored in the process through Stanway, teenager Jess Park and Pauline Bremer, as we recorded our biggest ever competitive victory across both the men’s and women’s first-teams.
The visit of Chelsea - billed as a title decider - served up another feast of goals. The encounter would unfold as one of the most thrilling encounters in WSL history, as the heavyweights contested a scintillating 3-3 draw!
Sadly, it would prove to be the final action of the 2019/20 league season as women's football was curtailed as a result of the global Coronavirus pandemic. At the end of play, City stood one point ahead of Chelsea but the Londoners' game in hand would come to break City hearts, as the FA awarded the title to Hayes' side on a points-per-game basis.
It was a bitter pill to swallow but City rolled up our sleeves and looked to the future with the immediate focus on recruiting Cushing's replacement...
The summer bore the dawning of a new age with the appointment of a new Head Coach: former City striker and Academy Manager Gareth Taylor.
The 47-year-old former Wales international had led City’s Under-18s for the past three seasons, guiding the youngsters to successive Premier League U18 Cup victories in 2019 and 2020, having previously overseen the Club’s Under-16s.
“It’s now my job and responsibility to go and continue with the success the Club has had in recent years. I’m really looking forward to that. We’re progressive. The Club have been the flagbearers for the women’s game over the initial period of inauguration and we’re now looking to improve.”
Though Taylor's start to his life as Head Coach hurled plenty of challenges with the country in national lockdown and adhering to strict regulations for health and safety reasons, there was a glimmer of light for the women's game, as FIFA awarded special dispensation for the 2019/20 FA Cup tournament to resume in the new season.
Upon his arrival, the new boss hinted more new faces were set to join the ranks and a total of five high-profile names were recruited over the summer, including European Champions Lucy Bronze and Alex Greenwood, and World Cup winners Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle. Starlet Chloe Kelly also made the move to Manchester, and a third USA star in Abby Dahlkemper would follow in January.
Six months after its curtailment, women's football resumed but sadly, to empty stadiums. A little rusty and still adapting to life with a new manager, new playing style and new faces, City's endured a mixed start to life in the new campaign, falling to a Community Shield defeat in the season's curtain raiser and struggling for consistency in the league.
However, the FA Cup holders fared better in our defence of the trophy – a first FA Cup tournament of two in 2020/21. Picking up where we had left off in February, a 2-1 quarter-final win over Leicester City was followed by a 2-1 triumph over Arsenal in the semi-final, sending us to Wembley for our third FA Cup Final in four years.
Taylor’s City faced a tough test against Everton, and after opening the scoring through Sam Mewis in the first half, were pegged back as the Toffees equalised on the hour mark. The two teams were level after 90 minutes, meaning extra-time (and potentially a penalty shoot-out) stood between City and the famous trophy.
After a gruelling first 15 minutes, our class and determination showed in the second half, as goals from Stanway and Beckie clinched a 3-1 victory, to record back-to-back FA Cup triumphs for the first time in the Club’s history.
“It meant everything. It was my ninth game and four of those had been in cups. It reinforced the message: we want to make history. It’s a challenge for the players to now do what other clubs have done and win the FA Cup three years in a row. I think it can be a springboard.”
More than a year after the season began, City finally completed the 2019/20 campaign with the silverware we craved...
“It's such a rapid rise when you think back to those early days. When you look back on the journey, we've been through it all – and that's why it means so much to you when you go on to achieve memories like this. These are memories that last forever and hopefully, we can create a few more in the next few years.”
As we stand, Taylor's side boast some of the greatest players ever to play the game and remain well in contention in three competitions. Meanwhile, the women's game across the country continues to grow, attracting the world's biggest names; thriving from the increased interest, coverage, sponsorship and commitment to growth.
In the coming months, the City squad will strive to lift what would be a fourth FA Cup, second league title and first Champions League trophy... Quite an achievement at seven years old!
Here's to the next seven years and beyond...
By Caroline Oatway,
Josh Lees & George Kelsey