Ella Toone is back playing for United, one of the many prodigal daughters to return to the club having been forced to leave before the club had a senior women’s team. And now she and the club are making up for lost time, having been promoted to the WSL.

Not content with simply being back at United, Toone is determined to cement her place in the starting 11. Her strike return of six goals in five games in the League Cup is the kind of form that she’s hoping to replicate in the WSL, but that, as she’s realising, is another level again. We spoke at length with the young forward about the trials of lockdown, her ambitions for the future, and her time at Manchester rivals, City.

So to start with, how is quarantine life treating you and how have you handled everything that we're going through? How are you keep yourself busy? 

It's not too bad, to be fair. I've gone into quarantine with three of the other girls. So I'm basically just with three best friends every day. We just keep ourselves busy. I've been doing all sorts … a lot of colouring. I've also been learning to cook a bit more so that when I go home, I can cook for the family. So yeah, we've just been keeping ourselves busy. No one's killed each other yet. So it's going all right. 

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Nice. What's the staple dish you’ve been cooking?

Well, I mean, I can only cook poached eggs and scrambled eggs at the moment, but I'm learning so it’s a start. Poached eggs aren’t easy, I think I’ve actually really mastered them you know, I’m proud of that!

So did you not live with the other players before this all happened then? Did the club put you together? Whose decision was that?

So I was living with my mum and dad at home and two of the girls already lived together in the club’s house.  Two more of us then moved in just because we thought we would rather be with our mates in lockdown and we've got all the gym equipment here and it's easier to motivate each other to go and do the sessions together and stuff. So yeah, we just thought it'd be a lot better for us all for a number of reasons.

It's a smart move. Has the club been giving live training sessions or anything like that? What's the contact been like with them?

It's pretty very good, actually. We've kept in contact and we have a lot of team meetings and and we've been given our programs. So we've got our running sessions, our gym sessions and things like that. So yeah, that keeps us occupied a lot during the day and we just get them done in the morning and then we've got the rest of the day to fill.

In a weird but good way, is it a nice break from the norm?

I'm not sure, I miss it a lot. I think we've just tried to keep a good routine; we get up, all do our session like we would normally and then eat and then do our gym session in the afternoon. So we're just trying to keep it as much as like it was when we were out of lockdown. I do miss a lot so I can't wait until we're back.

There must be only so much you can do – naturally lots of fitness and stuff like that but there's nothing that beats going out and playing the game. Is that how you see it?

Yeah, exactly. I just think we miss the competitiveness in training and things like the small sided games with everyone arguing because they want to win. You can't get that when there's just four of you on the street playing two touch or whatever. So, yeah, I think the competitiveness is missed a lot and I can’t wait to go and win another small sided game!

Has it almost gone full circle? You’re back on the street playing two touch but you’re a professional player...

Yeah. It feels like we're back to when we were little, we were just playing on the street with our friends. It’s the garden instead of the street though. We’re just trying to keep busy with two touch and any other drills we can do with the ball. We’ve bought a little net so we can shoot into that all day but it’s not the same as training with the full team all together.

Before we talk about this season, could we go back a little bit further … when did you first start playing football? Who introduced you to the game and what are your earliest memories?

Well there’s a local football team called Hindsford and all my family have played for them and my dad has managed there. So I just used to go down there when I was younger and go and play with all the boys on the field. Someone said to my dad once, “have you seen your Ella playing football?” And he was like, “no”. And they were like, “oh, she's actually really good”. So he sent me to a girls team and I absolutely loved it. And then one of the coaches at the girls team knew someone at Manchester United. So they offered me a trial there. I went on a trial for six weeks, and then after two weeks, they wanted to sign me … I was then there for seven years, so that's how I first got into football.

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It feels like we're back to when we were little, we were just playing on the street with our friends. I think the competitiveness is missed a lot and I can’t wait to go and win another small sided game!”

That's incredible. Having a football family can help then. But did you ever face any doubters along the way?

No, luckily I never really experienced that just because my family's got a lot of boys in it. So I'd always go out with them. My older cousins loved it. They loved that I could play football and play out with them and kick a ball about in the street with them. I never really went through any of the “she's a girl” type comments because I think at the time, I was at primary school and I was actually better than most of the boys so they couldn't really say anything [laughs].

When you talk about your Dad being the manager and involved in football, did you ever used to watch the games and get a taste for the game in that way?

When I was younger, I never actually used to watch. I would always be there but I’d be on the side of the pith, playing non stop in the nets with all the lads that were down there. So I never really watched, I wanted the ball too much. But I used to go down every Saturday and I still go down now. The whole family still always goes down there. My dad is the manager of my brother’s team so yeah I think it’s just something that is there forever and I’ll probably keep going down when I’m older too, I love it.

So while football is a career now, it’s properly through and through you and your family?

Yeah, it's just through and through. For most of my family, football is so important. A lot of the family actually went into swimming and that’s what they thought I’d be doing but I just thought “definitely not, I’ll pick football over swimming”. I’m on the football side of the family for sure.

What players did you grow up watching and what was it about them that appealed to you most?

I think for me, it was Cristiano Ronaldo. Just because, I was at Manchester United, he was at Manchester United, he wore the number seven shirt and he was just so passionate when he played football and I used to love watching him do all these skills and stuff and I used to sit at the computer and Google him doing these skills and I used to go out into the back garden and practise them. So I just think I've always looked up to him - the hard work and dedication that he put into his game. I always wanted to play just like he did.

He’s superhuman in the way he has focused his mind to always being better – is that something you take into your approach?

Yeah, I do. I've watched a lot of stuff about him and read a lot of stuff and just hearing how hard working he is. He’ll stay out after training and do his extra stuff and then he’ll go home and carry on doing extra work. I just think, you have to be a professional 24 hours of the day, not just when you are at training. So yeah, I’ve taken a lot from him. I've just gotta keep pushing myself like he did. Hopefully be the best I can be.

Did you ever get near him when you were at United in the early days?

No. Never, never. I met Rio Ferdinand. That was about it.

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When you think about those days, it must be mad for you to fast forward and be a real asset of the club. What do you think you as a kid would make of it all?

I just never thought it was going to be. When I was at Manchester United originally, there was never a women's team, so there was never anything to look up to and so, you had to leave. There was no doubt about it. You had to leave and go find another team with a women's team just to aim for something. Then all of a sudden, United got a women’s team again and it was just like, wow. That is where I've always wanted to be and always wanted to play, so there's no two ways about it. I was coming back and being a part of it.

Yeah, you started at the Academy and had to leave because there was no senior Women’s side – how good was it to return to the club when there was news of the Women’s team being established?

Yeah, it was amazing. It was just like something you've always dreamed of when you were little but it was never going to happen because there was never a team. So I couldn’t even dream of it being possible when I was younger. As soon as I found out it was happening and the team was forming, I was like, “wow, I need go back to where it all started and start this journey with a new team.” It’s been amazing and probably the best decision I’ve made so far. I’m so very happy that we got the women's team.

Did you reach out to the club to make that happen or did they reach out to you?

I think Casey Stoney reached out. I think they like the fact that there was a lot of players who were in the academy originally. So there's quite a lot of those who were in the academy at a younger age and then had to leave, I think they liked the opportunity to bring some of us back. I think Casey got in touch with my agent and I was just like, “100%, I’m going”.

Obviously, you were at Man City as well. While they are a close rival, how grateful for that time you had there are you?

Yeah, I'm very grateful for that just because the first year at Man City, I was on a dual contract with Blackburn Rovers, so I think that was the best thing that could have happened to me at that time in the age where I was training with the best in the world at City and then playing 90 minutes on a weekend, every weekend for Blackburn. So I was like getting better in training and then being able to put it into a game on the weekend, because usually when you are younger, you don't get as much game time as you want. But for me, I was getting 90 minutes a week. It meant that I was going into a weekend being able to put everything I had been doing in the week, into practice on the weekend. I’m proper thankful that that happened.

Who are those players that you were playing with that you saw as a whole other level of talent?

Well, Lucy Bronze. Because obviously now she's one of the best women's players in the world. It was just good to see her approach. Not just what she did on the pitch but off the pitch, in the gym, what she ate – watching everything you could. You soak it all up and and take that into your own game. Then there was a lot of England internationals like Steph Houghton, the captain of England, Toni Duggan, Izzy Christensen, Jill Scott. There was loads of them. So, yeah, it was a good environment to be in and I learned a lot from the players.

Do you think that being around those kind of players made you realise how far you could go in the game and what you can achieve?

Yeah, definitely. It's good to look at the likes of Lucy Bronze and all the stuff that she was doing and putting it into your own game. She's not got so far by doing nothing so it was good to see what she's capable of both on and off the pitch. So yeah, I learnt a lot from great players at City.

Broader question – What has the journey been like as a young female player? How hard would you say you've had to work to get to where you are and how much graft goes in behind the scenes?

Yeah, it's been tough. I mean, you never get stuff just handed to you on a plate in any profession. So you have to make sacrifices. You have to work hard and you have to be dedicated. I just think you have got to be on it 24/7 and hopefully you'll get to where you want to be if you just keep working hard. So that's all I try and do every day in training. I put 100 percent in and just try and get every little bit out of it that I can. There’s just a long way to go yet so I’ve just got to keep working hard.

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It was the best thing that could have happened to me as I was training with the best in the world at City and then playing 90 minutes on a weekend, every weekend for Blackburn"

People talk about the sacrifices players have to make in order to succeed, what are they for you?

I just think there's a lot of sacrifices where you feel like you’re having to say no a lot. Whether that’s friends’ parties or christenings or whatever. I kind of don’t call them sacrifices any more. Rather I call them choices as they are the decisions I need to make to get to where I want to be...

Do you think you need that kind of ruthless outlook to get to the top?

Yeah, 100 percent just because you've got to be on it 24/7. Like I said, like you can't slip up. Maybe yeah, you want to go to this party or this event or whatever but ultimately it’s not going to be the best for you and your career so you have to be that way. You’ve just got to keep making the right choices every day.

When you look at last season – so monumental, you obviously walked the league. How much did you enjoy it and what would you say that you learned from it?

I absolutely loved it. Every single match day, I was buzzing for and then we got to lift the trophy. That was our target right at the start of the season. So, yeah, that was amazing. I learned that no matter what team you're coming up against, you have to be on it. You have to play well. You have to put on a performance because every team wants to beat you, because you are Manchester United. So you've just got to make sure you go into every game with the right mindset.

Manchester United is such an enormous name to be associated with. Do you find an added pressure that comes with that?

I think it's just a lot of pride. Wearing the Manchester United badge. A lot of us when we were younger, never thought that this was gonna happen. And now we're back and we're wearing the badge and we’re playing every weekend at Manchester United, one of the biggest clubs in the world. So I just think it's a lot of pride that comes with that. With that energy, you want to do the club proud and the fans proud.

What’s the experience been like at Manchester United, being a new club, have you felt that support grow?

It's been unbelievable. Right from the very start we had a massive fan base and they have followed us up and down the country. Whatever team we’ve been playing against, we’ve had such good support. We’re all so happy to have a good group of fans who back us and again, we just want to make them proud at each game they travel to. It’s up to us to put on a good performance and reward them for their support.

While everything's on hold at the moment, it's been a good start and a good first season in the topflight. How have you found that step up and what are the main differences?

I think the intensity of the game is a lot quicker. You have to make sure that you know your next pass before you receive the ball. All the teams are really tough teams to play against and so you have to be on your game and have to stick to the game plan and go in with the right mindset. I just think the physicality and the intensity of the game is just massive and it will only keep rising.

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How have you enjoyed being able to play those big teams that are established in that space? The likes of City, Arsenal and Chelsea?

Yeah, it's amazing. You dream of that when you're younger – playing against the likes of City in the derby – being part of a Manchester derby … Playing against top teams, you just want to go out there and show what you can do to win and beat them. Every game is tough in this league. You've got to be on it and you've got to want to win it and be positive that you can beat those teams that have been in it for a long time.

When you move into that division, do you notice the bigger spotlight that comes with it?

Yeah definitely. When we first played City at the Etihad Stadium, the amount of fans was unbelievable. You would never have thought there would be that many fans at a women's game. Every time we go to away games or we play at Leigh Sports Stadium, the crowds are just amazing and they're only gonna keep growing and getting bigger so we've just got to keep performing and hopefully we'll get more fans through the doors.

When you join Man Utd, what’s that like? Do you get a sense of how big the club is when you join and do you enjoy that taste of fame?

I just think you’ve got to keep your feet on the ground. Things change and you see that you've got a lot of fans, you get a lot of nice messages and stuff. I think for us, we just want to be role models for the next generation and anything we can do for the young girls or boys wanting to play football, we’ll do. I'm personally very grateful for all the fans and the nice messages that you get as a result of being a player.

When it comes to life off the pitch, are there players that you model yourself on or have a lot of time for when it comes to fashion and how they carry themselves?

Me and Alex Greenwood are really close, but I just love what she wears. She'll always send me stocks, but she gives me good ideas that I like to pick up. I look up to her a lot on and off the pitch and she's the ultimate professional. So I'm glad that she's one of my best friends so that she can keep an eye on me and show me the right path.

How would you describe yourself, your personality and your character and stuff like that?

I can't sit still. I always want to be around my friends just having fun, having a laugh. I'm going to laugh. Yeah, just very figgety – I just always want to be doing stuff. This lockdown is a bit tough so I’m just trying to get attention off everyone [laughs].

So is that where the colouring has come in?

[Laughs] Yeah this actually calms me down for at least a minute.

You've obviously made steps through the England set up. How much do you dream of that full England appearance in the senior side?

That's a dream and that's something that you dream of when you're a little girl. I've gone through all the age groups now. So 15s, 17s, 19s, 21s...I’ve captained my country and the next step is to play for the seniors. So I've just got to keep my head down and hopefully if I keep working hard and performing then it’ll come but there's no rush and I've just got to make sure that I'm ready when the call comes.

Lucy Bronze is one of the best women's players in the world. It was just good to see her approach, not just what she did on the pitch but off the pitch, in the gym, what she ate – watching everything you could"
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Looking forward, what would you say the main ambitions are in the short term and in the long term?

Being a starting eleven player for club, week in, week out, putting on big performances and creating goals and scoring goals is where my focus is. Then ultimately, off of that hard work, making my senior international debut and being a senior Lioness is what I want to achieve more than anything.

Photography by Man Utd Keeper Siobhan Chamberlain.