Creative Soccer Culture

Katie Zelem On Highs & Lows, Captaining United & Inspiring The Next Generation

Back in the England setup and gearing up to guide Manchester United on their latest Women’s Super League campaign, Katie Zelem is a woman with goals in mind, in both senses of the word.

From dreaming of being Manchester United Women’s captain as a young girl – a position that never even existed when she was growing up – to now holding that position and leading her side to a top four finish in the Women’s Super League last season, that coming on the back of scooping a Serie A title with Juventus back in 2018…Katie Zelem is living proof that dreams really can become a reality, given the right attitude, commitment, hard work and, of course, a little bit of luck. Now her journey continues, with a commitment to continual improvement that’s sure to see her tackle this coming season with a renewed determination. 

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On the back of the disappointment of missing out on the Lionesses squad for the Women’s Euro 2022 tournament, it would be easy to lose focus and faith in what you are doing. But for Zelem, who only recently emerged on the international scene, it’s something that will only encourage her to try harder, to put in the graft. Having been right there, roaring her friends and teammates onto success, she's now back in the setup and ready for for everything the games got to throw at her.

Since you became United captain, so much has happened, how has life changed for you?

I think off the pitch has changed the most. I’ve seen there’s so much more interest in women's football. I think on the pitch that's all down to the work you put it. Obviously we had the pandemic, so now with the fans back, it really feels like Manchester United again. The noise off the pitch has been interesting to watch – the increasing popularity is incredible.

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Has your mindset evolved?

Yeah, totally. I think the pandemic did that to everyone. Really, it was like a lot of thinking time for people and I became a bit of an outdoor adventurer, which I never thought would have happened in my lifetime! It was nice to be able to explore new things over the pandemic. Certainly as time’s going on my attitude towards doing media things and doing photo shoots has changed. I used to be a bit cold with them and now I try and embrace it and little things like that. I know that the media goes such a long way with inspiring kids to start playing, inspiring girls and boys. It’s not just what we do on the pitch that gets recognised and raises the game, it’s what we do off it that can help progress the game more and more.

Have you seen the effect that the increased coverage can have on people in the best way?

Yeah, I’ve had letters form kids go through my parents door with drawings on and things like that, which is very touching. I gave one of the boys that did that a pair of my boots and he was over the moon. A few times, people have seen my dad and said like, oh, I took my little girl to the game, and can you sign this program, or we got shirts saying Zelem on the back and little messages like that are so cute. I'm trying to be the best footballer I can be, but also being a role model at the same time.

To have kids wanting your name on the back of their shirt, it's an amazing thing. Isn't it? It shows how things are moving…

What is even more inspiring for me about that letter is that letter was from two little lads. Every time we speak about inspiring the next generation, people are quite quick to jump on the idea of inspiring girls and inspiring girls football, but it's actually a lot of little boys and men that come and watch our games, which is amazing too. That they're not just looking at Ronaldo, but they think it's great that they could come and watch us.

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You could argue that if you go to a men’s United game, the commercial side has taken over and that connection to the players has been lost. You go to a Women’s game and all of a sudden it feels like you're part of it. Is that fair to say?

I’d say it’s different. I think that's what the fans also enjoy about it most is that connection. They can shout our names from the stand and we can' actually hear them. I think the men, obviously there's so many hundreds of thousands of people that watch and whether it's on the telly, whether they go to the stadiums, like you said, it's an enormous commercial entity now. For us it's much more on a smaller scale. So they do get to know us as people and following our social media, it's much more about us as humans perhaps. Every one of the girls pretty much runs their own social media. So you start to get an insight into who they are as a person, not just a player.

You've taken a Polaroid along with you on international camps, despite missing out on the final Euro squad, did you still savour being involved in the international scene again

Well, you don't get a chance to spend time with the best players in the country very often, so for me, when we go once a month, once every two months, whatever it is, it is great to be training with those players, but also just hanging out with them off the pitch. A lot of the girls are friends that I've had for 10 plus years that I didn't regularly see before I was selected. When you're away it's such a long time especially at tournaments that you need to have these relationships off the pitch and have something to also take your focus like the polaroid. And everyone laughs but I know they love getting in them.

Everyone now knows I carry it around wherever I go. So it is something to document and I'll have those pictures forever and look back at. It's been to North Macedonia, it's been to pretty much everywhere I've been. It’s a well-travelled polaroid

There is something really special about that. The England team seem like just a genuine bunch of mates. Is what we see on the outside a reality?

That’s what's so cool about it. I obviously wasn't involved so much previously, but I know that it was quite difficult coming from club to country. Since Serena's been in it doesn't really feel like there’s a rivalry between the players at other clubs at all. When we had a Manchester Derby and went to then England camp that evening, the United players travelled with the City girls. Obviously we were still feeling fresh from the game but the atmosphere was right. I guess when you get to England, it's like put your England shirt on and you're now a teammate. So it does help that people have known each other a long time.

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That is remarkable. It’s fascinating to hear that behind the scenes angle…

Yeah, we came back home from probably an hour and got ready. Two hours later we were sat eating dinner with the City girls after a Manchester Derby. I mean, unfortunate for us, we just got beat one nil. But because of how the squad is right now and the vibe around the place, it was like very mellowed out. There was a few jokes flying around, but nothing where it was too much.

When you were on international duty, did you notice that increasing spotlight and scrutiny grow?

Yeah, totally. I didn't notice it as much before, but now you see it. I think the girls are incredible in how they handle the pressure and continuously perform. Take someone like Fran Kirby. She has done incredibly to perform the way she has for so long with every single eye in the country on her. As you put an England shirt on you become like a target almost for every player who wants to take that spot. She has to achieve good things and she's been able to play for seasons and seasons under extreme pressure. Carrying the title of being an international footballer, an England player that you do have to perform week in week out. Not just to get picked, but because it's the expectation. It’s an incredible thing, I thrive off that.

In the same breath…murals of you in the city centre, and fronting kit launches, adidas campaigns, all that stuff – have you enjoyed that? The ride of all that has come with being a top player?

At first I was a bit like, “oh this is a bit much”. I didn't want everyone taking photos of me, but now when I look back at the mural and things, that's incredible. Only, maybe a handful of people will ever say that in their hometown there was a huge painting of them. And I know my family went and visited. It's like I’m so grateful for all the things like that, that have happened because of football.

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Those things to happen without the graft on the pitch. When it comes to your head space changing, have you doubled down in that sense? Repetition of free kicks as a way of perfecting your craft…

Especially with my aspirations to be picked for the Euros, I know it’s not only about working on your weaknesses, but you need to perfect your strengths. So for me set pieces, free kicks, working on what I'm good at to give me the extra edge is so important for me. Especially as the stakes have almost become higher in being close to the Champions League, it means that everything is like highlighted and you wanna work on it even more.

With all the highs there’s obviously the lows too. Have there been lessons that you've learned along the way, advice that you'd pass on to the next generation?

You don't get highs without lows. There's never gonna be a person in sport that has only got highs of the story to tell. I think it's about managing the highs and the lows that as much as you celebrate wins and good times, you have to be able to manage the highs with the lows. If you take highs too high, you take your lows too low and it becomes draining. It's a 20-ish-year career, hopefully, so if you did that for 20 years, you'd be exhausted I think.

It's really about managing expectation. Not everything is gonna go to plan. It’s impossible for everything to go to plan, really. So I think for me, obviously not being selected for England after COVID was probably harder because before I'd let it go. Once I'd been selected once it was like, “oh, this is not really my fault I got COVID, are you gonna pick me again?” That was a big moment where I thought, although I was never picked, I maybe never let it go. It just didn't bother me. But at that point it was like, “God, Kate, you really do need to let it go”

I don't see you as someone who likes to sit still and set new challenges to better yourself. Have you reset your aspirations to know the levels that you can hit?

I think you can always be better even if you asked the best player in the world, they'd wanna be better. So for me, it's amazing that right at the start of my career, I played with the likes of Farah Williams. She was the best player in the world. And these players just constantly keep coming along. I think it's really important to challenge yourself every single day in training. I play stupid games. Like how close can I get it to the pole without hitting it. Like just little things that, although no one else knows I'm playing that just me, they go along way.

It means that I can test myself with just the smallest things. Not always like the big measurable wins or losses. Sometimes you can't do anything about that, but if you can improve as an individual each day, then that'll help myself and the team develop.

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Things like the Camp Nou selling out…What more can we do to make those moments regular occurrences and keep up the momentum?

On the Camp Nou, breaking the record once is unbelievable. Breaking their own record twice is crazy. It shows that there is people that want to watch women's football, it does away with the old cliches that no one wants to watch it and no one cares. 90,000 people in the stadium obviously wanted to watch Barcelona play. So I think for us, okay, not always copying, but following what people are doing that are doing it well isn't a bad thing. They've got 90,000 people there for a reason.

It starts with the football but from there it moves into the marketing of the sport and how they're portraying women's football. Obviously the club in Barcelona is really buying into it. I think for us, we've got really good investment now in the Super League. It's just about using it well and making sure that everyone knows women's football is a game in its own entity. Don't promote it as the men's sport we'll promote it as itself. You can see with the Euros tickets selling out that there is obviously great things going on, but also room for improvement.

The summer is such a powerful moment. What do you think this could do for the whole landscape of the game?

You could see the excitement when the men's team got into the final last year. People who had never watched football before were supporting the lads. For us, a successful tournament would put women's football into the next level up. We’d get greater TV support, even more people watching, but also the Super League would benefit as a whole. It all filters down to the league attracting better players, better endorsements, better media opportunities for the players too I think. The more accessibility there is to games and players, the more people know about women's football, about the teams, about the England women's team, so I think it would really take it to the next level.

That next generation, that sit and realise it can be a career as well…

Exactly. When I was younger, there wasn't a Manchester United women's team. As much as I can say I dreamt of being the Manchester United women's captain – and I did – it was never even possible at the time. I was just making that up in my head. So now girls can not only see the pathway through Manchester United, but see the pathway through England of being at a tournament, winning hopefully, maybe however it turns out the Euros, the World Cup, whatever it may be that people see it as a real career dream.

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Katie Zelem wears the adidas Predator Edge .1 Low, which you can pick up at

Daniel Jones

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