At the close of 2021 Manchester United’s Ella Toone had ticked off a few things on the to-do list: top scorer for her club in the 2020-21 season and leading the way at the mid-point of the latest campaign, a senior England debut, an England hat-trick, a first senior international tournament with Team GB at the Olympics and December’s Barclays player of the month in the Women’s Super League.
She has a big grin when she says it was the “perfect end to an amazing year for me personally”.
It all feels pretty surreal to the versatile player, with a list of achievements that she would have “bitten your arm off” for at the start of 2021. “I’ve achieved dreams that I set when I was a little girl,” she says. “It’s been amazing, and overwhelming. I’m just really proud and I want to keep trying to achieve as many dreams as I can, keep working hard, keep learning and trying to be the best version of myself.”
United ended last season with Casey Stoney quitting as manager and the US duo Christen Press and Tobin Heath joining young star Lauren James in departing. This campaign was therefore never going to be straightforward. New faces came in and so did the former Birmingham manager Marc Skinner from Orlando Pride and United struggled to find the rhythm that had them unbeaten and top at Christmas last season. Going into last month’s winter break United sat fourth, two points behind third-placed Tottenham, having drawn three times and lost twice. They remain there before Saturday’s game at home to second-bottom Birmingham.
The topsy-turvy start, though, has taught the team a lot, says the 22-year-old Toone. “As much as you hate losing, we’ve learned so much from those games,” she says. “Even the games we’ve drawn, which we probably shouldn’t have drawn, we’ve learned so much.”
United have recorded three back-to-back wins – at Brighton and at home to Aston Villa in the league, either side of victory at Everton in the League Cup – for the first time this season and there are signs that the team are starting to get to grips with the way Skinner wants to play.
“The main thing for us was believing in each other and believing in ourselves,” Toone says. “We finished the year really strong. We clicked towards the end of the year and put on some really great performances and now it’s about carrying on from that. It’s always going to take time when a new manager comes in with different ideas. It was about all of us being open-minded and believing in what he wanted from us.”
Toone, born in Tyldesley, Greater Manchester, has enjoyed working with Skinner. “He’s got a lot of great ideas and he’s really positive on the pitch and I think I’ve learned a lot under him. He just wants the best out of each individual player, which has been great for me. I’ve had a lot of one-to-one time with him … I think he’s been a big part of why I’ve been playing well and scoring and assisting.”
Toone, who is used in midfield and further forward, sets herself plenty of targets but at the start of the season Skinner’s instructions were simple: “To play with freedom, consistency and get goals and assists,” she says. “I think I’ve managed to do that and I just want to keep my foot on the gas and keep helping the team.”
Having made her England debut in February, coming on and scoring a penalty in a 6-0 defeat of Northern Ireland, Toone has six goals from eight caps, including a hat-trick in October’s 10-0 win against Latvia. Her club form meant she was named as one of the four reserves for the Olympics who were upgraded to full players when squad sizes were increased because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was a weird experience due to Covid,” she says. “But just being a part of it was amazing and it made me so much more hungry to be back at a major tournament representing England or GB.”
It also made a spot in the England squad for the home Euros this summer feel that bit more achievable. “It was always an aim, “just because you have to set targets and you have to push towards something,” she says. “I’ve tried to go there and just believe in myself and learn as much as I can and show what I’m about. Obviously it is a dream and it would be stupid to say it isn’t, because it’s the home Euros and it’ll be a massive occasion for the country and for women’s football.”
There is an added incentive with the opening England game at Old Trafford on 6 July. Toone is a huge Manchester United fan, thanks to playing with her United supporting-cousin, and would be taken by her Bolton-supporting dad to Old Trafford as a kid. She joined United’s regional talent club before moving to Blackburn and then Manchester City because United did not have a senior side. She was brought back by Stoney in 2018.
“As soon as United said there was a women’s team I just wanted to come home, and I’ve loved every minute since,” she says. “It’s the proudest thing ever to wear this shirt and wear this badge. Obviously, growing up sporting the club, it’s massive. I come to training every day and I’m at the club that I support. You just want to work as hard as you can for the badge and for the girls around you.
“I’m also really happy for the girls in the academy that have the opportunity now to work hard and dream big. All I ever wanted to do was play professional football for Manchester United.”
Ella Toone is the Barclays WSL player of the month for December. Read our interview with November’s player of the month, Jessie Fleming, here.