Katie Zelem’s grassroots story: ‘You don’t need to cheerlead girls because I’m going to be doing this every day!’
Katie Zelem discusses her football journey from grassroots club Failsworth Dynamos to the importance of her first coaches at Manchester United as a kid
My earliest memory of football was from when we used to go to tournaments. I was maybe five or six and playing in a boys’ team. It was a huge astroturf sectioned off into loads of different pitches with loads of different games going on.
I grew up in East Manchester in Failsworth and always played football in Manchester. Where I played was actually quite close to the City stadium!
I played for a team called Failsworth Dynamos and they now have girls’ teams which is amazing. I started at the age of six and played there for a few years before joining Manchester United around the age of eight. At first, I carried on playing grassroots football before then just focusing on Manchester United.
I was playing in tournaments with the boys and United coaches were coming down to look at the lads to scout some of the boys’ players and they were like ‘we would love Katie to come down for the girls’ team’ and that is how I ended up at United.
But initially I didn’t want to go! I was like ‘Dad, I’m not going. I love playing with the boys. I’m not leaving!’ He was like ‘Katie, we can just go down and have a look.’
Katie Zelem | Off the Pitch
Midfielder is next to join Josh Denzel for a walk off the pitch to answer 30 questions, but with one rule - no football chat!
I was screaming and crying and didn’t want to go because I was only eight at the time. So my Dad said ‘alright let’s just go to play on the local field’ and then he took me to The Cliff at Manchester United! We turned up and I was like ‘this isn’t fair, you fooled me!’
I got out eventually and he was almost dragging me. The Cliff has a big balcony and my Dad says he was watching me and I was just staring back at him because I didn’t want to be there! Then ten minutes later, he said he couldn’t see me because I was running around so much.
When it finished, I didn’t want to come home. From that day, I just had the best time. I felt so welcome, and I enjoyed it so much. I couldn’t wait to go back.
I would go to training in the full Barcelona gold away kit, the full Holland kit and would wear random full kits at the time. But I was very much a Manchester United fan! Because I was at United, we would get the United kits all the time so I liked to have different kits as well.
I made a lot of friends playing football as a kid, both in my boys’ team Failsworth Dynamos and when I joined Manchester United and I am still friends with some of the girls I met at eight, nine and ten.
I used to play football at school as well. When I was at Woodhouses Primary School, there is a photo of me from when I was about four or five and I had my little skirt on with trainers on so I could play football and there were bandages all over my knees from where I had cut them playing football.
In the end, my Mum went into school because girls were not allowed to wear trousers so she went in to ask if I could wear trousers because I was struggling to play football in a skirt. You think about it now and it is crazy that she had to go in and ask that.
Even in secondary school, at The Blue Coat, people would say ‘aren’t you scared to play with the boys?’ There were about 100 boys from year seven to 11 and just me in the middle running around. All my mates would be on the sidelines like ‘go on Katie!’ and I was like ‘you don’t need to cheerlead girls because I’m going to be doing this every day!’
It might sound boring but my whole life I have played centre midfield. My dad played and was a goalkeeper but there was no chance of me doing that, especially at 5ft 3!
I have always loved running around and having the ball so playing centre midfield where all the action takes place was perfect for me. When you speak to all the other players, they have had a load of different positions whereas for me, there is not a lot to tell on that front!
When I look at my football development, there are two people who stand out. Firstly, my Dad. He was so involved with football himself and was always my biggest fan. He would take me everywhere, rain or shine, and would go on the field with me and play football with me. He would smash the ball up in the air for hours, getting me to control it and I would put him in net for my shooting and we would do all sorts to help my game.
Also, my first United coach Eddie Leach. At United, the lads’ academy coaches would stay on an extra hour and a half to coach the girls and when you look at the players who came through the United set-up, you can see they are quite technical players which I think is partly down to having really high-quality coaches and excellent facilities.
For an hour straight, we would work on numbers, which was little skills and footwork. Eddie was such a good coach and he coached a lot of people like me and Tooney.
With how intricate he was with his detail and how much he really cared, it really started my career in the way I was a technical player and helped make me the player I am today.
Women's and girls' pathway changes