Manchester United midfielder Katie Zelem is reaping the rewards of her season in Italy with Juventus and says her new club are already dreaming of the Champions League.
Zelem, 22, spent nine years at the Manchester United Centre of Excellence as a youngster but was forced to leave to pursue her goals of playing at the highest level, playing for four seasons with Liverpool before moving on to Juventus in 2017.
But with United recently forming a women’s team in the second tier, Oldham-born Zelem was brought home – and says she wouldn’t have left Turin for any other club.
“I’d actually signed for two years in Italy,” she says. “I was planning on seeing the two years out.
“If it wasn’t – this isn’t me being forced to say it! – if it wasn’t United then I don’t think I would have come back for anyone else.
“It was my first club and hopefully I can stay here for a large part of my career. The plans and what they want to put in place look spectacular.
“I really enjoyed my time over there, I played a lot and we qualified for the Champions League so I think it was quite a big thing to step away from.
“I had a two-year plan but after a bit of consideration I decided it was the right thing for me to come back at this time.”
Zelem and United have hit the ground running, second in the table at time of writing with five wins and a draw from their opening six games.
With 27 goals scored and one conceded, they look a force to be reckoned with, and proved as much with a headline-grabbing 12-0 demolition of Aston Villa.
Why watch the highlights from Aston Villa v #MUWomen?
We can think of 12 very good reasons… pic.twitter.com/ksCMBblnQy
— Manchester United Women (@ManUtdWomen) September 12, 2018
“I think the 12-0 put out a big stamp on what we had to bring to the league, that showed where we’re at and what we’re aiming for.
“It’s not going to be like that every week obviously, teams will play differently against us and things like that, but hopefully we can find different ways to win.
“We’ve not been together long and for things to click this quickly, it’s been probably a bit unexpected but so positive.”
With every victory comes greater expectation, and it is no secret that United want to win promotion at the first attempt.
Zelem says the squad don’t feel under any unreasonable expectation, but she believes Casey Stoney has put together a talented squad.
“Promotion is our aim, although there’s no pressure from the club everybody internally.
“All the players and coaches want to get promoted and that’s what we’re striving for, we want to be in the top division competing against the best teams.
“To be honest I don’t think we need to be told [the long-term goals], every player is here because they want to be the best.
“Obviously the long-term aim for myself, and I’m sure if you asked everyone else, would be the Champions League.
“That’s where the best players are at and where everyone strives to be.”
At just 22, Zelem is well placed to be at the heart of United’s progress for years to come, and she believes that her time playing abroad has made her more rounded as a player and a person.
With money flowing into the women’s game, she thinks young players may be forced to look abroad for first-team opportunities, but she has no regrets about her own long journey home to Manchester.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” she says. “My time at Liverpool, obviously I got a lot of experience and won the league twice.
“To go over to Italy was unbelievable. You learn things over there that you would never learn over here. You learn things about yourself, you don’t just develop as a player but as a person too.
“I think coming back, it’s done me the world of good, and now it’s really time to kick on and progress.”
With three goals in her first five league games for the club, it is fair to say she is kicking on already; and she could be forgiven for thinking about an international call-up in the not-so-distant future.
Across five youth levels, she has already scored 14 goals in 52 games for England so she is well known to staff in the international set-up.
Her ambition is clear, and though she evidently loved playing in the black-and-white of Juventus, Zelem was keen to return back to English shores to stake a claim for a senior call-up ahead of next year’s World Cup.
“That was quite a big thing actually,” she admits.
“I felt like when I was over there I was sort of hindering myself a little bit because there’s a lot of players to watch in England, never mind having to go to Europe as well.
“So maybe you just go under the radar a little bit, especially with Juventus being a new team and Serie A not being the biggest league in Europe.
“It’s easy to be forgotten about, so to come back and hopefully do well will hopefully improve my chances of being selected.
“Of course I’d love to be involved in the upcoming World Cup squad. Maybe it’s a little bit too soon.
— Katie Zelem (@katiezel) October 17, 2018
“I’m not sure, with United only being a new team and having only been back a few months, I’ll keep working hard but definitely the next Euros [in 2021] is a very big aim for myself.”
By then, Zelem will be 25 and hopefully a key member of a United squad challenging at the very top level of the women’s game.
The ambition of herself and her club burn bright, and there is little to suggest she cannot achieve what she wants.
From the North-West of England to the North-West of Italy and back again, it has taken some time for Zelem to return to the home she had to leave five years ago.
Now she is back, and desperate to prove it was worth the wait.
Image courtesy of Manchester United via Twitter, with thanks.