Interview: Man Utd are “no longer the underdogs” admits forward ahead of new WSL season
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This time last year, Nikita Parris was coming off the back of a frustrating season at Arsenal. Game time wasn’t as frequent as she would have liked and, for the first time in a number of years, trophies had evaded her.
A summer signing from French giants Lyon, she arrived back in England as one of Europe’s most potent attacking threats but, as sometimes happens, things just hadn’t quite worked out for Parris in the red of Arsenal. Fast forward to the summer of 2023 and Parris has moved onto a new shade of red, that of Manchester United, and her outlook couldn’t be more positive.
“As you mature in football, you realise how much balance is needed to be able to perform at your best”, said the forward.
“For me, it was all about balance in my life. Not just football but my off the pitch life with family and friends. I thought I’d get home more when I went to London I would be closer to home but I actually didn’t get home much until the end of the season”, noted the forward, adding: "I can see my family as regularly as I want to (at Manchester United)”.
Working with Marc Skinner
It wasn’t just home comforts that have changed the 29-year-old’s outlook though, with her boss Marc Skinner heralded by the 71 cap Lioness as one of the key reasons for seeing a Nikita Parris fans are much more accustomed to.
“It is about the individual focus he put on me. When I first came into Manchester United, he gave me clear and concise information of what he wanted me to deliver each and every training session and game”, said the Liverpool-born forward.
“That has helped me understand exactly what is expected of me as Nikita Parris, of me as a winger, me as a centre forward. I know my role and responsibility - he is very clear on that. If I ever drop my standards, he lets me know and that honesty is what helps build a relationship and trust.”
Parris was a key component in United’s best ever WSL finish and their run to an FA Cup final, and while they were unable to get that much wanted trophy over the line, qualification for the UEFA Women’s Champions League represented another major stride for the club.
Man Utd's Champions League debut
Having won the Champions League herself, Parris is clear on what it will require to succeed in Europe’s elite competition - but even more excited for the journey.
"As an individual first of all, getting yourself in the best possible mindset and best possible shape to be prepared for the season - but this season will be different to last because we are no longer the underdogs. Teams now see us as a threat and we've shown we can compete right until the end. There's no longer getting to Christmas in the top positions and then falling off. As a team, we have to concentrate on consistency and not look to far ahead. We have to take it game by game."
"I like a challenge - and it is going to be a challenge. European football is hard, we've see the depth of quality in each and every team increase over the years. The objective last season was Champions League football, now we've attained that it is about staying in the Champions League and getting into the group stage. Right now we have to focus on getting to the group stage."
And the progress of Manchester United has almost mirrored that of the league itself, which has exploded over the past year in England due to the success of the Lionesses at last year’s European Championship.
Coming off the bench in the final over Germany, Parris played her own part in that Euro 2022 victory and admits her delight that young girls and boys can now see that there’s an opportunity for women to achieve at the highest level of sport.
Giving back to the community
"The game has come a long way. Everyone will talk about last summer, but there was a long road to that moment. Many ups and downs. We've consistently got to the semi finals and quarter finals but in 2022 we got it over the line and it was a step in right direction for the sport. We needed to show people and young players that there's a pathway to the top and to success.
"At the start of my football, I wanted to make sure I was in the best possible shape to compete at the top level of the English game, then it was about getting in the national team, staying there and winning trophies - it still is that. But off the pitch, I love giving back to the community and showing young girls there are many ways to success. Sometimes in football, sometimes in whatever path you choose. It is about hard work and resilience - it isn't always easy.
"Back in Toxteth, I've created a pitch and I'm involved with the community events. Giving back is not just giving something, it is about giving time and showing you care - and I care a lot. McDonalds are putting on free football seasons for people between the ages of 5 and 11. When I was that age you didn't get that opportunity - and there's are the opportunities I've been talked about. People talk about that in elite sport but we need to deal with grassroots sport because that is where the majority of players are coming from.
"If we are putting our efforts into grassroots sports and kids having fun then, hopefully, they will continue wanting to have that fun and it will take them into the elite levels. But first let's introduce them to the game, show them how fun it can be and how social it can be. There's 250,000 sessions being put on by McDonalds this year - that's a lot of kids coming through the door through these sessions.”