Case for defence

Boost for Ireland as United defender Mannion returns from latest injury lay-off

Aoife Mannion will be hoping to add to her two Ireland caps in 2024.

THE SMILE ON Aoife Mannion’s face as she returned from injury said it all.

The Republic of Ireland defender was only on the pitch very briefly in Manchester United’s 3-1 win over Southampton in the FA Cup yesterday, but it’s an occasion she will have cherished.

“A sight that has been months of hard work in the making,” Mannion, who was a 94th-minute substitute, wrote on Instagram alongside this picture:

“Been a while,” she added on X; nine months, to be exact.

Her last appearance for the United first-team was as a sub in last May’s FA Cup final defeat to Chelsea at Wembley Stadium. Shortly after that, she suffered a knee setback, which ruled her out of the World Cup, and a quad tear sidelined her from September.

Mannion has endured a difficult few years with injury. She suffered her first ACL blow while at Manchester City in October 2019, and was out for 16 months.

Just under a year after returning, the injury reoccured. On the books of Man United at this stage, she tore her cruciate ligament in her right knee once again and it was back to the drawing board.

After another 11 months out of action, Mannion returned in January 2023. The following month, she made her Ireland debut in a friendly draw with China PR in Spain.

The English-born centre-back impressed from the off, immediately putting herself in contention for Vera Pauw’s World Cup squad. Her minutes were managed as she returned to full fitness, and she made a big impression again in a friendly defeat to USA in April.

All seemed to be going to plan as she racked up some appearances for Man United as the end of the season neared, but a tweak to her medial collateral ligament in training ultimately derailed her World Cup dream.

United were hopeful about Mannion’s availability initially but Pauw later revealed that she had “zero chance” of making the squad as “time ran out”.

The 28-year-old travelled to Australia as a fan and documented her recovery Down Under, boosted by a contract extension at United.

But yesterday was her first appearance of the season after a longer-than-expected lay-off with a quad tear.

aoife-mannion Mannion on her Ireland debut last February. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s nice to welcome Aoife back,” manager Marc Skinner said last week ahead of her return.

“She’s played a couple of U21 games now and got the minutes in her legs. We still have to build up slowly and carefully.”

That will be key with Ireland, too.

Eileen Gleeson is due to name her squad for an upcoming double-header of friendlies against Italy and Wales this week. It’s unlikely Mannion will be included, but it is a major boost that she is back in the mix.

A tenacious, ball playing centre-half, she could be a key player in European Championship qualification later this year.

Gleeson stuck with a back three of Louise Quinn, Diane Caldwell and Caitlin Hayes — the latter another new recruit — for most of the Nations League campaign, but Mannion could shake that up.

There’s no shortage of competition in defence, with Hayley Nolan and Jessie Stapleton among other options.

Louise Quinn is currently out with a dislocated shoulder, so an opening has arisen for the coming weeks.

The injury list is thankfully much shorter than the autumn time, with Niamh Fahey, Leanne Kiernan, Jess Ziu and Megan Campbell among the big names back playing regularly.

Another centre-back, Claire Walsh, also returned to action for Glasgow City yesterday. 

Quinn’s Birmingham City team-mate Lily Agg is also currently nursing a knock, while Tara O’Hanlon is on the comeback trail from a significant hamstring injury after her January move to Manchester City. The 18-year-old left-sided star will be another big addition for Ireland when fully-fit

O’Hanlon, a 2023 league winner with Peamount United, has a big future ahead. Ten years her senior, Mannion still has some way to go.

There’s lost time to be made up for, with her two Ireland caps waiting to be added to. Staying injury free is crucial through a big 2024. That she is somewhat back in the mix is a major positive for now.

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