Manchester City’s Keira Walsh: ‘I Thought: Do I Want to Play Any More?’
England’s World Cup semi-final exit hit hard and the hangover has been lengthy for everyone involved. For Manchester City’s Keira Walsh, being at the sharp end of criticism after a tough tournament, it went even further: the whole experience left her doubting whether she wanted to play football at all.
“I probably underestimated how much attention was going to be on the games,” says Walsh, sitting in the canteen of City’s clean and crisp Academy Stadium. “I’d played in the FA Cup final, Champions League semi-finals, I’ll be fine,” she had thought when players had warned her the pressure would be ramped up. “But I really did struggle with the criticism off the back of it. There were times when I thought: ‘Is this actually for me? Do I want to play football any more?’”
Charged with anchoring the Lionesses midfield, Walsh was heading to France after a domestic cup double with her club, a title challenge and an unbeaten run that held until the final game of the season. She is a phenomenal player to watch, having started her youth football as a right-footed left-back (she’s not sure why) and playing alongside boys, before being encouraged to switch positions while in Blackburn Rovers’ academy. She has been transformed into a player so technically astute that her club manager, Nick Cushing, has said she is the most intelligent he has worked with, though she says he deserves more of the credit for an attention to detail and a “focus on the technical and tactical side so much that technical players thrive under a coach like him”.
It is an eye for the perfect pass, and five years of growing into her defensive midfield role while City earned trophy after trophy, that perhaps pushes you to forget that she is only 22 and also makes the fact she has been left questioning her place in the game really quite crushing.
“I think people forget that it was my first tournament,” she says. “Leah [Williamson], Georgia [Stanway], they’ve all been to tournaments with England youth age groups. I got picked for one, at 15, and I never got picked again. I’ve never really been to anything like the World Cup before and I was in and out of the team up until that point. I didn’t really know what to expect. It was a bit of a shock.
“Because I’ve played and started at Man City for five years I think people do forget that I’m still only 22. Sometimes people are very critical of me, which is fine, I can learn to deal with it, but people do tend to forget that I’ve still got time to improve and this isn’t the finished product by any means.”
She looked a shadow of herself in England’s opening games, but the fact that Phil Neville kept picking her, much to the chagrin of those unfamiliar with her game, showed how valuable she is to the future of England’s midfield.
Where others grew up idolising strikers and superstars, her father encouraged a love of passers of the ball such as David Silva and Sergio Busquets. For club and country, few others can play her role and it meant she barely had a break.
“I think I probably played every single minute except one game last year,” she reflects. “So that did take its toll on me. The fitness side of the game, the physical side, doesn’t come naturally to me so I had to do extras with that as well. I think I was so focused on that, that I didn’t focus on actually nailing my performances down as much as I should have done. It was obviously massively disappointing for me. I didn’t feel like I performed the way that I could have done in all of the games. The criticism in my opinion was deserved, but I’ve struggled with it.”
There was some irony to the fact that the game where she looked most relaxed was in England’s most high-pressure match, their semi-final showdown with the eventual world champions, the United States.
“I think that’s probably because I didn’t put the pressure on myself in that game. I thought: ‘I’m playing against the world No 1 team. I can’t do any more than work hard’.”
The self-doubt still lingers though. “If I’m being honest I’m probably still struggling a bit when I’m at England now. I probably shouldn’t feel this way but I think sometimes, if I play a bad pass I am thinking about what people are going to be saying about me. And I think as a young player that’s not always the easiest thing to have on your mind.”
Since the summer, she has had to rediscover her enjoyment of the game. “I am enjoying it now,” she says. “I’m still facing criticism and I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, I’m not a traditional holding English midfielder, I’m not a tough tackler breaking up play, it’s not my forte. So I’m a bit like Marmite: you either like me or you don’t. I think that’s just something that I’ve got to get over.”
With City second in the Women’s Super League, three points behind Arsenal and one ahead of Chelsea (who have a game in hand) Walsh has slotted back into her pre-World Cup rhythm. “I’m so much more comfortable here,” she says. “Just the way that I go about my performances is different. I, more than anybody, want to emulate the same level of performance with England.
“I don’t really question it while I’m playing for City. I think Nick’s always made me feel so comfortable to the point where I’ve never questioned whether I am good enough to play for him. He does that with most players. He will get around you. At the start the season he just said to me: ‘I’ll support you and I’ll get you through the times when you’re not feeling great.’
“He basically told me that it’s up to me where I want to go in football and how good I want to be. When your manager says that it makes you think: ‘Right, OK, I’m actually sort of half decent at football, I don’t need to stress myself out so much’. So here I’m always relaxed. And I think you can see that in most games that I play. I’m never as rushed or erratic, I kind of just play my own way.”
The Guardian Sport