You don’t have to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. But Keira Walsh felt like she had to. Throwing in the towel for England seemed like the only way out.
Battling to cope with the constant stream of criticism on social media and tussling with a tough internal dialogue of her own, the Manchester City midfielder was left questioning whether she was really cut out for the international spotlight.
Instead she looked on with envy at those players who had featured less regularly in England’s World Cup campaign last summer, her first major tournament with the Lionesses since making her senior debut in November 2017.
Keira Walsh pictured in England training ahead of the SheBelieves Cup, which starts this week
The midfielder, pictured with England coach Phil Neville, said she was unable to fully enjoy her first experience of a World Cup last year because of the negativity she faced on social media
‘There were definitely times in the World Cup when I didn’t want to play. I knew every time I stepped onto the pitch that somebody was going to be saying something negative about me or the way I played,’ says Walsh.
‘Georgia Stanway and Leah Williamson were upset that they weren’t playing as much as they wanted to. But I told them, “Enjoy it while it lasts, at least you’ve been able to enjoy your first World Cup because I couldn’t…”
Having won six major trophies with Manchester City and earned 26 senior appearances for England, many mistakenly assume the midfielder has been involved at the top of the women’s game longer than her age implies.
She’s still only 22. The increased level of attention and scrutiny means many of the players in Phil Neville’s young squad need to be wise beyond their years.
Walsh says: ‘Footballers are held to a higher expectation where they can’t have an off day, a day where they don’t feel great. They’ve either got to play well or they are getting slated. I think a lot of people forget that players can have stuff going on.
Walsh in the thick of the celebrations as England defeat Norway at last year’s World Cup
The midfielder celebrates with Lucy Bronze during the 3-0 quarter-final win in Le Havre
‘But ultimately, I am a professional footballer, so I have to overcome that hurdle. I have to take it in my stride,’ adds the tenacious midfielder, who is considered one of the best in England.
Six months on, she is accepting she is her own worst critic and is seemingly making peace with that. But the life-long City fan, born in nearby Rochdale, says she’s still some way off being able to earn the praise of her dad.
‘I don’t think my dad has ever told me I played well,’ says Walsh with a smile, as she recalls ‘sitting up in the heavens’ at the Etihad Stadium with him prior to signing for the club from Blackburn Rovers in June 2015.
‘I’d have to play like David Silva for him to say that. He is the only player he ever talks about,’ she laughs, admitting it’s a great way of keeping her grounded.
But Walsh is returning to the Lionesses’ fold with renewed enthusiasm this weekend after being named in Neville’s 23-player squad for the forthcoming SheBelieves Cup campaign.
Whilst making her mark against two-time World Champions USA – before facing Japan and Spain – might go some way to earning her dad’s plaudits, Walsh admits the Lionesses are returning stateside with a point to prove, despite arriving with the trophy under their arm.
Walsh takes a break from duties with Manchester City to help England defend the trophy
Walsh shields the ball from Chelsea’s Ji So-yun during last week’s WSL fixture in Manchester
Since winning the annual invitational tournament this time last year – beating Brazil, drawing with hosts USA and thumping Japan – after leaving the World Cup empty handed, plus a string of performances deemed ‘unacceptable’ by Neville, England are eager to wipe the slate clean and restate their ambitions on the international stage.
‘We’re not used to going into a tournament as champions, but if we can go to the SheBelieves Cup and put in a performance against the best team in the world, after people perceive we have not been doing so well, it definitely will show people that we mean business this year,’ says Walsh, ahead of flying to Orlando with the team on Sunday.
‘I think if we were the finished product before Christmas, like everyone was wanting us to be, I don’t think we would have been the finished product at the Euros in two-years-time.’
Since the 2-1 defeat to USA in the 2019 World Cup semi-final in Lyon, Neville has persuaded Dawn Scott, the United States high-performance coach – considered somewhat of a guru in her field – to join his ranks.
The England squad celebrate winning the SheBelieves Cup in Tampa, Florida last year
Neville will be hoping for more success as England take on the United States, Japan and Spain
Despite the Newcastle-born expert only taking up the role in November, Walsh says she’s already making an impact.
‘It’s not just about how fast you can run and how far you can run. It’s about everything. And that’s something that [Dawn] has spoken about with the girls.
‘She said the USA players are footballers 24/7, not just when they’re on the training pitch or in camp. I think there is something a lot of us can take away from that,’ says Walsh, admitting the physical side of the game doesn’t come naturally to her and therefore Scott’s expertise has been invaluable.
‘Even Lucy Bronze knows there’s still areas that she can improve on physically and she’s probably unmatched in the women’s game. If Dawn is saying that to Lucy then I think that sort of sets the tone for the rest of us.’
The once unsettled midfielder, who had her transfer request along with bids from Lyon and Atletico Madrid turned down by City in the summer, has since signed a new three-year deal, and heads into the international break on the back of big performances against league title rivals Arsenal and Chelsea.
‘I’ve really tried to show people what I am about and what I am capable of, because I know that people have doubted me. I think it’s important to use that as motivation and kick on.
‘It will be a great start to the year if we win the SheBelieves Cup, but ultimately, that’s not going to get us the gold medal at the Euros and that’s what we want.’