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Yalla Shoot :Keira Walsh: ‘Everyone’s going to love you or hate you. I had to learn that’ | England women’s football team

Ask quietly who in the England squad is irreplaceable and the likely answer you will get is Keira Walsh. Sarina Wiegman’s defensive midfielder is the increasingly not-so-secret jewel in England’s crown. It was Walsh’s pass that elicited more oohs and aahs than Ella Toone’s sumptuous finish to open the scoring in the final of the Euros against Germany last year and Walsh’s £400,000 move to Barcelona from Manchester City broke the world record for a transfer fee.

Since that move Walsh has won a treble – La Liga, the Supercopa and the Champions League – and lifted the first women’s Finalissima trophy with England. Yet four years ago she almost walked away from football, the heavy toll of the criticism she faced during the 2019 World Cup almost too much to take. Walsh had looked out of sorts in France, like the youngest of rabbits, frozen in the road, caught in the headlights of the first car they have seen.

For those who had watched her across several seasons for Manchester City, there was no doubting she belonged in the England team, but those new to the game, in the stands and the press boxes, questioned Walsh’s ability. Now, she is thriving and going into another World Cup laden with medals and praise that show it.

How will she stop the experience of the 2019 World Cup from infiltrating her experience? “Well, I don’t do social media so much any more,” Walsh says matter-of-factly. “That’s a massive one for me. As much as you say you’re not going to look, you look. And I think when you’re in that headspace, whether it’s good or bad you only click on to the bad comments.

“I’ve just got more confidence in myself now. Everyone’s going to love you or hate you; it’s a game of opinions and I had to learn that. I was lucky at Man City because Nick [Cushing] really liked me and I’d played under coaches that maybe don’t as much and then do again. So, I’ve maybe got more confidence in myself and what I bring. At the Euros I really enjoyed it, stayed in the moment, and hopefully that’s what I’m going to do at the World Cup.”

Keira Walsh of England celebrates after the Euro 2022 final win over Germany
Keira Walsh celebrates Euros glory at Wembley last year, where her celebrated through ball set up England’s opener. Photograph: Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

Walsh has her cheerleaders. Cushing, now the manager of New York City, once said: “I will not hold back: she is up there unrivalled with the most intelligent players I have ever worked with.” When Lucy Bronze was named on the 2022 Ballon d’Or list of the top 10 female players with her England teammate Beth Mead, she posted on Instagram: “Thanks but I don’t deserve this. The best Lionesses player during the Euros was Keira Walsh. Should be the first English name in the list!”

Being appreciated and respected is nice, but being considered one of the best in the world does not come naturally for the 26-year-old. “I’ve always believed in my own ability,” she says. “But to a certain point I’m just a girl from Rochdale. I never thought that I would be in those conversations and winning the Champions League, winning the European Championship.

“I always talk about Nick Cushing but he really instilled that confidence in me and gave me the foundation to go and achieve these things and I don’t believe I would be where I am without him, I genuinely don’t. I’ve always believed in my own ability, but I’ve had a lot of help along the way and been in the right place at the right time – that is really important as well. I joined City when the Super League wasn’t so big and as a young player it was easier to get minutes.”

For Walsh, there is generally a lack of appreciation for the position she plays. “The position in general goes under the radar; look at Patri at Barcelona. It’s the same in the men’s game, too. Lena Oberdorf is probably the only one that does get mentioned. For me, Patri is the best player in the world, and nobody speaks about her. It’s just part and parcel of the position we play. The personality goes with the position, too: we don’t want to be the stars of the show.”

Walsh’s next, but far less extreme, rabbit-in-the-headlights moment came when she took part in her first training session at Barcelona. “The first few training sessions I was like: ‘Yeah, I’m not sure I’m good enough to be here, to be honest.’ It did take me a while. I talk about Patri, Aitana [Bonmatí] a lot but Mariona [Caldentey], when you see the relationships she has with players it is so instinctive. She’s not thinking when she’s playing.

“At first it really did take me some time just to find my confidence. It is such a big club with big players. It took me some time to find the feet. Lots of them have all grown up together playing the Barcelona way. Sometimes in training it’s just so nice to watch; sometimes I’m on the opposition and you can’t help but clap.”

Walsh is having to think faster. “There were times at first where I probably missed opportunities to play forward and find the forward players. Everyone’s constantly on the move. At City they would stand and wait in the pocket whereas at Barcelona they don’t, so you always have to be checking your shoulder, thinking forward, thinking ahead before you’ve even got the ball as to where the player’s going to be. A lot of it is one-, two-touch, not many people are dribbling or taking a lot of touches. It is such fast play but towards the end of the season I kind of got to grips with that a little bit.”

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The frenetic pace of the tiki-taka play didn’t surprise Walsh but “I was surprised at how aggressive they are,” she says. “Everyone always just talks about Spanish or Catalan players being good on the ball, intelligent and being tactically very good. But for me it was the aggressiveness off the ball, the willingness, the wanting to put in all the work possible to get up to the ball and press and the tactical fouls and all of the street smarts.

“In training in the Women’s Super League we don’t have that. Sometimes, for me, the intensity off the ball wasn’t there. Whereas here, as soon as you touch the ball someone’s behind you, they’re kicking your heels, they’re trying to get the ball off you and it forces you to think so much quicker. Even in training, even if it’s just like a fun game of rondos and it’s not serious, the girls will come in and they’re slide tackling.”

Keira Walsh challenges Wolfsburg’s Jill Roord during Barcelona’s Women’s Champions League final win.
Keira Walsh challenges Wolfsburg’s Jill Roord in the Women’s Champions League final. ‘Here, as soon as you touch the ball, someone’s behind you,’ she says. Photograph: Lars Baron/Getty Images

Off the pitch, the mood is friendly. Walsh has not mastered Spanish – “I have two lessons a week and still … terrible. Spanish and Catalan in a northern accent don’t sound great anyway, to be honest” – but that hasn’t stopped her from being taken under the wing of her teammates.

“The girls have honestly been unbelievable with me. From the start they’d still invite me to go for dinner and brunch. Even the ones who can’t speak English still try to speak to me. They understand that my family’s not there, so they always make sure that we’re doing stuff and are always invited.”

They don’t coddle her too much though. “Honestly, they laugh at me for everything,” she says. “My nickname on the team is Ginger, because my hair is orange. I don’t even get called Keira, I just get called Ginger. But it’s nice that they feel comfortable enough to do that, to have that banter and to be able to laugh at each other. I think that’s really important for the team culture. So, yeah, I don’t get offended, I think it’s probably a nice thing.”

Walsh’s first year at Barcelona has exposed her to the best football in Europe, and arguably the world, going into a World Cup. How will England benefit from the new Walsh? “I’ve changed a lot,” she says. “Physically I would say I’m in better shape. I can move around the pitch a lot more, thanks to the demand that they put on, being an option on the ball all the time and seeing the game a little bit differently. At City I got told to stay central and hold that position, whereas at Barcelona, they’ve kind of changed what it means to be a 6 a little bit.

“I just know how to be more available, take a few more risks playing forward and take my first touch forward more looking for those passes. It’s also definitely improved my short game too. I’ve always been able to play the longer passes but maybe have sometimes missed the combinations in central areas and that’ll be key for England, trying to find the likes of Ella Toone and Georgia Stanway in those spaces. It’s going to be really important for me to find those passes. At England, we have such important wingers that having the mixture of both will really benefit.”

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