‘The best football brain’: England’s Keira Walsh is here to play

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The Guardian

Keira Walsh looks slightly embarrassed, uneasy even, whenever London’s National Gallery is mentioned. As part of an advertising campaign designed to coincide with Euro 2022, a giant image of England’s playmaker has recently been projected on to that landmark’s facade at nightfall, illuminating the building.

Given that Walsh is so often the three-dimensional player who switches the lights on for England it seems throughly appropriate that the installation is accompanied by the messages “You’ve never seen an artist like this” and “She uses the pitch as a canvas for some of the most striking footwork”.

Although a big part of Walsh’s job for England and Manchester City is destructive, her role is about more than merely breaking up play and serving as a screen for England’s defence. She is adept at interrupting opposition passing moves before unleashing the sort of defence-splitting passes that change games.

Anything but a stereotypical midfield enforcer, the 25-year-old knows precisely how, and when, to put her foot in, but prefers to rely on positional sense and slick interceptions rather than crunching tackles and physical aggression.

Accordingly her England and City teammate Jill Scott, believes a woman who plays the game with her head as much as her feet is “the best holding midfielder in the world” when it comes to “vision and intelligence”. There seems little doubt Walsh will be integral to the Lionesses’ chances of beating Sweden in Tuesday’s Euro 2022 semi-final at Bramall Lane.

Walsh’s interpretation of her role derives in part from a long-standing fixation with Spanish attacking midfielders. At primary schoolin Rochdale, she caused consternation in her Manchester City supporting family by suddenly declaring an allegiance to Arsenal, and Cesc Fàbregas in particular. For a child who had named her pet goldfish Nicolas Anelka and Shaun Goater in honour of the two City strikers, it proved a disturbing conversion.

Keira Walsh is not afraid to call teammates out on the pitch if she feels they are not doing their jobs. Photograph: Charlotte Tattersall/UEFA/Getty Images

“It upset my Dad but, to be fair, he got me an Arsenal shirt,” says a player whose subsequent re-conversion to the City cause was cemented when she first clapped eyes on David Silva weaving his magic across the Etihad Stadium’s pitch.

Silva remains her idol but, as a footballer, Walsh has more in common with Fernando Redondo, the former Real Madrid and Argentina defensive midfielder, and another of her heroes, Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets. Like that pair she excels at pick-pocketing the ball from opponents, dictating the tempo and using her passing range to link and switch play.

The former City manager, Nick Cushing, who signed her from Blackburn’s academy and is now in interim charge of New York City in the MLS, says she has possibly the “best football brain” of any player he has coached.

It is clear her initial incarnation as a right footed left-back in Blackburn’s academy did Walsh no harm. By then she was heeding her father’s advice and spending endless hours watching football on television, studying players’ movement and teams’ shape.

“I think that’s how I’m able to see the game the way I do,” she says. “Some of the other England girls spend time doing their hair and make up before breakfast but, once we’re in to the training facility, I don’t care too much what I look like,” says Walsh. “I’m just there to play football.”

Although she likes nothing better than heading into central Manchester on days offs and spending money on designer clothes and shoes, Walsh’s innate shyness has often made her reluctant to join fellow Lionesses in posing for glossy magazine photoshoots. This self-effacing side to her character explains not only that reluctance to discuss those nocturnal appearances at the National Gallery but an ambivalent attitude towards social media.

Keira Walsh, right, celebrates with Georgia Stanway after the extra-time victory over Spain in the quarter-finals. Photograph: Lynne Cameron/The FA/Getty Images

It is an understatement to say Walsh was cut to the quick by criticism, largely on Twitter, of some of her performances during England’s run to the semi-finals at the 2019 World Cup in France. “I really did struggle with it,” she says. “There were even times when I thought is this actually for me; do I want to play football any more?”

Since then she has matured and toughened up. “I’ve done a lot of work with psychologists,” she says. “That’s definitely helped my confidence and added something extra to my game.”

It has also amplified yet another contradiction in Walsh’s make up: on the field her natural reserve evaporates and she finds a strong voice. “I’m quite vocal,” acknowledges a player tipped to eventually succeed Steph Houghton as City’s captain. “I pride myself on high standards and I’ve never had a problem telling people if something hasn’t been good enough.

“I’m also probably a little different to some other players who tend to focus on the positives. If something needs to be said I’m more than happy to say it; I’ll havethose difficult conversations. If we want to win things, we can’t be too soft with each other.”

July 23, 2022 at 10:19PM Louise Taylor

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