Wednesday 08 July 2020, 09:24

Bardsley: England should embrace US mentality

  • Karen Bardsley speaks to

  • England keeper reflects on France 2019 and looks towards 2023

  • Mindset, isolation and her role with the Women's Sport Trust also feature

She will be 36 in a few months, has a master’s degree in sports directorship and recently joined the Women’s Sport Trust. But while Karen Bardsley, highly intelligent and “a planner” by nature, might be looking to the future, she is no rush to hang up her gloves.

A year on from impressing at her third FIFA Women’s World Cup™, the England and Manchester City goalkeeper is already setting her sights on a fourth. And she has no intention of being there just to make up the numbers.

That will come as no surprise to anyone who knows her because Bardsley, besides not being your average footballer, is also not your typical Brit. Having been born and raised in the USA, and begun her sporting career in California, she shares the mentality that has underpinned USA’s world-conquering women’s team’s ongoing success.

Bardsley shared her views on that and much more with as she stepped up her comeback from the hamstring injury that, cruelly, forced her out of a showdown with the US at France 2019. Karen, how have you been coping during the COVID-19 lockdown period? Karen Bardsley: It has been frustrating because I was just getting back on the pitch, getting closer to integration again [when lockdown was announced]. I was running, doing athletic sessions and working with the goalkeeping coaches, so it was really ramping up and I was looking forward to joining in with the girls once they came back from international duty. But I think it’s been tough for everyone. We’re innately social creatures, so to go into a period of isolation like that goes completely against our nature.

The biggest frustration I had was the uncertainty because I’d had these goals: of getting back for City, then aiming for the Olympics. But when the Olympics and the EURO got pushed back, I found that losing those short-to-medium term targets put me in a bit of funk and it took me a while to get out of that. I lost that intrinsic motivation that I normally have. It also made me realise the power of being in a team sport because, when you’re down, there’s normally always someone there to pick you up or to provide some positive energy you can feed off. I definitely missed that during lockdown, and I feel I’ll appreciate it all the more going forward.

You’ve had injuries, and bad injuries, before. How has this one compared in terms of your physical and mental recovery? This is the first significant soft tissue injury I’ve had, so it’s been quite different in some ways. If I have a broken bone, I know the process for working my way back and allowing it to heal a lot better. Mentally? Well, there’s never a good time to get injured but I do feel a lot of my injuries have come at points in my career when I’ve been really on top of my game. That’s been really frustrating because I feel it’s prevented me at times from showing everyone what I’m really capable of doing. The injury in France really hurt because England-USA was such a huge match, and a really big one for me personally too. It was emotional missing out, especially as I felt I could have made a difference. That’s something I’ve struggled to get over.

Is frustration your prevailing emotion when you look back on France 2019? No, not at all. It was obviously disappointing the way it ended, for me and for the team. But I actually look back on France, and all the World Cups I’ve played in, very fondly. And I was proud of my performances. There were times when I definitely kept the team in matches, and I think the fact I got hurt prevented me receiving the accolades that, to my mind at least, I deserved. I really feel that I didn’t put a foot wrong over there.

Given the feelgood factor in the build-up to the tournament – winning the SheBelieves Cup, openly stating you were going to France to win the trophy – do you see it as an opportunity missed for England? I’m not sure I would phrase it that way. I think we put our best foot forward and ultimately came up just short. In some respects I think the 2015 semi-final was more of an opportunity missed, and yet in Canada we came away with a medal and made a lot of history. Emotionally, we were all really disappointed as we all felt we could win the tournament given the momentum we had. But although we stumbled, I think it’s really important to look back on the positives from the tournament – and there were a lot of them – and the way we had played going into it.

There are big changes coming for club and country, with Manchester City appointing Gareth Taylor and England seeking a successor to Phil Neville. What are your hopes for the direction that both teams will take under new coaches? The most important thing for me is to have managers that the players can learn from and who will challenge us - not only on the pitch, but as people too. It’s about how we grow as a team and believe in our abilities a bit more, which is something that we’re still becoming comfortable with in England. Everyone should have goals and, while you might not always reach them, I think it’s good to stand up and say ‘This is what I want to do and this is the level I want to reach’.

Having grown up in an American sporting background, is that unabashed self-assurance and determination to set high goals – which the USWNT show in abundance – one of the key things that sets them apart? Culturally, Brits have tended to prize self-deprecation and view such confidence as brash. But is it something they need to embrace? I think so, yeah! [Laughs] You’ve hit the nail on the head with Brits and self-deprecation: the humour, the culture, all lean towards that. But in some ways I feel it holds us back. Thinking back to when I was in the US, if you approach someone and say ‘I want to do this’, you’ll almost certainly be met with equal optimism. It will be like, ‘Yeah, you can do that! Let’s go and make it happen.’ In Europe, and Britain in particular, you’ll probably hear ‘Are you sure? Have you thought about this?’ And that will be followed by a list of barriers and limitations and, suddenly, you’re doubting yourself and wondering if you’re better to aim a bit lower. My feeling is that the more positive way of looking at things is so much more exciting and motivating, and that we should embrace that kind of outlook.

As a senior player, have you tried to get the England team thinking a little more like Americans? Sometimes I do it without realising it, and people take the mickey out of me all the time because I’m so optimistic in the way I look at things! But last year one of my team-mates said to me, ‘We really gave you a hard time. Now we get it’. It’s only taken 15 years, but we’re getting there!

Karen Bardsley of England celebrates with the medal after the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 Third Place Play-off match between Germany and England.

As women’s football begins to return from the COVID shutdown, how important is it that the momentum built up over recent years is maintained? It’s so, so important. I keep seeing articles saying that women’s sport is going to suffer most because of this COVID situation and I just refuse to accept that. To me, that kind of thing can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I see it as our responsibility to put out the right messages, challenge the negativity, highlight the successes and keep pushing things forward. I’m really sceptical about the basis for these claims that women’s sport will be hardest hit. But either way, we all have a responsibility to be aggressive in making sure that’s not the case.

You’ve become involved in the Women’s Sport Trust and are helping front their ‘Unlocked’ campaign, which pairs elite sportswomen with leading figures from business, sport and the media. Can you tell us a bit about that? The Women’s Sport Trust thing has been so good for me, and I’m learning so much. I’m really inspired by what they do and they’ve been so good at organising webinars, courses and masterclasses that have got us together a couple of times a week during the COVID period. It’s all helping us upskill ourselves and become exposes to what the real world is like in terms of marketing, vision and aligning yourself to things that really matter to you. We’ve been partnered with activators and mentors at the elite level of sport and are being exposed to really great ideas. I find it all really, really inspiring because everyone involved is extremely passionate about changing women’s sport for the better and making sure that young girls can aspire to a future in football, athletics or whatever they want to do.

What about your future? Is it too early to ask when you might stop playing and what your plans are beyond that? No, it’s not too early - I’m a planner! I’m always trying to think of every single permutation, and I think that comes from growing up in a time when there was so little certainty in women’s football. Like any professional, I want to play for as long as I possibly can. But because I’ve had a lot of injuries, I’ve always looked around for other strings I can add to my bow. I do like to set myself challenges and goals and, when people tell me I can’t do something, that just motivates me all the more. My goal right now is to be in the England squad for the Olympics, the EURO and the 2023 World Cup. It might not happen. But if I don’t have those kind of goals, my feeling is that I might as well just retire now.

Karen Bardsley of Manchester City celebrates during the Women's FA Cup Final match between Manchester City Women and West Ham United.