“It’s unbelievable. I can’t even put into words what it means to play 200 appearances for the Club I’ve always supported. I’m getting quite emotional actually and I don’t tend to get like that, but especially for my family, it’s such a nice moment.”
Donning her shinpads and lacing up her boots in the summer of 2014, adrenaline buzzing through her veins, Keira Walsh readied herself for the moment she’d always dreamed of.
Sporting her Blackburn Rovers training kit, the lifelong City fan stepped onto the training pitches in Manchester alongside dozens of other hopeful girls, eager to showcase their talents to Nick Cushing and his backroom staff in a bid to pursue their ambitions of playing professional football.
True Blue through and through, it was a moment that meant a lot to Walsh and her family, and she was keen to impress. Tutored by her father, encouraged by her mother and cherishing a deep love for the Club, she shone – her talents were immediately evident for all to see – and so, a star was born.
Looking back on that momentous day, the midfield starlet, who had been set to join established FA Women’s Super League side Everton, had been nudged by her mum to attend City’s trials and what an inspired decision it turned out to be.
Today, Walsh stands as our second-highest appearance maker, having played her 200th game for her beloved team. Adored for her remarkable technical ability, leadership and of course, unwavering City fandom, she is one of the most highly respected players in the game and busiest bees in the City hive.
Those were the traits that stood her out above the rest and so impressive was her display during that trial, Cushing told Head of Women’s Football Gavin Makel that the teenager should be fast-tracked straight to the first-team, as the former manager explains.
“Keira’s story is really unique,” Cushing reflects. “She’d never played Development football and we didn’t scout her – she came across willingly to an open trial from Blackburn’s Academy in her Blackburn kit with her mum and joined in with the other 100 players that came.
“We spotted her really quickly – we saw the talent and the potential. I said: 'She needs to be in our first-team – never mind the Development Squad!' and six days later, she was playing in the first-team, making her debut against Notts County!”
Makel agrees: “In particular, it was her technical ability – her range of passing – and her game intelligence is outstanding. It’s up there with the very best. We automatically saw her as someone who could play in the holding midfield role and Nick put that trust in her.
“Looking back to the Continental Cup Final in 2014, she was up against Kelly Smith, who was arguably the best player England has produced, and she didn’t look out of place at all. There aren’t many players in the women’s game who can play in that role the way she is able to – to receive the ball in tight areas and come out of it, to go into the seven, 11 or in off the eight and 10… She’s got that game understanding and it’s worth its weight in gold because not every player has that.
“She’s worked on her game and people forget she’s still young – she’s 24 and has got more to learn – but you can see that every year, she kicks on even more.”
The performance in the 2014 Conti Cup Final saw Walsh make a name for herself as one of the country's brightest young talents, and marked the first of eight pieces of silverware the childhood Blue has lifted for her Club: four league cups, three FA Cups and a league title – with a goal in the FA Cup Final at Wembley a stand-out, fairytale moment.
Karen Bardsley, also one of our longest-serving players, asserts Walsh's rise to stardom is all the more impressive, given her tender years.
“I can remember when we were at Platt Lane and then first moved to the City Football Academy,” she recollects.
“She came in one day from St Bede's College wearing these little frilly white socks with her school uniform. In my head, I was thinking: ‘Wow, she's so young!’ and then she goes and marks Kelly Smith out of the game in the Conti Cup Final...
“She was a real part of our success that year and has been ever since. It's been great to see her make that position her own and to achieve 200 appearances at a Club you support, especially in this day and age is no easy feat.”
Walsh truly has gone from strength to strength and has made a name for herself as one of the most important players for both Club and country – becoming one of the first names on the team-sheet for City and for England. Ever keen to shy away from the spotlight, she is regarded as a real ‘grafter’ – a tireless, selfless hard worker, who lights the way for others to shine. For current City boss Gareth Taylor, it’s a role that is often underappreciated.
“That position is a crucial position within our team,” he declares. “Keira has been that consistent body for us in that respect and she’s a real specialist in what she does. She’s really good on the ball and she’s able to play those defence-splitting passes.
“She’s ‘the assister of the assister,’ which is a role that often gets overlooked, although it’s really key for players in more advanced positions – Keira gives them their supply. Defensively, she’s also very good without the ball and she’s improved a lot in those areas. She’s a really important player for us and had been before my time.”
Modest, centred and down-to-earth, Walsh dislikes nothing more than self-admiration – losing aside! Asked of her best qualities, she bristles… but even she cannot deny her exceptional skills. One of those stand-out attributes: her leadership. Though quiet away from the pitch, she makes herself heard when she crosses the white line and is very comfortable driving standards, providing encouragement but also initiating difficult conversations where others would struggle, when things do not meet her high expectations.
“I don’t really like to talk about myself!” she concedes. “It makes me uncomfortable but I suppose one of my best things is my range of passing, and then the way I see the game tactically, especially in possession. I like to solve the pictures and try to work out how to break the press. That’s probably my favourite part of the game – when a team is pressing and we kill that press. That’s something I enjoy, seeing opposition nines and 10s struggling!
“Under Gareth, I’ve learned not to run around as much and to be more intelligent. He's very astute when it comes to game management – if you run around unnecessarily, you’re probably getting dragged off! – and I can see now how the small details make a difference.
"If you watch us play out from the back, there are so many small movements – ones that not many people notice. Getting on the ball, especially for me when I’m being marked in the number six position, and taking one step to the side, following that run, makes such a difference to my game and other positions. His details are so good and you can see it all coming together.
“I like to talk through the game. Even when I was a young player, I was still quite vocal. That’s something that playing alongside Jill Scott brought out of me. We complement each other quite well: she’s very positive whereas I’m comfortable that if something needs to be said, I’ll say it. We balance each other out and she told me to be myself, which is something I’ve tried to do.
“Playing for City as a City fan, sometimes the passion just comes out. I can’t help it! The girls look at me sometimes and say: ‘Chill out, we’re winning!’ but I just want everything to be right. Against Arsenal, I actually lost my voice shouting so much but it’s just my way of helping the team in any way I can.
“In terms of being competitive, I’m probably still very similar to how I was when I was young!”
Makel concurs: “Maybe in the Derby games, it shines through more than others but she’d want to win a game of tiddlywinks! She’s just that type of person and player – she wants to win football matches, whoever we’re playing.
“She has high standards and expectations and she’s had to learn how to communicate them but she’s grown so much and we’re so fortunate to have her at this Club. It’s great that she’s a City fan, alongside Esme Morgan and Jess Park – it’s the same as having Phil Foden on the men’s side as well.”
Alongside Morgan and Park, Walsh grew up idolising the mercurial David Silva and powerhouse Yaya Toure, modelling her game on their unique and extraordinary talents. As a result, the midfield engine’s game combines fleet-footed flair, exceptional vision, an unrivalled passing range and a tireless motor.
Affectionately known as the ‘Nutmeg Queen’ by her teammates, her ability to trick her way out of tight spaces is astonishing – certainly Silva-esque, just like her ability to see things others cannot.
Watching on as a youngster in the Academy, those qualities opened the eyes of fellow lifelong Blue Morgan – a lesson on what it takes to become a great.
“Being injured this season, I’ve been watching a lot of matches from the stands,” the 21-year-old declares. “When you’re playing, you try to think ahead of what pass is best to make but then Keira makes a pass you didn’t even think of, and you ask yourself:
“‘How on earth did she see that?! I can see a full pitch camera view and I didn’t see that, and she's in the moment but she did. It’s a joke!’
“When I was a fan and when I was watching in the Academy, I always said that she just did the basics so well – receiving the ball, moving it on… She’s also very good defensively and she doesn’t get enough credit for that because she wins the ball back a lot.
“The year we changed formation, she was doing it all – running games on her own – and that was the point where people were thinking: ‘Woah, we knew she was good but wow, she’s one of the best in the world at that position!’”
That tactical switch saw Walsh’s defensive work shared as part of a 4-2-2-2 formation, allowing the midfielder more freedom and the opportunity to contribute more at the sharp end of the pitch, showcasing her creative qualities. While she has now reverted back to the solitary defensive midfield role, Walsh believes the change propelled her game to new heights
“When I played in the box, it added a dimension I wasn’t sure I was capable of,” she recalls. “Being further up the pitch, I was contributing to assists and having more shots, although not many more goals! It showed I was physically capable of doing it and that was an important thing for me.
“It helped me at England as well with formations not always being the same so doing that and playing in the Champions League took my game to the next level and of course, it’s easy when Caz Weir is playing next to you!”
Although she is only 24, Walsh is now regarded as one of the leaders within the squad, setting an example for younger players. A wise head on young shoulders, she has been tipped for captaincy in the future and is respected by all of her peers.
While she takes her role on the pitch very seriously, she is also a positive influence in the dressing room and has formed a mischievous partnership with fellow joker Georgia Stanway. For three-time Young Player of the Year Lauren Hemp, it's the perfect blend.
“When you think of Manchester City, you think of players like Keira,” she says. “People who have been around the Club and have experienced so much. She's won many titles with this Club and stand-out players like that are the reason why City are so successful.
“Technically, she's amazing and she really controls the midfield. All of the play comes through her and she's one of the best technical players we have in the team but she's also a great character off it – one of the louder ones! She's a great person to have around the changing room and she's helped me so much since I got here. She's helped me to push myself and become a better player, and she's a great asset to this team.”
England's record goalscorer Ellen White was equally complimentary in her praise for her compatriot, adding she cannot wait to discover what Walsh will go on to accomplish.
“For someone who is so young, what she's achieved is phenomenal,” the striker hails.
“In my opinion, she's one of the best number sixes in the world in women's football and I'm super proud to be her teammate for England and for City.
“There are amazing things to come from her. She's an incredible talent with her vision, technical ability and she has alright banter! Even years ago, she had that confidence and belief in herself to take the ball on when she was surrounded by two or three people, and she still kept possession, and she can see a pass no-one else can.
“She's a major cog in the way we run and the way our philosophy works, and I know she knows that. Hopefully, there's so much more to come.”
Having worked his way through the City Football Group at various coaching levels, former boss Cushing now resides in America, as the Assistant Manager of New York City FC. Walsh’s rise to the top marks one of his many success stories and while the former City manager has worked with many of City’s Academy graduates in the men's and women's game, he maintains Walsh is the most intelligent footballer he has ever worked with.
“To have reached 200 games is an incredible achievement and it’s one she deserves,” he adds. “She has an incredible talent, she’s also a great person with an exceptional work ethic. She trains exactly like she will have when she was a youngster and she’ll continue to improve, playing in World Cups and Euros.
“Still now, she is the most intelligent player I’ve worked with. Her ability to manage the game and play the game, solving problems from that position in the number six role is really key. She’s incredible and always has been.”
Ever humble, Walsh blushed at the compliment but says she will be forever grateful to Cushing for his faith in her.
“I’ll take that!” she laughs. “I’m not sure whether he’s just saying that because I’ve got the same colour hair as his daughter but when I was younger, I just tried to soak everything in. Tactically, he was unbelievable – there was nothing he didn’t see. I play the way I play because of him and he took my game to the next level. Like me, he’s not an emotional person and we’ve never had the conversation but he gave me the career I’ve had today.”
It is only right that the final word should fall to our #24.
“I'm just really happy to have made my 200th appearance for the Club,” she concludes. “Maybe it would have been more fitting if it came against United(!) but it's nice to do it in a home fixture.
“I can't thank the Club enough for what they've done for me. Having a manager like Nick at such a young age was such an unbelievable thing – he gave me confidence I don't think I would have got anywhere else by putting such faith in me. As a 17-year-old kid, I rocked up and then started in the Conti Cup Final!
“I'm just grateful to everyone. I remember missing a lot of a season through injury and there being a contract waiting for me; then when I came back, I went straight back into the team. Especially being a City fan, there isn't much more I can say – just that I hope I can continue to kick on.”
Should she continue at her current trajectory, the sky is the limit for our buzzing midfield bee.
WonderWalsh: The 'Kei' to City's success.
Here's to the next 200!
By Caroline Oatway