A dream in my heart
‘We dream of playing in the shirt. Today, God chose you. Play like we dream.’
It’s the wish of every football fan – to don their Club colours, walk out onto the hallowed turf and play the beautiful game for their beloved team, in front of their fellow fervent supporters.
It’s a fantasy realised by few but for those who do achieve their ambition of representing their childhood Club, the experience is something that cannot be replicated in any other aspect of life.
One woman currently living that dream is Keira Walsh.
Rochdale born and bred, the 23-year-old (celebrating her birthday today) is Mancunian through and through, with Blue blood running through her veins: a lifelong City fan.
The midfielder first stepped out as a first-team star for the Club she adores in 2014 aged just 17 and following in the footsteps of her heroes – inspired, she explains, from years of watching her City idols with her fanatical and incredibly perceptive father.
Although they may not have realised to what extent at the time, both of her parents in fact, would play crucial roles in shaping Walsh’s career journey with the midfielder now regarded as one of the most technically gifted and consistent midfielders in the English game.
Having experienced the highs and lows of City fandom – the agony and the ecstasy, the ‘character-building’ and the camaraderie – Walsh knows exactly what it means to support City but so deep does her affiliation run, the midfield maestro admits her passion has occasionally affected her performance with emotions running high and love overcoming logic – evident with contrasting fortunes in her first two Manchester Derbies.
“Growing up, I was just obsessed with Man City,” she recalls. “I don’t really know where the City connection came from. My grandad supports Liverpool and on my mum’s side, my uncle supports Burnley. I guess City were just the local team for my dad – he just picked them and started supporting them and it’s just gone on from there. Because my dad is a massive Blue, my mum had to go with City and she would say she’s a City fan.
“I even had two goldfish called Shaun Goater and Nicolas Anelka and when I look back on all of the pictures of me in my City kits, I remember that whenever the new kit came out, I made my mum wait outside the Store at 8am and run inside when it opened. I had the home and away kit every season and I even had the goalkeeper kit with Kasper Schmeichel on the back of one because my dad told me he’d be a top player.
“My dad watches any game but he watched City all the time so my first exposure to football was probably a City game. My mum said I was watching and said: ‘I want to do that’ and then as I got older, my dad used to sit me down, put the football on and tell me to watch different players like Yaya Toure or David Silva and say: ‘Watch how they play.’ I’d sit next to him on the couch and watch how they played for 90 minutes. He’d say: ‘You can do that better, watch the way he turns with the ball, try to copy that…’
“There’s a field opposite my parents’ house. Dad would come home from work and we would go on the field and practice passing for two hours. Sometimes he didn’t want to and he’d say: ‘Stop bothering me, I want to eat my tea!’ but he never said no and I think that if I hadn’t have done that passing then, I wouldn’t play my position the way I do. It’s the core of how I play. I appreciate the time and effort my parents put in because I wouldn’t be the player I am today if he hadn’t done that with me.
“Being a City fan is something that will always live on in me and I have to try to control it a little bit – maybe better than I have done in the past. It’s an aspect that other people don’t have because they’re not City fans but, in some moments, the fan inside me takes over – like when I got sent off against United. That was definitely the fan side coming out – the love for City. I was frustrated and if I can do anything to help City, I will.
“I was always such a bad loser! If City were losing, I’d have to turn the TV off! I’d get so annoyed. Every City fan has experienced that emotion. Sometimes, you’d think: ‘How have we lost that game?!’ I remember us losing 8-1 at Middlesbrough as well, watching it with my dad, thinking: ‘What is going on?’ and then there’s the game against QPR... I was so angry that I switched it off and missed the third goal! I heard my dad screaming and ran in to see Sergio Aguero had scored. I’ve seen it a hundred times since then of course… As a City fan, celebrating that after United had thought they’d won the league… wow! I don’t think there’ll ever be two games or two title chases as close as that. It was crazy.
“When we beat United at the Etihad in the first professional women’s Derby, I had to let the moment sink in. I’d never celebrated a goal the way I celebrated Caroline Weir’s goal. There’s a picture of me stood on the pitch at full-time, shouting into the air! I couldn’t have screamed any louder! It was special.”
Six years ago, with a budding Walsh ready to embark on her senior career and City concurrently readying ourselves for our first season in women’s professional football, the stars seemingly appeared to be aligning for the teenager to fulfil every football fans’ fantasy... but perhaps surprisingly, when the opportunity arose, the youngster did not believe that path to be the one she should follow at first.
This time, it was her mother’s advice which proved influential in navigating her route to stardom.
“It was my mum who sent me for trials with City,” Walsh reveals. “I was ready to join Everton at the time and I was happy to. They had a young team and I hadn’t had to trial and they were already established in the Women’s Super League. No-one knew what to expect from City and I wasn’t sure about what playing time I’d have. There are so many things to think about as a footballer rather than just: ‘I want to play for the Club I support.’
“My mum told me to trial for City, saying that if I didn’t like it, I didn’t have to stay. So I trialled for City’s Development Squad (in my Blackburn kit because I didn’t have any other, which the girls still take the mick out of me for!) and I don’t think I even finished the trials before Nick Cushing rang my mum and said he wanted me to train and play with the first-team!
“I went to Platt Lane and Nick showed me the plans for the City Football Academy. I met Steph Houghton, Jill Scott and Toni Duggan as well and I thought: ‘Okay, this is something else. They are serious about the women’s game.’
“Knowing that and having the opportunity to play for the team I support, I wasn’t going to turn that down… I was too young for a contract – the rules in England say you can’t get a professional contract until you’re 18 so I wasn’t old enough – but City put me through my education at St Bede’s and I did my A-Levels whilst training. Sometimes, I’d go to the gym after school on my own and do the sessions because the team had already done theirs in the day!
“As soon as I turned 18, I got my first professional contract and I guess my mum could take the credit! If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t have played for City! Crazy!”
One of Walsh’s standout memories from her early senior career was the 2014 Continental Cup Final. Still aged just 17, the midfielder was named in the starting line-up to face the much-fancied Arsenal with City very much the underdogs, having already overachieved in our debut season by reaching the Final at Adams Park.
To say the inclusion came as a shock to the youngster is an understatement. Expecting not to feature, she had even advised her parents not to travel to the game. On the contrary, she was set to complete the full 90 minutes, locking horns with the best players in the country, for the chance to help her beloved City to a first piece of major silverware.
“It was a massively important game for me,” she reflects. “I told my parents not to come down to the game because it would be a waste of a trip – that I wouldn’t play and that they would be better off watching at home! Nick pulled me in before the game and told me I’d be starting. It was a bit of a shock. Obviously, I was buzzing but I wasn’t expecting it.
“One thing that stuck out for me was the last ten minutes. We were winning and I looked over to the side where Arsenal were making a substitution and Kelly Smith was coming on. I thought: ‘That’s arguably England’s best-ever player coming on and I’m probably going to be marking her. She’ll always be a better player than me but she can’t control how hard I work: how much high pressure I put on, how much I try to tackle her. She can’t stop me from running hard and working hard.’
“It’s something I tried to do and she didn’t score so it much have worked for a little bit!”
Walsh’s impressive performance that night raised eyebrows (and her profile), leaving the footballing world intrigued by the previously unknown midfielder and her potential. Despite her youth, she was already being tipped for great things and great things she would achieve.
Since that unforgettable night in Wycombe, Walsh has gone on to become one of City’s all-time top appearance makers and a key component in the Club’s success with her manager and peers firmly asserting the glory would not have been possible without her contribution. Former City boss Cushing, who guided the Club to six trophies during his six-year tenure, often spoke of her importance.
“I will not hold back: she is up there unrivalled with the most intelligent players I have ever worked with,” he stated. “You have to be so smart in spaces and the way she picks up and affects the build-up, dictating play and helping other players, is pivotal to us. She is so important.”
Despite the praise heaped onto her shoulders, Walsh has never allowed the acclaim to go to her head. Off the pitch, she remains incredibly grounded, speaking with a wisdom beyond her years, which has led many to consider her credentials as a potential future captain for both Club and country.
While today she is highly regarded for her leadership skills and embraces her status as a role model to the next generation, Walsh admits her journey through the international ranks was not as smooth as her transition into senior Club football.
Though always admired for her talent – her primary school PE teacher Janet Giverin always said she'd play for England one day – the midfielder required some ‘tough love’ to earn a place in the higher echelons of the England squads: a period in her life she regards as one of the defining moments in her career.
“I was put forward for trials at England when I was 12 and a few months later, I was picked for my first camp – the Under-15s,” she remembers. “It was Mo Marley who gave me my first senior call-up. I’d played for the Under-19s and probably wasn’t always her favourite player at the time. I was a bit of hard work! She sat me down and told me I needed to work harder and apply myself a bit better.
“It got to the point where she didn’t pick me for a few camps. That’s when it sunk in a little bit – that this is what I wanted to do. I was still young at the time, still 16. It was a massive career defining moment for me. She did it in a way that I knew she believed in me and it was for the right reasons. If she hadn’t have done that – shown me that tough love – I wouldn’t have applied myself in the right way.
“I guess it’s sweet that she was the one to call me up for my first senior camp. Speaking to her, she said: ‘You’ve deserved this, you’ve worked so hard and you deserve everything. It’s only right for me to call you up.’ She also gave me my first cap against Kazakhstan. I’ll never forget her doing that for me: putting that trust in me as a young player. She had such faith in me and I’ll never be able to thank her enough for that. After that, I realised I wanted it more. From then on, I tried to take things a step further and keep improving.”
Keep improving she did and now Walsh stands as one of the most gifted, pivotal and beloved members of the City (and England) squads. As her love for City shines through, she becomes all the more adored by the Blue faithful, who equally appreciate her work ethic as well as her sublime ability, dedication and passion.
Looking back on her achievements and looking ahead to the accomplishments she could go on to achieve, thank goodness Keira had the maturity, understanding and level-headedness to accept the advice from those around her – traits which have served her with equal success within her own gameplay.
We await the Manchester Derby goal she so craves but the rest, as they say, is history…