Karen Bardsley has had a lot of time to reflect on her career. The goalkeeper left England’s World Cup quarter-final victory over Norway in 2019 with a hamstring injury, knowing she would not make the semi-final, and has not played since. With cruel irony, her clearance to return to training at Manchester City came as the Lionesses returned from the SheBelieves Cup and went straight into isolation in March.
“I was like: ‘Wow, OK, I just got cleared to train with the whole squad and now I’m gonna have to wait for ever to do it,’ or at least that’s what it felt like,” Bardsley says with a laugh. “I’m just taking this as an opportunity to get as strong and as physically resilient as possible.”
She is also using it to reflect. Chatting from her home, she dissects the future of women’s football and the good, the bad and the techniques that have moulded her into one of England’s finest players.
Missing the World Cup semi-final defeat by the USA ranks high in the lows. “It was devastating,” says Bardsley, as was another quarter-final substitution because of injury at the Euro in 2017. But neither of those, or psychologically difficult individual mistakes, match the disappointment of the last-gasp World Cup semi-final defeat by Japan in 2015. “I couldn’t actually believe that happened the way it did,” she says of Laura Bassett’s looping own goal.
The highs? Playing at Wembley with Team GB in 2012 and beating Brazil – “something we had never done before” – are up there. As was the first knockout game at the 2015 World Cup against Norway because it “was another big first for us”, she says. “We’d struggled getting out of groups so when we won our first knockout game it felt like the barriers had come down. Whether it was physical or mental I don’t know, but immediately after that we got into semi-finals more consistently.”
In terms of her own performances, playing at Atlanta on Mother’s Day in 2010 for her American club Sky Blue FC was a game where she felt invincible. “It was 20-plus saves, I kept a clean sheet and nearly broke my neck in the process of doing it” says the California-born 35-year-old. “I felt like no matter what I did, or no matter what anyone else did, they weren’t going to score.”
That is also how she felt about Manchester City’s 1-0 aggregate defeat by Lyon in the Champions League in 2018. The breakthrough was made not by Lyon’s stellar strikeforce but by her defensive teammate with England Lucy Bronze, who rocketed in the winner.
Bardsley relishes being the party pooper and denying the greats. “I’m going to take you to places you don’t want to go and I’m going to make you do things that you’re really uncomfortable doing. As a goalkeeper, we are there to kind of ruin the game because everybody wants to see goals. When I was younger, maybe I’d go: ‘Oh gosh, they’re so good.’ But now it’s like: ‘Prove it.’”
Asked to name her favourite striker to play against, she describes her former England teammate Kelly Smith as “one of the most intelligent and aware players I’ve ever met”. The former USA forward Abby Wambach is also up there as “a complete goalscoring threat”. Marta is, naturally, in the mix, as are Lyon’s Eugénie Le Sommer and Canada’s Christine Sinclair – players “capable of making you look very silly whenever they want”.
The best centre-back to play in front of her? England’s captain Steph Houghton and the former USA captain Christie Pearce (formerly Rampone) because they “put their bodies on the line [and] have that intrinsic drive and motivation to make sure that they keep a clean sheet no matter what”. And they listen. “Communication is a top priority for me,” she says. “Yes, vocally, but it’s the non-verbal communication that’s more important.”
Bardsley is a mine of stories, anecdotes and experience. On the game’s future beyond Covid-19, she is as thoughtful as her master’s in sports directorship from Manchester Metropolitan University suggests. “My first thought is how is women’s football currently enriching lives and how can we make that continue? Because that’s a big part of what makes women’s football so special.
“It’s also important to think about why we actually play football and what is it that we’re trying to achieve. For the women, it’s obviously that we want to continue to change the perception of women in this country and across the globe and make sure that young girls have something to aspire to.”
Reassessing relationships within clubs and society also matters. “If we can learn anything from this Covid situation,” she says, “it is that there’s no social standing or socio-economic class that is safe.”
Being a footballer is firmly in context. “The NHS, other essential workers, have become our footballers at the minute; they’ve become our role models. I’m really hoping that we start seeing something like NHS Panini stickers,” she laughs. “That’d be awesome – they deserve to be celebrated. They deserve to be compensated for their time and the risks they take. For being the people that, when no one else will, will go and put themselves in harm’s way.”