Kyle Walker is smiling while briefly resting up and enjoying quality time with his young family, just a week out from his fourth major tournament as an England international.
A delayed arrival to the Three Lions camp due to his role in the Champions League final has provided a window for contemplation and refocus.
The pain of Porto is still fresh in the mind and not something Walker has been able to move on from in hurry, but more of that later.
Now, importantly, the defender has the welcome distraction of a European championships to contend, in which England are among the favourites.
Kyle Walker sat down with Sportsmail to discuss everything from England’s hectic summer, the pain of missing out in Porto and the social issues which currently eat away at football
Walker joined up with England camp with a slight delay due to the Champions League final
Sweeping changes may have happened since the Russia World Cup, but Walker finds himself still very much a part of the Three Lions furniture and, at 31, is heading into Euro 2020 as Gareth Southgate’s oldest and most experienced player.
His role, as he well knows, has changed. Walker will be a veteran head among a sea of vibrant youth, and he has already started to put in the work to ensure he can be the most effective version of himself.
Time spent working with Manchester City psychologists has enabled the 31-year-old to develop what would ultimately be seen as the perfect bedside manner; the complex ways and methods of dealing with an individual, who just so happens to be a fellow elite sporting star.
But does he feel any overwhelming responsibility, having the likes of 17-year-old Jude Bellingham or 19-year-old Bukayo Saka playing alongside him?
At the age of 31 Walker is Gareth Southgate’s oldest pick, but shows no signs of slowing down
With the likes of Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka, England are putting their faith in youth
‘I wouldn’t say I feel the responsibility because they’re good players, they can all play football or they wouldn’t be putting on an England shirt or representing their country at a major tournament,’ says Walker.
‘If they need advice or if we’re playing big games or pressure games or the last 10 minutes and they’re looking round and they look a bit lost, I will be probably the first one to go up to them and if it needs an arm around them to say “come on we’ve got this” or “we can get through this” or “we can grind through these last 10 minutes.”
‘Even if I’m on the bench and it takes me to get them going, you know: “go and get the winner, go and make history, go and make your country proud”, if it’s something I can do I will.’
Walker is speaking to Sportsmail from his holiday home, allowing himself a small dose of sea, serenity and the first of the UK’s summer sun.
The momentary peace and quiet is nice, but Walker is yearning for a different type of background noise; the fans. Spending his career on the flanks, the full-back is used to having supporters roaring in his ear, for good or for bad.
‘It’s been hard. We all know football with fans, we all know football when they’re chanting, when you go to away grounds and even if you’re getting a bit of jip that’s what it’s about, that’s what we’ve grown up with supporting.’
England will play out each of their group fixtures against Croatia, neighbours Scotland and the Czech Republic, inside Wembley stadium. With the slow easing back of fans inside grounds, the prospect of emulating the misty-eyed ‘home tournament’ nostalgia of Euro ’96 beckons.
This return, Walker is keen to stress, makes the world of difference.
Supporters returned for the end of the domestic and European campaigns and brought much needed noise, which Walker says has been badly missing from the game
‘Obviously everything has had to be done right and followed by the rules, that’s first and foremost, but letting the fans back in for the last couple of games and with this tournament just around the corner, it’s something for people to look forward to.
‘People haven’t been to football games for almost 18 months and we probably kept a lot of people sane through this when we were going out and playing football and they could watch it on the TV. Now it’s a case of come out of your house, get to Wembley and support the lads and make sure we can hear you as we always do.’
Once the lifeblood of the game is back, an element of normal order will be restored in football. A section of fans, however, have been responsible for a rapidly escalating issue on the darker side of the sport: the rise in online abuse, hate and racial discrimination.
Walker feels passionately about the subject, having recently brought to the public domain examples of the torrent of vile messages he receives on a regular basis.
Actions are put in place and statements made, yet the England international feels the gestures are empty and, now, all but futile. In the aftermath of small sections of the Riverside stadium booing the taking of the knee in support of racial equality, prior to England’s warm-up friendlies with Austria and Romania, Walker feels the attitude is sadly a way of modern day life.
Fans will be back to spur England on at the Euros though certain actions have caught attention
The booing of the knee has split opinion, and Walker feels only education is able to alter this
‘I’ve said it before, it’s going to continue no matter what anyone does.
‘Only recently I’ve probably started to make people aware of the abuse that I get racially over social media platforms. Before I used to say “no I’m just going to leave it” because me putting it out there is not going to make any blind bit of difference.’
Walker’s emotion on the topic is tangible. He, like many footballers of colour around the world, senses the helpless feeling of banging their head against a wall. The key – or rather – the only hope, Walker adds, remains with education and persistence.
‘All we can do with the knee, you know, my son, he was asking “Dad why are you doing that?” and I was actually happy he asked me that, because now I can educate him on what he can do.
‘We’re trying to send a message out there and he knows now what it’s for so it’s just about, I think, trying to educate the younger generation as much as possible and say “no it’s not right, everyone is human and that is the main thing.”
‘It doesn’t matter what race, what colour, what religion, everyone’s the same.’
The Manchester City man is likely in line for a role in an English back three for the coming weeks. A victim, some may say, of his own athleticism and tactical versatility.
Despite outlining to Sportsmail, following the Russia World Cup, that he does not believe this is the role in which he performs best, Walker is happy to be back serving his country.
Walker once noted how he disliked playing in a back three, but now insists country comes first
‘I think coming back off of the tournament and coming back from the Nations League and not being picked for I think it was maybe 16 months or something like that. To get back in the team you’re thankful.
‘You kind of don’t take it for granted but after being in a team or a squad from the age of 20 till I was 29, nine years of continuous international football when the teams or the squads got announced I would know I was in, but then all of a sudden it’s a big shock to the system.
‘It hurts when the teams get announced. We’ve been playing good football now for a number of years and winning football, so to not be a part of that it hurt me a lot. But [it was] something that I had to take on the chin, I obviously had to improve my game, improve on what the manager wanted to see and I just said to myself that I’m going to really work hard.’
It would be remiss not to check on Walker’s current head-space, given club heartache with City must now be abruptly put to one side in favour of England.
Just over one week has passed since the Champions League final, and the dust is yet to settle. Manager Pep Guardiola still faces accusations of trying to be too cute and overthink the tactical process prior to the biggest match in domestic football, but Walker sees things more pragmatically.
Despite being favourites in Porto, City looked out of sorts as Chelsea took a slender 1-0 win
Walker is willing to front up to City’s failure to clinch a Champions League title under Guardiola
‘Listen, people can talk. I’ve seen a few things or my mates have text me about tactics, personnel, this that and the other,’ he says after a long, considered pause.
‘It’s a game of football, it’s 95 minutes and anything can happen. Obviously we wanted the result to go our way but the manager, or whoever, he picks who he feels can go and get the result and what’s best for the club. When he gets it right nobody says anything and when he gets it wrong – or when they think he’s got it wrong – people are questioning things.’
Porto represented a dark blot on an otherwise glistening career CV, with the final itself arriving the day after the defender’s 31st birthday. Walker outlines a quiet evening prior to the match, spending time with City roommates John Stones and Phil Foden, battling the nerves and focusing on a good night’s sleep.
The outcome, he confesses, meant the birthday celebrations were simply ‘sacked off’ this year – though could however be rekindled should England do something special in the Euros.
Kai Havertz’s goal was the difference in Portugal, as a toothless City side missed the bite of a defensive midfielder and lost talisman Kevin De Bruyne to injury.
‘I think it’s a little bit unfair sometimes when as soon as Manchester City don’t win then it’s tactics or maybe players on the pitch, but we needed to do more and it’s as simple as that,’ Walker adds.
‘I don’t think we created enough in the game and I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn by saying that, I think everyone could tell on the pitch.’
It is football’s worst kept secret that Guardiola’s men are overdue a European tilt, yet Walker is all too prepared to front up to this and accept the reality.
‘I think with the squad we’ve got, with the manager we’ve got, with the club that we’re playing for we should be going and winning the Champions League, we all know that. We all know that the players, at least since I’ve been there, have been signed to go and get it.
Walker feels much credit is due to Chelsea and Tuchel, and admits City didn’t do enough
‘Yeah OK we can go and win the Premier League and I think we’re so fortunate to win three in four years, but we do need a Champions League as a club because I hear a lot of people saying it’s probably one of the greatest Premier League teams ever.
‘OK yeah that’s great, fantastic for me to even be involved in a team like that, but to be classed as one of the best teams ever I think you need the Champions League and that’s something that we are missing.’
After finishing the season so strongly, a flurry of goals at Everton on the final weekend of the campaign would have been better served stocked up for the European final, Walker suggests. He does, of course, accept this is simply not the way football pans out.
Now, the prospect of emulating rivals Liverpool, whose hopes were dashed on the final stage in 2018 in Kiev, before coming back to win it the very next year, is on Walker’s mind.
‘I’m even looking back at the Everton game and saying “I don’t even want us to score five, just give me one! One goal in that game and save the goals for the Champions League final”, but it’s football and Chelsea are a very good team.
‘[They are] very well organised and I’ve said before, in a short period of time I think the manager has done unbelievably well to get them to a final, to get them where they were, compared to where they were come last December time or January. You have to say hats off to him for what he’s achieved and what the club’s achieved.
City ended the season by hammering Everton 5-0, though Walker admits he wishes some of the goals could have been saved for the Champions League final
‘A lot of teams have been in a final like Liverpool; they came to the final and lost it to Real Madrid, the next year came back and won it. Hopefully we can replicate that really.’
A major European final leading straight into a showpiece international tournament confirms what most people already know about Walker – he is still very much at the top of his game.
Despite the prospect of feeling like a parental figure in the England camp over the coming weeks though, Walker doesn’t see his football career – or his England tenure – drawing to an end any time soon.
He is keen to point out a 20-mile morning bike ride he has just completed, and doesn’t appear to have broken a bead of sweat. Being the consummate professional throughout a long career does have its rewards, after all.
‘I’m 31 now so time is not going to stop for me to just keep playing more tournaments, but seriously I feel so fit, I feel so strong, I don’t feel 31, I still feel 26. I try and stay as stupid as possible around the changing room and mixing with the younger lads to keep my mind young.
Walker will star alongside Kieran Trippier and Jordan Pickford as part of Bud Light’s #boxheads campaign during the European championships
‘My career is running out which is sad for me to say but I don’t think it’s going to run out any time soon because I still feel great and still feel strong and I’m definitely still the quickest at City, so I’ve told them as soon as I stop being then I’ll start thinking about things.’
Would he, though, consider following the lead of the likes of James Milner and Jamie Vardy before him and call time on his international career to prolong action at domestic level? A glint in the eyes prior to answering the question already confirms what is coming.
‘Retiring for England I don’t think I could ever do because I never want to retire for my country. If I’m available and the manager thinks I’m good enough to play then perfectly fine, but as for retiring I don’t think that will ever come into the situation.
‘It will just be like “OK Kyle, you’re old we don’t need you anymore but thank you for your service.”
As the Official Beer of the England Men’s team, Bud Light has created #BOXHEADS which feature the supersized faces of Pickford, Walker and Trippier. Bud Light BOXHEADS: beer you can drink, box you can wear. Available in stores and online now nationwide.