Saturday 24 August 2019

Bardsley out to bust myth about female goalkeepers

England's Karen Bardsley. Photo: REUTERS/Phil Noble
England's Karen Bardsley. Photo: REUTERS/Phil Noble

Louise Taylor

If Karen Bardsley had collected a pound every time a man told her female goalkeepers are rubbish, she would be very rich indeed. "Whether it's people feeling threatened by women's football, I don't know," she says in her distinctive Californian accent. "I don't know why some people can't praise when they see something done well - even if it is by a woman. I'm not here trying to burn a bra or anything and say: 'We need to take over,' but give credit where it's due."

The England and Manchester City goalkeeper sometimes suspects that patronising comments about the supposed limitations of her female counterparts are really a form of shorthand for dismissing the entire women's game. "It's just a bit of a cop-out, isn't it, just an easy way out," says the 34-year-old, who was born and raised in Santa Monica. "Don't get me wrong, I've seen my share of bad goalkeeping. I've had my moments too. But I've also seen some excellent female goalkeeping.

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"It does frustrate me; it makes me think: 'Come on, let's see you do better.' It would be fun to get the general population doing stuff with us. To say: 'If you think it's so easy, get in goal."

Bardsley, who opted to represent England because of family connections in Stockport, believes mixed education is the way to eradicate such prejudice. "Female goalkeepers are seen as equals in academies now," she says. "We're trying to set a good example for the younger boys so they're used to seeing us women around, making great saves and scoring great goals. Just normalising the idea of women playing football is a massive part of what we need to do.

"Boys and girls should play alongside each other in academies [at professional clubs]," she says. "We've done it in the past but health and safety have stepped in and stopped us. But I did it when I was growing up in the US. I trained alongside full-grown men at college and worked with some great male keepers. It helped me 100 per cent with speed of play, speed of reactions and strength. The mindset they gave me was invaluable.

"If you speak to girls who play football alongside lads they'll tell you that you almost have to earn the right to play with them. It's annoying that you have to do that, but once you've done it, the barriers are down."

Chelsea's manager, Emma Hayes, has reopened a long-running debate about whether female goalkeepers' invariably smaller stature dictates that the frames of their goals should be contracted. "What are the social implications?" says Bardsley. "We've fought so hard to change the perception of female athletes across the planet and I don't know if that would be beneficial."

Now at her third World Cup, she feels higher value should be placed on goalkeepers of both sexes. "The constant message I heard growing up was: 'If you're unfit, you go in goal,' or: 'If you're crap, you go in goal.' How do we change that, how do we give goalkeeping more respect?

"People have to realise the game has changed loads. Look at Ederson, Alisson and the impacts they've made by playing out, but also being good shot stoppers and having a presence. It's an impactful position now. It's about how you influence the back four, how you communicate with those in front of you. Essentially you're a defensive pivot."

Phil Neville's determination to transform England into a slick passing, ball-monopolising side involves considerable building from the back, with Bardsley and her colleagues sometimes expected to serve almost as sweeper-keepers. Significant emphasis is placed on their footwork.

"The longer we can dictate that possession, the more momentum we can create and the more opportunities we'll get in the final third," says Bardsley, who was rested for Friday night's 1-0 win over Argentina. "I don't want to be doing keepy-ups or anything like that in my box, but if I'm needed as an outlet then I'm there for it."

She suspects her role's continuing evolution has not been matched by a wider appreciation of its nuances. "Journalists and pundits need to become more aware of the intricacies of good goalkeeping," says Bardsley, before smiling to herself. It is the cue for her to issue the small gathering of reporters an invitation to join her for some specialist training before Wednesday's final Group D game against Japan in Nice.

It is an overture no one has, as yet, dared accept.

Observer

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