Keira Walsh and Demi Stokes On Persevering In Football Against The Odds

The Manchester City pros talk to The Debrief about pitch-side abuse, sexist press and becoming role models...

Keira Walsh and Demi Stokes On Persevering In Football Against The Odds

by Georgia Aspinall |
Published on

‘The women’s game isn’t as popular because it just isn’t as good’, my dad says as we discuss Phil Neville becoming the new England Women’s football manager. I roll my eyes and explain institutional sexism for the ten millionth time, citing the 4 million viewers that tuned into watch England play Holland in the Euro semi-final last year. I tell him that the culture around football is changing and that the women’s game is no longer being cast aside with excuses of low viewership. People are tuning in. The world has finally woken up to the fact that women can play football just as well as men.

However, this wasn’t the case when England and Manchester City players, Demi Stokes and Keira Walsh started their careers. Back then there very few women pro football players and yet, despite fewer opportunities for women, they persevered and are now reaping the rewards of a full-time, professional football career.

‘I got into it hanging out with boys, playing at school, but my first ever game wasn’t a great experience. I played for an all-girls team in an all-boys league, so you had dads on the side that weren’t very nice and kids on the field [who] weren’t great [either],’ Demi tells me, recalling the match-side abuse that started when she was just eight years old.

‘It was verbal abuse like “kick her” or “break her legs”, a bit of racial abuse’ she says. Once, she remembers ‘a kid got sent off because I did go to the referee so he got taken out. He was crying and the coaches made him come and say sorry after the game It’s all part of the journey, it doesn’t make it okay but you learn things and you grow from it.’

Keira remembers the lack of other women’s teams to look up to when she started out. ‘When I was younger I don’t really think you were professional, you probably had to have another job’ she says ‘the only team that I knew off was the England Women’s team and there wasn’t really any further than that.’

Keira went on to play for Blackburn before realising she could go pro, and joined Manchester City in 2014. Demi chose to go to America, where the game has been taken seriously for longer. However after four years in the US playing alongside England Women’s players she was convinced opportunities were growing in England. Signing to Manchester City and England Women’s in 2014, she has thrived at home ever since.

For Demi, hard work and perseverance are key in sport as a whole, but particularly in building the reputation of women’s football. There are, she says, no shortcuts. ‘I think if you do play good football and do it the right way, people are going to want to come back naturally rather than advertisement thrown down their neck. If you do it the right way and focus on what we’re in control of - and that’s playing good football - I think fans will keep coming back.’

Keira agrees, citing the role Manchester City has played as a club to ensure the game is taken as seriously as men’s football. ‘At City’ she says, ‘the media guys do a lot to try and get the attendances for the games, so as players we have a responsibility to play well because they’re working hard to get supporters in, so we need to make sure we keep them coming,’

She also thinks mainstream media can do more, whether that’s press treating the players the same regardless of gender (she refers to the way men are asked more technical and tactical questions in post-game interviews) or broadcasters showing more than just the finals of their games on prime-time TV, as they do with men’s football. ‘If it’s more accessible and more people watching realise we all can play at a good level then it’s only going to drive the attendees and the game will go even further’ she says.

Even as the game grows, both Keira and Demi do not take their supporters for granted. One of the biggest positives of the women’s game, Keira says, is that ‘[the players are] appreciative that the fans do come out and support us. We like to thank them because we remember when there weren’t a lot of fans coming to the games’

With increasing viewers and a spotlight shining on women’s football, do they feel pressure to outperform the men to prove a point? No, according to Demi. ‘We all want to do it because we enjoy it’, she says. For her it’s about playing football not about gender point scoring; ‘yes we are fighting to inspire people and get people back to the games but generally we don’t look at it to prove a point’ she says. ‘We want to make a difference, whether that’s growing the game for the next generation coming through or the next group of academy girls.’

‘When I’m playing I don’t think about [the pressure] too much’ Keira adds, ‘I’m just playing with the girls and I trust what they can do’. Indeed, the more I speak to them both the more I realise that the supposed tension between men and women’s football is more of a media construct than a reality. ‘Between teams there’s a certain level of respect because we’re all professional and we all take the game seriously’ Keira says ‘there’s definitely a level of professional respect.’

And so, while we might see a gap in the way men and women’s football is publically praised and, perhaps even more obviously, valued monetarily , these players are simply focused on fulfilling their life’s ambition to go pro. It’s not too surprising, given that when these women started playing there were few opportunities for them. And while they would have every right to point out the gender disparities in football, they’re desire to just get on with the game regardless of any obstacles they face is refreshing.

Indeed, their reluctance to focus on any gender differences in football is exactly what they want the public to do. ‘It’s just football and that’s what we want to push’ Demi says ‘it’s the same game, same rules, same moving on the pitch, same numbers, there’s no difference so from the outside looking in people shouldn’t judge it any different’.

And that is exactly what these women are proving, with Manchester City reaching the quarter-finals of the Women’s FA Cup after a 3-1 win against Birmingham City just last weekend. By both striving for perfection and persevering against the odds, they’re setting the pace not just for women’s football, but for the sport as a whole.

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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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