Fireside chat with Karen Carney, professional women’s football player

Karen Carney is one of the UK's most popular footballing personalities. A member of England’s team for the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup, which came third place in the tournament, she is now an ITV and Sky Sports football pundit covering men's and women's games. Prior to England's crunch World Cup match with Cameroon, England Manager Phil Neville said: "She's a big moment player". Her impressive record at both domestic and international level has seen her twice named as FA Young Player of the Year and she has earned 144 caps for England, the third most capped in history, behind Fara Williams and Jill Scott in both male and female football.

Startups Magazine was lucky enough to sit down to listen to a fireside chat with Karen as she discussed all things team spirit, success and resilience.

Could you introduce yourself for everyone?

I’m Karen Carney, retired footballer. I played for Birmingham, Arsenal, Chicago, Chelsea and I retired at Chelsea. I played for England 144 times, at four Euros, four World Cups and at the 2012 Olympic Games. Then I changed career paths, but I'm sure we'll talk about that.

Diversity in women’s football. From when you started to when you finished, what changes have you seen for the better, or the worse?

Being a female footballer, you are going up against absolutely everything. I think when I first started playing, I was the only girl and got bullied for it. It wasn’t really the norm to play, as historically it’s for boys and men. So, at 11 when I told my mum “I’m going to play for England,” we didn’t know that there was an England women’s team at the time or if there was a team where I could try and play. All I knew is I just fell in love with football.

There's been a lot of barriers for me to play but thankfully, my parents are superhuman, amazing people and managed to find teams for me to play football. That was a journey but a lot of it at a young age was just pure bullying, which wasn’t fun when all you want to do is play the sport that you fell in love with. My new life challenge is to eradicate that, that it doesn't matter who you are, and you want to play sport, you have the best opportunity to do that.

Now I've moved into the media space, working for Sky Sports and ITV, covering both men and women’s football. When I retired in 2019, I did it at the Women’s World Cup, USA versus England women in the semi-finals and I looked around the stadium and it was sold out. I knew then it was a good time to retire, sport was in a good place. Going from not being accepted to playing a sold-out stadium with sponsors all around the pitch was an incredible sight to see.

Then I decided to go and work as a broadcaster and I felt like I had gone back to being that 11-year-old girl again where I wasn’t allowed to play football because I was a girl, to being this 31-year-old woman, media pundit being told I can't talk about it because I'm a woman.

There’s been many times I’ve gone to work in the last four years and had to put my tin hat on as I know everything is going to be fired at me because of my gender.

It’s definitely shifting though, in terms of resilience, and in terms of adversity, you can talk to me about a player, injuries, psychological stuff, bullying, everything because I’ve been through it, but the positive thing is, is that whether you played and you missed the penalty, or got sent off, you have to turn off, get ready for the next game and training and someone says something about you in the media, you have to show up and face up the next day as well.

You talk about how hard this change is, where do you see it going? Do you see more women doing what you’re doing?

Yeah definitely, I wasn’t one of the first, we’ve had Alex Scott do it and other fantastic women do it and continue to do it. I think there will be many more because I think the world is going to be more inclusive. For me, it’s just football, so I don’t know why you wouldn’t have the best people, the best talent or diversity coming to talk about it. Equally, I’d like to see more men coming and speaking on the women’s games. I think there will be a big shift and it'll start getting competitive.

You’ve gone from a team sport, that everybody watches and loves, to the corporate world, which can be very up and down. So, journalist, sports pundit and you’re working with the Government in some corporate projects, can you tell us a bit about that?

I work for VISA because they approached me to do a career development programme, specifically for female players because not every female player wants to be a coach or a pundit and there’s so many advantages for taking sports people into the corporate world as there's many synergies between sport and business.

So, we created this programme for female footballers to show them that they can work in sponsorship, marketing, any kind of area other than coaching or media. We’re opening doors and showing them how they can go work at a brand or something else. We use our network at VISA as well as everyone we work with to try and help the current players.

Then with the government, I got asked about eight or nine months ago to chair a government review into the future of women's football. So, from being a football player, to now working in the corporate setting, with a laptop and going into the office and then to lead in the government review, like the shift change has been massive but that's the amazing thing about sport. The things that you learn when you're in a team and you learn along the way, it's just about inspiring people and getting the best out of them and hearing them and the recommendations that we think are going to be the best to help the game grow.

Can you talk a little more about some of the transferable skills from football to the corporate world, like leadership?

I think the biggest lesson for me was when I was Chelsea Captain, and my Manager, Emma Hayes had a child so we didn't have a manager and we crumbled.

It was my first-time being Captain there and I was a bad leader. I didn't really delegate, I didn't really say, hey I need you to do this, I need you to do that and try and pull the group together. We have different people at different tables, speaking different languages, and trying to bring that together was difficult, whilst still having to be high performing, and get results in front of the public.

A lot of money is invested in Chelsea Football Club, so it was a lot of expectation, and for me, looking back, I was a bad leader and that's where I really learned, and that experience was really invaluable for me. But I do think leadership in sport is probably too much. When I went into the corporate world, I didn't understand why no one gave feedback, or when I do media stuff, I don't understand why people don't give feedback. Because coming from sport, every motion, every moment for me is led by feedback. So, I don't understand why we don't give feedback more, and it's something I really struggle with.

What's next for you? What do you plan to do over the next couple of years?

The Government review is landing soon, so I’ve got big responsibilities for that. The Women's World Cup starts and then the Premier League season starts again, so what I've realised is there's no point planning, just be the best you can be every single day. If something lands in your lap, and it’s your passion, go after it and work hard at it and then see where it takes you.

What do you think needs to change to get people into women's football or even just women in sport?

For me, the biggest change is male allies, bringing everybody on the journey. Sometimes it’s going into the Premier League and educating the men, saying, “Look, this is what we've been through as women in sport, and it's really challenging. Can you help? Can you talk about it? Can you communicate about it? Can you champion us? Can you be a part of it?” And those conversations need to keep going.

It's going to take an army, especially as Women’s football was banned for 50 years and in terms of how it's viewed it's like 150 years behind, the Lionesses won the Euro’s last summer for the first time since 1966. And probably they’re still not at the forefront of everybody's mind yet they're incredible women, athletes, role models and winners. We still have to say “champion women's football.” Three out of five attendances last year for football in Europe were women’s games. The last three games at Wembley for women’s football were sold out. Yet, we're still having to educate and tell everybody, “Don’t forget about women's football.” For women's sport, we're still on a journey.

Historically, the pitches have been made for men and boys on a demand. So, if the demand is increased, where do you put everybody that wants to play? So even little things like the women's teams are getting booted off the pitches because the men have priority, let's be more inclusive, let's be equal, and have that chance, or we have to build more facilities.

I actually approached someone the other day, and said, I want to build two toilets and a changing room, and I want to make it accessible for everybody. I don’t want people to get changed like I did or hear anyone get changed in the car or in a men's toilet. They're the kind of barriers that we've been up against. You asked me what the next few years look like for me, it's for me to leave the sport in a better place, knowing that everyone has the same opportunity.

How do you think you can get them to listen to you? And how do you get motivated to do that?

I think it goes back to learning. In this journey it can be done, it just takes time. It's tiring, but I do think we can get there, we just have to keep going and if it isn't me, it'll be somebody else. There were people before me and there'll be people after me.

How much did it help your current performance getting that technology in sport and that data back from your performance?

That's part of the feedback as well, data is massive, it can go from anything from GPS to Oura Ring, I bought this a couple of years ago, and that data is invaluable to me for my health. Being a woman as well, understanding my body data is really important because I'm an athlete. How does that data help me as a female athlete and improve me?

As technology in sport improved, I saw performance improve amongst the athletes. Using my Oura Ring as an example, using data to understand me as a female athlete will make me better. Then my value is more, so the more data, the better.

However, I would agree with this, is data can be used to paint a story but it’s what story you want. For example, I played for England, and I had the GPS on and the game was really fast paced and I decided to stand still, everyone else can move on. I ended up getting a goal and an assist and the Manager said, “good job, you won us the game”. The same Manager a couple of months later, told me, “You’re not running as much. You're not doing the running.” Well, what one do you want? For me to stand still and be smart and use my intelligence or to run around and get the GPS Data up? So, data can be used, and it can get you in, but it can also get you out.