The first time Karen Bardsley met Hege Riise she blanked England’s interim manager. “We have to wear masks so I pretty much walked straight past her on day one,” says the recalled goalkeeper, smiling.
Bardsley has flown in from Seattle, where a 36-year-old still registered with Manchester City is on loan at OL Reign, rediscovering the form that earned 81 caps before serious injury threatened to end her career.
As she sits in a small, windowless room at St George’s Park, communicating via Zoom as Riise’s squad prepares for Friday’s friendly against France in Caen, Bardsley recalls the slow-burn realisation that her world had turned upside down.
She first felt something had “gone wrong” with a hamstring shortly before half-time during England’s 3-0 World Cup quarter-final win against Norway at Le Havre’s Stade Océane in 2019 but managed to continue until full time.
A specialist discovered her hamstring had torn off the bone and a complex surgery known as ischial tuberosity was required to reattach it to the base of the pelvis. In Bardsley’s words “holes were drilled” and there was a “lot of sewing” before 15 months on the sidelines.
Along the way, a goalkeeper who was part of Team GB’s run to the quarter-finals of London 2012 and helped the Lionesses reach the semi-finals of the 2015 World Cup in Canada, Euro 2017 in the Netherlands and France 2019 lost not only an England starting place but saw Ellie Roebuck supersede her at City.
“You really, really, don’t want to know where my head was,” Bardsley says. “I was in a very dark place. It was a place of frustration and a lot of self-questioning. Was I still good enough? Could I still enjoy football? What did I need to change and how? I love City but I’m a professional athlete and I wanted to play.”
The move to Washington state offered her not only a starting slot but a new lease of life playing alongside Megan Rapinoe on the Pacific coast. “Reign have welcomed me with open arms and I’m really enjoying it. I’ve refound my enjoyment and my confidence and realised I genuinely love football. It’s reignited a fire in me – and, with the NWSL being a summer league, it’s ideal for transitioning to a major tournament like the Olympics.”
Although Bardsley remains “very close” to Roebuck, she aims to supplant her as Riise’s first choice in Japan. “That’s the plan,” says the player born in Santa Monica to English expatriate parents. “I back myself to the hilt in terms of how bad I want it. I know my strengths and I’m very confident they’re unique.”
Such directness is rare among English players but Bardsley was raised amid a more candid Californian culture – and has the accent to prove it. “I haven’t really got anything to lose,” she says. “If I’m really honest I wasn’t expecting the call but I’m here and I’m going to throw everything at it. I want to play; I’m not here to just sit on the touchline. The day we beat France in the quarter-finals of Euro 2017 was unbelievable, amazing; I’m really looking forward to facing them again.”
The Olympics have long captured her imagination. “I remember being 16, talking to my friends over lunch in high school,” Bardsley recalls. “We were discussing tattoos and I said the only way I’d ever get one is if I went to the Olympics. I’ve got the reminder on my wrist! To have happened once to me was a dream; to happen again would be: ‘Wow.’
“One of the most amazing things about 2012 was being on an equal par with the men; how we travelled, where we stayed – we even ate together. It was a real stepping-up point for women’s football. It was the first time everything felt equal – and equality is what everyone in women’s sport is striving for, so it was an incredible platform.
“And you get really surreal moments in the Olympic village – suddenly you’re watching Lionel Messi playing volleyball and Serena Williams sitting in the corner. I’d call the Olympics a celebration of sport. It’s got a real festival atmosphere; everyone’s really pumped for everyone else.”
This year’s edition threatens to have much of its joy stripped away by Covid protocols. “It’ll be weird not being able to mingle in the athletes’ village and not have family and friends there,” says Bardsley. “But we’re not going to make excuses; we’re going to perform.”
Post-pandemic life is starting to feel much more normal in the US’s extreme north-west, where Bardsley has been vaccinated against Covid-19. “The protocols do seem much more strict over here,” she says. “I think people are a bit more relaxed in America.”
Europe’s enduring restrictions complicate Riise’s task but Bardsley’s first impressions of the former Norway captain are extremely positive. “I do like Hege’s approach,” she says. “She seems to know exactly what she wants to achieve from every training session, every meeting. She’s very efficient in everything she does. We’ve already had a couple of laughs in training, which was nice, but I’m looking forward to getting to know her properly.”
‘I was in a dark place’: Bardsley aims to grab England spot after injury hell