‘She’s my best friend, but on derby day we have a job to do’ – Keira Walsh on unique midfield battle in Man City vs Manchester United and proving ‘disrespectful’ doubters wrong

“I’ve played with Katie Zelem since I was 12 years old. I’m not going to sit here and say I don’t want her to do well. She’s one of my best friends and always will be,” Keira Walsh explains .

“But when it comes to derby day, there is no hard feelings regardless of the result. Once we cross that white line – we don’t forget about our friendship – but we’re both there to do our jobs.”

On Sunday, Manchester City and Manchester United Women both head into their most important fixture of the season when they face off at a sell-out Academy Stadium on Sunday. United are hoping to strengthen their top-three position against arguably the strongest challenger, while City know anything less than victory would likely spell the end of their own hopes for a Champions League spot in an ever-testing season.

To add another challenging dynamic to arguably the highest-stakes women’s derby yet, many of the players on both sides are close friends, as Walsh tells MEN Sport this week.

“The rivalry is so intense between City and United and we both understand that,” she continues, referring to her friendship with United captain and midfield rival Zelem.

“Once we come away from the pitch, and we’re at England or we both live in Manchester so see each other quite a bit. Once we cross the white line we don’t think about it and we’ve got a job that needs to be done. Ultimately, we need to beat them and take the points off them to push on for the Champions League.”

Walsh says City are confident going into their first home derby with supporters since 2019, despite a frustrating defeat at Chelsea last time out. Gareth Taylor’s side are sixth with nine games remaining, five points adrift of United in the last Champions League place. Taylor says City know how important three points are for their end-of-season ambitions of finishing in the top three.

After a start to the season disrupted with multiple long-term injuries to key players meant that City’s chances of the title realistically disappeared a long time ago, Walsh still feels the Blues can use the derby with United to set themselves up for a strong finish.

She explained: “A derby game straight after is always a good one to bounce back with. Naturally everyone will be up for it. United are doing well this season. To take points off them would be a good place to start and climb up the table as we have been doing the second half of the season.

Katie Zelem and Keira Walsh are close friends, and teammates for England. On Sunday, they will be rivals in central midfield.

“We’ve always been there or thereabouts. I’ve been here eight years and we’ve always been at the top but always been the underdogs to Chelsea and Arsenal even though we’ve been consistently in the top two for the last seven or eight years.At a club like City obviously we didn’t start the season great, but we kicked on from there.

“For us, Champions League is the main aim, we’re still pushing for that and there’s plenty of games to go and we’ve got full belief we can do that.”

City have regularly been in the top three in recent years, but Walsh said she still feels they are underestimated compared to the traditional powerhouses of Arsenal and Chelsea. Now, she suggests, they are even considered underdogs in games against United from some observers.

“A lot of people always perceive us, even against United, as the underdogs but we’ve been in the league for eight years and we know what we’re good at,” she said when discussing the rise of United since reformation in 2018 .

“We’re consistently at the top and there or thereabouts. For people to be underestimating us this year, I think it’s quite disrespectful personally. A lot of the girls are wanting to turn things around and show what we’re made of. We ‘ve got the bit between our teeth, especially the second half of the season the way people have been speaking about us and the players in and around City.”

Walsh stressed that opposition teams have always taken City seriously, but that it’s hard to ignore negative observations from outside the WSL about their injury-hit season.

Once they are on the pitch, Walsh says she and Katie Zelem will only be focussed on earning three points for their sides.

“To be honest, it’s not from other teams, players understand teams go through difficult times with injuries. There’s always going to be a different performance throughout the season with a lot of games, For us personally, we try not to look at the media but it’s hard not to, but that’s where most of the negativity comes from.

“We know what we’re good at, it stays within the camp. The disrespect doesn’t come from other teams, they all know what we’re capable of. Even in interviews, other teams are always speaking highly of us. We we need to focus on ourselves and pushing on like we have been doing.”

So what better fixture to prove those doubters wrong than against United, live on the BBC and in front of a sell-out Academy Stadium – potentially for a club record attendance at the CFA ground. Due to the pandemic and fixture list, this will be the first time City have hosted United with fans since the landmark 2019 meeting at the Etihad, and it will be the first derby in front of home support at the regular Academy Stadium home.

That added hype is not lost on the players, with Walsh saying City are keen to give their fans something to cheer after a difficult campaign so far.

“Women’s football has grown so much over the last few years and we’ve only had a derby for the last few years,” she said.

Over 30,000 fans watched the first WSL derby at the Etihad, when Caroline Weir scored a Puskas-nominated winner, but this will be the first derby with fans at the Academy Stadium.

“When we played at the Etihad and when we play at Leigh Sports Village, there’s always good crowds. We’re expecting the same this weekend at the CFA. There will be a big crowd. Not just for the players but the hype around it , it’s starting to feel more like an actual derby that the men are more used to and what I was used to growing up as a City fan.

“It’s not just about the actual tempo of the game and individual players, it’s the whole experience. As a women’s football fan it’s definitely getting there.

“Everybody knows Leigh is quite a hostile place to go to, whether you’re a City player or an Arsenal player. They’re like that with every team. The last time I played in front of a home crowd was at the Etihad which was a long time ago.

“The girls are really looking forward to it. It’s been a tough season and the fans have stuck with us all the way. There will be no better way to repay them back by winning the derby and they’re all there to watch us. “

Whether it’s to prove the doubters wrong, take a big step towards the top three, or to secure bragging rights among close friends, City fans know their side will be well up for the battle when kick-off comes against United.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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