Growing up in America, Karen Bardsley was never short of female role models.
Across the country, sportswomen were celebrated; their achievements honoured; their faces familiar.
In football alone, the likes of Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy and Briana Scurry adorned the media. Budding female footballers had idols to look up to. They knew their dreams could become realities.
Man City Women and England goalkeeper Bardsley was one of those young girls.
California-born, she was encouraged from an early age to follow her sporting dreams.
Having started her senior career in the States in 2007, the shot-stopper then spent a year in Sweden between 2011 and 2012 before opting to ply her trade in the home of her grandparents: England.
The culture was very different to what she had experienced previously. Women and girls’ football was not easily accessible or prominent in the media and there were very few opportunities for budding footballers to pursue a career in the sport – in any sector.
Speaking exclusively to ManCity.com, Bardsley recalls those early memories, speaks of her pride for the game’s progress and discusses what more could be done to grow women’s football in this country…
In Karen Bardsley’s words…
“When I first came over here, I felt like I never really heard much about girls playing football.
“It wasn’t in conversation and you didn’t really see organised teams.
“You’d see people playing in the street or hear stories about people being the only girl, playing in a group of guys. I would encourage that frankly – it raises your level and tests you – but it’s nice to see there’s more organisation of the women’s game at youth level now.
“One of the major differences was that growing up in the States, I saw really strong female role models. There were people who were doing what I wanted to do.
“I saw them on TV and I knew there was something out there for me.
“That’s something that was lacking in the past, especially here. There were no female role models. The media attention wasn’t as prevalent as it is now so there wasn’t that kind of awareness around the game and people didn’t know football was a potential career opportunity.
“A lot of my England teammates have started to do coaching. Those sessions are something that young girls can look forward to going to, working with people they have seen do well.
“It all comes down to changing the perception of people. It’s a hard one to break as it’s so deeply ingrained but I think exposing people to good quality women’s football is important.
“It’s never going to be something that happens overnight. It’s a process.
“The other day at St George’s Park, there was a guy on a coaching course who said he is working with a young girls’ club team.
“He said that after England took third in the World Cup in 2015, the girls were so inspired. They had something to play for. They wanted to play women’s football, saying: ‘it’s our game now.’
“That’s huge. To change the mindset of young people to say: ‘I don’t care what you say – I want to do this. I don’t care if no-one has done it before – I want to be the first.’
“That’s a massive mindset shift in my opinion and that has to be what you’re targeting. To make sure it’s culturally acceptable to empower women to do whatever they want, regardless of what anyone else thinks.
“Here at City, growth of the game is something we take very seriously. It’s a major aim of this football club.
“From day one, we spoke about how this project was going to be something bigger than ourselves. It’s about building a platform for the future and hopefully, that’s going to help future England teams.
“We focus on development. The attraction is that you come here and you know you’re going to develop as a player, become a better footballer and maybe become a better person in the process.
“I think it’s imperative that we have a Regional Talent Club (girls’ academy). We’ve developed a pathway for younger girls to make their way into the first team.
“The majority of WSL teams have RTCs or Academies for girls now. That’s really cool to see.
“There’s progress off the pitch too. I’ve seen our attendances grow from young children to mothers and look at how many people were at the FA Cup final.
“Importantly as well, at our last WSL home game, we had close to 5,000 people in the stands and I noticed the sound coming from the crowd was an octave lower!
“There were a lot of men and boys there and knowing that you have a different audience means you’re making a change.
“People are enjoying watching us play. When we took our trophies to the Etihad Stadium onto the pitch, everyone was really happy for us.
“They were applauding and high-fiving us in the stands, telling us they were proud of what we’ve done. That means a lot.
“Of course, more trophies are always going to be the ultimate goal for us but growing participation in the community is important. Hopefully, our success and hard work will have a knock-on effect.”