An invariably bewitching era will end on Saturday as Karen Carney pulls on her boots for one final time before retiring from football.
As one of England’s most-gifted and most-capped players, the now former Chelsea winger could not have picked a better setting for that swansong than the foothills above the Côte d’Azur where the Stade de Nice stages the third-place play-off between England and Sweden.
If English women’s football is to catch the USA’s, schools will be key
“Karen will get her 144th cap at some point,” confirmed Phil Neville as he sat next to a near tearful Carney on the Riviera on Friday. Despite the emotion in her voice, she was adamant it was the right moment to announce a decision that had been under discussion with England’s manager for 12 months.
The 31-year-old has sensed for some time that her body was no longer keeping up with one of the sharpest brains in the game. “My mind can still do everything but I don’t think my body can,” said the former Birmingham, Arsenal and Chicago Red Stars player. “My mind wants to continue playing until I’m 100 but my body tells me enough’s enough. It’s the right decision; I don’t think I’ve anything more in the tank. I’ve given my heart and soul for my clubs and my country. So, no regrets.”
Not that it is easy to walk away from a sport which has, in many ways, been her life. “The thing I’ll miss most is singing the national anthem before internationals,” said Carney, who delayed telling teammates her big news until after breakfast on Friday. “That and kicking a ball.”
Perhaps surprisingly she names Euro 2005 as the zenith of her career. “It was the best bit, my first tournament and in England too,” she said. “But biggest highlight was telling my mum I’d be playing for England after my first call-up.”
What it’s like covering Megan Rapinoe, the World Cup’s most interesting star
She is not sure what happens now although media work will beckon. “I’d feel quite empty if I couldn’t give something back to football in some way,” she said. “My first job was in Sainsbury’s, where my mum worked, so I don’t know what I’d have had done without football. But as a player you’re so selfish, so self-driven you sometimes forget the most important people in your life. That’s not in a malicious way, it’s what you have to do, but now I’d like to give something back to the people who’ve supported me.”
As keen as Neville is to offer a fitting sendoff to Carney – a player he has bonded with and describes as “an amazing person” – he will not allow sentiment to intrude on attempts to secure the bronze medal. He admits the most concerning defeat of his tenure came against Sweden in Rotherham last November when a 2-0 friendly defeat “ruined my Christmas” and he is anxious to avoid a repeat.
“Sweden are a brilliant team – they’re good tactically and strong physically,” he said. “Our challenge now is: ‘Can we beat solid, well organised, consistent sides like them?’ The bronze is not the medal we wanted to win and it’ll be tough but it’s the only one we can have.”
Golden Boot Standings: top scorers for France 2019 World Cup
Much hinges on how the pair cope with the respective disappointments of semi-finals defeats by USA and the Netherlands. “We’re hurting and Sweden will be hurting,” said Neville, who will be without the suspended Millie Bright but intends fielding his strongest available team. “It’s going to be a mental test: can you get yourself up? They’ll be thinking they probably should have beaten the Netherlands but we want to have something to show for this tournament. I want to be lying on a sunbed on holiday next week happy we’ve won bronze.”
England know that, in future, their manager will demand more of them. “My players are under no illusions that the effort has to go up,” said Neville, who made clear he would “welcome” the Premier League taking over the running of the WSL.
“At the moment we’re a team that likes to complete 12 laps but it’s got to become 20 because we’re all sick of losing semi-finals. My players have realised that, physically, winning hurts and now we need to start kicking on. A lot of people talk about us inspiring people but the ultimate inspiration is actually winning a trophy.”
The England forward Toni Duggan is leaving Barcelona after two seasons but has not revealed her next club.