Monday turned out to be quite a night for Manchester City midfielder Keira Walsh. As the 20-year-old was readying herself for a night at the North West Football Awards, an email she’d been longing for came through.
Walsh went on stage later that night and spoke about her ambition to receive a senior team call-up, when privately that message had already come through some hours earlier.
Further down south, the same email reached Arsenal’s Leah Williamson. No more than 10 days separate the two young stars in age, so it’s no surprise both made their professional debuts within a few months of each other back in 2014.
It’s therefore perhaps fate that both have been called up to the England squad for the first time by their former coach Mo Marley for this month’s World Cup qualifiers against Kazakhstan and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Many fans will say it’s been a long time coming, and it has. It’s been more than three years now since both made their first appearances in the FA Women’s Super League; Walsh was seen as a necessity by many for England’s Euro 2017 form, while Williamson was even a dark horse to make the 2015 World Cup flight to Toronto.
The honors they share match their talent. As Walsh was picking up the Rising Star award at Monday’s NWFA, not many within the game still view her as that. Walsh is a midfielder who has run games against some of the top sides in the biggest games, regularly picking up Man City’s player of the match award, including the FA Cup final this year against Birmingham City.
Aside from that, the 20-year-old already has all three major domestic honors to her name, and played in the Champions League semifinals against Lyon earlier in 2017. Walsh has won the FA Cup, the Continental Cup, and the FA Women’s Super League, and despite two lengthy spells on the touchline through injury, has done more than enough to earn her call-up, the only surprise is it has taken this long.
Despite injuries stunting her process slightly, Williamson’s CV is even more impressive. Bursting onto the scene as an all-action midfielder in 2014, her debut came in the Champions League quarterfinals, before she picked up her first piece of silverware just a month and a half later.
The 2014 FA Cup final, held in Williamson’s home town of Milton Keynes, saw the fledgling teenager come off the bench and her year went from strength to strength. The box-to-box midfielder saved her first – and to date only – FA WSL goal for a well-perfected lob against rivals Chelsea, and would play in her second cup final of the year when Arsenal lost 1-0 to Manchester City in the Continental Cup finale, with Williamson named the tournament’s player of the year.
Within the space of a month early into 2015, and less than a year since her debut, Williamson’s career exploded. Having been named England’s Youth Player of the Year in January, the midfielder penned her first professional contract at the end of March, and a week later found herself taking a penalty live with the world watching via Sky Sports News.
On April 4, 2015, Williamson scored a last-minute penalty against Norway in Northern Ireland to send England’s U-19, coached by Marley at the time, to the 2015 UEFA U-19 Championships.
German referee Marija Kurtes disallowed the goal due to encroachment from teammate Rosella Ayane, but instead of allowing the penalty to be retaken, Kurtes awarded a free kick to Norway — incorrectly.
After a lengthy appeal process, the players returned to the scene of the crime five days later and the game would restart in the 96th minute with Williamson stood over the penalty spot. It was streamed live on Sky Sports News, but the teenager didn’t buckle, sending her penalty into the bottom corner and sending England to the European Championships.
Two weeks later, Williamson was voted PFA Young Women’s Player of the Year and her career was on the rise. Injuries and an on-off move to a center back position perhaps ensured her first senior call-up was postponed, but the Arsenal star is just as deserving as Walsh and was Marley’s captain for most of the time spent working with the interim head coach in the U-19 squad.
What fans will hope for now is that they both become permanent additions to an aging squad. Ten of the players regularly picked for England are now into their thirties, eleven if you include Laura Bassett.
Fans have long felt it was time for new blood, new ideas, and exciting new talent; Marley has at least started to deliver, and more could and should follow if the former Everton manager gets the job on a permanent basis.