Keira Walsh's whirlwind: From possible nightmare to World Cup finalist dream

13 days ago it looked like her World Cup was over, now the England midfielder is right at the heart of a defining moment in the nation's footballing history.

It was iconic. Just for all the wrong reasons.

Keira Walsh’s nasty-looking tumble in the first half of England’s second group stage match against Denmark prompted the midfielder to take herself out of the match and utter the phrase “I’ve done my knee.”

The nation, and any women’s football fan, was triggered. There has been an ACL injury pandemic of epic proportions over the past 18 months. That disheartening list includes England captain Leah Williamson and Euro 2022 golden boot winner Beth Mead, as well as many many other luminaries.

On the biggest stage, here was another of England’s most talented players on crutches and glassy-eyed. Trauma set in.

It was a nightmare. Heartbreak for her teammates. Something tactically puzzling for her manager to try and problem-solve.

However, England’s worst fears were not realized. Despite the concerning images and the player’s reaction, Walsh only suffered a minor knock to her knee. A week later she was back in the Lionesses’ starting XI for the start of the 2023 World Cup knockout rounds.

Now, just less than two weeks since that injury scare, the FC Barcelona player is on her way to a first-ever World Cup final having played every minute bar one in the round of 16 shootout win over Nigeria, the 2-1 Colombia quarterfinal, and 3-1 Australia semifinal victories.

Looking back on that moment, Walsh didn’t have much positivity to cling to initially. But once her worst fears weren’t confirmed after medical scans it opened the door for her speedy return.

“I think when I first did it, I wasn't really convinced that I would be back on the pitch,” Walsh told me in the mixed zone on Wednesday night, after England’s win over Australia.

“I think, yeah, I was in a lot of pain. And then kind of once we'd got the results and done a lot of rehab of the physios and the medical team. I think that was kind of just the aim from that was getting back on the pitch.”

During those days of uncertainty in the treatment room, Walsh admits that she wouldn’t have been able to mount a return if it wasn’t for the attitude and support of her England teammates.

“I think it's just the positive vibes. I think I was made to feel included. And obviously, you know, there were times when I didn't train and they'd come back and they'd make me feel really included. And we'd sit at dinner a little bit longer or have lunch. Yeah, just those little things,” Walsh said with a warm smile.

“And I think that's what's really special about this team is that we do a lot for each other away from the pitch and obviously when you're on the other side of the world, it's really important because not a lot of us I've family here friends here. So yeah, you kind of become that for each other and the girls definitely did that.”

Keira Walsh (left) celebrating England’s semifinal win on the pitch in Sydney with Jill Scott | England

During the World Cup, Walsh is also taking a break from social media. She’s trying to be as in the moment as possible.

The upside is she feels tremendously connected to her teammates and their ambition to win England’s first-ever World Cup. But the lack of remote connection means she hasn’t been able to witness how much of England is rallying behind her and the Lionesses while they are Down Under.

“I don't really know what's going on too much back at home. But yeah, I think I think you can even see it here. You know, think it's massive for women's football in Australia at the start of the tournament. Obviously, not many people knew. And then by the end, you know, it's grown massively. So I just think in general, it's a really exciting time. And I think we can keep inspiring the young girls and boys at home, then yeah, that's job done for us, as well as reaching the final.”

That grand finale could feature up to 11 Barcelona players, with duo Walsh and Lucy Bronze representing England and the others Spain. In that contingent is Aitana Bonmati, who Walsh considers a “very good friend” and a “great player.” The two have been texting throughout the tournament and the Englishwoman said the Spaniard messaged her good luck before Wednesday’s semifinal versus Australia.

Adapting to change

In some ways, the Walsh injury was the turning point for England at the 2023 World Cup. It forced head coach Sarina Wiegman to change formation and shift her team’s shape to a 3-5-2. Although, it also feels like there have been many turning points.

Structurally speaking though, England hasn’t looked back since. The Lionesses dismantled China 6-1 in Walsh’s absence, a performance she heralded as a “fantastic job.” Then, against Nigeria, Walsh returned in central midfield lined up alongside Georgia Stanway.

At first, the reunion didn’t prosper. That match wasn’t a particularly encouraging showing, because, just like against Haiti, the Super Falcons were able to target Walsh as a key pressure point for disrupting England’s flow on the ball.

Although after the Lauren James sending off, England looked better in a 4-4-1, Wiegman maintained faith in the new shape and Walsh’s role within it.

Against Colombia, Walsh was back to her old self hitting an 87.5% pass completion rate and leading all players for progressive passes with nine. It was a lofted ball over the top by the midfielder that created England’s equalizer just before halftime.

The Barcelona midfielder is the metronome. She links the lines of England's shape together. Heading into the World Cup final against Spain, only Alex Greenwood (9.37) has more passes into the final third per match than Walsh (7.87).

“bringing the belief out in each other”

England’s trademark in this World Cup has been its ability to adapt and respond to adversity. From Walsh’s injury to the James red card, to going a goal down against Colombia, to remaining clinical until the end, after Sam Kerr equalized, in the semifinal win over Australia.

Whilst many would say that Walsh has embodied the Lionesses’ penchant for sticking to the plan and remaining calm under immense pressure, the midfielder credits her manager for creating that unwavering belief.

”I think Serena and the coaching staff are a big part of that. I think, you know, when you look to the sideline, and she has full belief, she's confident, she never really looked under pressure. And I think you can feel that when you're playing. And it was just about bringing the belief out in each other,” said Walsh adamantly.

“I think we've always had the talent, we've always had the attitude and determination. It was kind of just finding that in those moments. It's not easy going behind in the World Cup game. And then obviously, the equalizer tonight, you know, it's in front of the home crowd is difficult to come back home. And we did it again. And yeah, I think it just shows that we've got another year to go.”

Walsh’s World Cup has been a rollercoaster. A quick switch from a tournament that was nearly taken away to one of omnipresence and an unprecedented final appearance. The first World Cup final (men’s or women’s) for England in 57 years, the first-ever for the Lionesses.

13 days ago, in a time of distress, Walsh found those four words “I’ve done my knee.” Now, she’s speechless.

“We're in a World Cup final, it's pretty hard to put into words, to be honest. There are no words.”