Carney in a class of her own

When 17-year-old English winger Karen Carney took the free-kick that was deflected into the Finland goal for England’s first goal and then, when all seemed lost after her side had conceded an 89th-minute equaliser, calmly powered in the winner, people started talking about her talent.

In the popular imagination, with 2,6-million watching the Women’s Euro Cup match live (it peaked at 2,9-million), Karen Carney became the Wayne Rooney of women’s football.

She has, after all, Rooney’s record-breaking youthfulness. In February she became the youngest player to have been capped in Hope Powell’s seven-year tenure as head coach.
She has the same stocky compactness and thighs that have clearly been improved by exertion. And she has the same uninhibited physicality. She addresses the ball with her whole body, her eyebrows little upwards arrows, her ponytail swishing and swiping, the busiest and bushiest on the pitch.

“I’m not really listening to the comparisons to Rooney,” she says. “I just want it all to go over my head.”

Carney has a small voice off the pitch — nothing like the exhilarated roar of expletives caught by the television cameras on last Sunday as she celebrated her winner (and for which she got a telling-off from her mum). But, it is a sure voice.

Was it a surprise, for instance, to make the cut for Powell’s final 20, having made her senior international debut only in February? She thinks for a moment and, when she answers, more than “surprise” the word she wants is “relief”.

She was shopping in Birmingham when her mobile rang with the news. “I told my mum — she was standing next to me at the time — called my dad, then went and bought a pair of jeans and a few tops,” she says. “It’s been a kind of mad rise to where I am now.”

The “mad rise” has coincided with her time at the National Women’s Player Development Centre in Loughborough, where she studies and trains full-time and plays for Birmingham at weekends. “I haven’t learned new tricks but I’ve got more confident. That’s probably what was lacking,” she says.

“When she arrived she was a bit awestruck, very quiet. In two years she’s blossomed,” agrees Jane Ebbage, who heads up the centre. “She is very well grounded, modest, but with a huge amount of mental determination. Her feet, her agility, her ability to get to pace from a standing position stand out. Her work rate is superb.”

It has always been the case. Her club manager, Marcus Bignot, first met her when she was 10, and he was arriving at Birmingham to take over the women and girls’ teams. The first problem he squared up to was a crisis in the under-12s. The team had dispersed; only two players were left. One of them was Carney.

“I saw straight away that we didn’t want to lose her,” he says. “It was clear even then that she was something we could build things around.”

At Birmingham, they are already contemplating the possible benefits that Carney will bring. The club, which provided five of last Sunday’s starting 11, is anxiously looking for a sponsor. It needs to find £75 000 by the end of the month if it is to continue at the top level of the women’s game. They have finally been given some hope with Carney.

Coping with pressures off the pitch will be nothing new. Carney has endured a difficult 12 months in which she has watched her mother undergo chemotherapy and radiotherapy after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Yet, she has still been at every match and training session. “She has raised the bar in terms of dedication,” says Bignot.

When the tournament is over she has an appointment with the exam hall — an A-level in sports studies and a standard level in leisure and recreation await.

At the England camp she is escorted daily into a quiet room for supervised revision. That way, the England staff hope, she will not have to choose between getting the right exam results and winning Euro 2005. But what if she did?

Easy question.

“Euro 2005. I can re-take the exams, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.” — Â

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