Karen Carney felt her chest tighten. Perched on the Match of the Day sofa, the heat of the bright studio lights seemed to intensify with every passing second.
“I think I had an anxiety attack on air because of what had happened to me,” she tells The Athletic. “Live on the show, as it was happening. I was really struggling to breathe. It was on the run (when a TV show cuts to a series of clips that the presenters and guests can talk over). Luckily the run meant I wasn’t in vision. I was really, really struggling.”
The former England international, who retired in 2019 after an 18-year career that saw her compete at four World Cups (including winning a bronze medal in 2015) is one of a handful of female players who have forged a new career in covering the men’s game (while also still working in the women’s). It’s a transition that has opened her up to levels of scrutiny and abuse that have, at times, pushed her to the brink.
“It has a massive impact,” says Carney of the social media abuse she has received (“not just one incident” she clarifies “but a few instances where scrutiny and abuse has been really bad”), which at one point led her to consider walking away from broadcasting entirely. “I surround myself with really good people who constantly remind you to not worry about those things but it still gets to you. As well as saying I would give up on this job, in essence, when it was really bad, I also nearly gave up on myself.”
That period came at the end of 2020 when the now-35-year-old was subjected to a barrage of sexist abuse on social media following criticism of her punditry from Leeds United’s official Twitter account. The impact on her mental health was significant.
“I felt physically sick,” she told BT Sport six months later. “I was sat the whole night, until three or four in the morning, in this daze… it was relentless. I can’t even describe it. It wasn’t for one hour, it was for three or four days and now it still comes up, people still send me abuse.”
Just 18 months earlier, Carney had been playing for the Lionesses in her fourth World Cup, taking her tally of England caps to a remarkable 144 (only Fara Williams and Jill Scott have collected more). Days before the team’s final game of the tournament — a third-place play-off against Sweden — she announced it would be the final game of her career. It was a decision she had made months earlier and something she had been planning for even longer, completing a master’s in psychology while she was still playing, and making early forays into broadcasting.
Even so, the transition from footballer to former footballer had its challenges.
“After the World Cup I felt a sense of freedom,” she says. “It lasted about two weeks. Then the reality hit. Stepping out into the unknown is really, really daunting. I realised how institutionalised I was with being involved in football for so long. It was like I’d been living in the 1970s. And everyone was way ahead of me. I just wasn’t used to normal life.
“I remember buying myself a big diary that was really similar to how I kept my schedule at Chelsea. If someone wanted to book something in with me, I’d say, ‘You’ll have to wait until I go home because I need to look at my big diary’. I’ve now transformed into the 21st century. Even things like going to the doctor — I’d never had one really, I’d always gone to the club doctor.
“Going back to normal life, I felt very institutionalised.”
For many elite sportspeople, especially those who have competed at a high level from a young age as Carney had (she made her England debut at the age of 17), retirement can also result in a loss of identity.
That void is one that Carney says she has accepted will always be there. “The sooner you realise you’ll never be able to fill that void, the easier life is because you’ll be forever chasing something that you can’t go back to. Playing football, or whatever sport it might have been, is your dream. If you try and attain to that you’ll forever be unhappy and chasing something. The sooner you realise that, the better.”
Alongside her broadcasting roles with ITV and Sky Sports, Carney is leading the government’s review into the future of women’s football. Knowing coaching was never going to be the pathway for her, she has followed a different one. She recently completed an MBA in business, consulted for Visa on its women’s football campaign and helped create a career development programme for footballers in the WSL, ensuring they have options when the time comes to retire.
“I’m involved in a lot of business meetings. So I have my little work laptop and I go into the office. I’m a proper corporate person for a few days a month,” she says, smiling.
It’s a world away from the role she is best known for these days, as one of the country’s highest-profile pundits, working across men’s and women’s football. The transformation, from a young player once nicknamed “mute” by her team-mates at Arsenal because of her quiet nature to a broadcaster comfortable airing her opinions far and wide, has taken some time.
“I’ve only come into my own maybe the last six or seven months,” says Carney. “In the beginning, I thought, ‘Well, I played the game’. And I’ve been lucky to have some really good tactical experiences. I think I know the game quite well — not any better than anybody else but I understand the game.
“But there’s such a difference between knowing football and knowing TV. They’re very different. It’s about understanding your audience — who are you talking to? Who’s listening? Will they understand you? Will they even care to think about a diamond or a 4-3-3? So understanding TV took me quite a while. I thought, ‘I know football, why can’t I just talk about it?’. But it doesn’t work like that.
“It’s taken me a good three years to really settle into where I am now as a broadcaster. I’ve done some amazing things but it’s probably only in the last six months that I’ve felt comfortable in myself. Felt confident in myself. And felt like I’m around teams that really try and get the best out of me. I’ve had knocks along the way that have been well-documented. Some I haven’t spoken about, some I have.”
The C-word is a big one for Carney. Confidence is a fragile commodity that takes time to build and can be destroyed in an instant. The rebuilding process, she says, has been the most challenging part of her move into broadcasting.
“In football, if I had a bad day — if I ever got sent off or missed a penalty — I always knew how to respond because I was so experienced. But in this industry, I’m still a newcomer. To respond after difficult moments in a new career is pretty daunting.
“Owning your own confidence is the biggest thing. Throughout your career as a footballer, you’re told not to have an opinion because you represent the club or you represent your national team. So you’re trained to say very little and not be that opinionated. So then to go into a job that requires you to be opinionated, to have the confidence to do that… sometimes the hardest part is the setbacks or the knocks. That’s really, really difficult. I’ve found the hardest thing is to keep going.”
Her resilience was severely tested following the Leeds United incident at the end of 2020. Was it broken? Almost.
But Carney had been here before. As a 21-year-old chasing her dream of being a professional footballer, she was playing for Chicago Red Stars in the US. Some of the best displays of her career were followed by a string of injuries and a knee operation that left her without the one thing she often felt was holding her together: football.
“I think I would have had a mental health battle at a point in my career anyway,” says Carney. “It just came at that point where I had my injury. But it would have always bit me. I’ve always said that I was built on sand and not on concrete.”
She spiralled into a dark place, lost in a haze of depression, self-harm and an addiction to sleeping pills that a doctor had first prescribed when she’d become too anxious to sleep. Knowing she needed help, Carney returned to the UK, signing for her hometown club, Birmingham City, before the launch of the Women’s Super League in 2011.
Though it was reported in the media as a huge coup not only for Birmingham but for the whole league to have a player of her quality, Carney’s focus was solely on getting well.
“I’d worked with a psychologist before, just focused on sport and helping with things on the pitch, but when I went through what I did in the States, it wasn’t about sport. It was about, ‘OK, we need to stop this harming and get you back to a point where we’re not a bit nervous. To a point where you’re OK’.
“Me coming back and working with people was actually never about football. I came back for my health. I was very open and honest when I played football at that time that unfortunately, football wasn’t a priority.”
The person helping Carney recommended she study for a master’s in psychology to help her better understand mental health and her own experiences. Reflecting on it, Carney believes that period was formative. “I wouldn’t change what I’ve been through because going through that process allowed me to be better as a human being — and actually, I think it has given me the career I have now.”
Does she still work with a psychologist? “No, I don’t. I’ve dipped in since I retired. I probably should. And again, I’m not fearful of saying that. I don’t think people should be afraid to say, ‘I’ve spoken to a couple of people about certain things’. I don’t think we should shy away from that. I probably do need to. But at the moment, I feel OK, touch wood.
“I also understand myself as an adult more now. And people around me — my loved ones — understand me more, so they can help support and call me out on a few things.
“I still need to do some work. There’s still underlying stuff that I probably do need to work on. But like in anything, you manage things. And surrounding myself with a really positive team has been really good. I mean that: I feel really, really supported. And that helps.”
Part of Carney’s rebuilding process this time was to cut down on her social media consumption. She removed herself from Twitter entirely and there are restrictions on who can comment on her Instagram posts. “It was a case of, ‘I don’t want to give people space that I’m on there with my name on it’,” she says of leaving Twitter. “It’s just better not hearing it, and better for my time management as well.
“I’ve got to the point where I know I’m going to get criticised. And sometimes I’ll get some really good stuff as well — there are some really nice people that reach out. But I just think, ‘Why do you need it?’. If you’re in a school playground, and there’s a bully, and you go and stand by the bully every day… don’t do that. Just go and stand somewhere else. That’s all I’ve done. I’ve just removed myself and I’m cracking on.
“My attitude is that I want to try and shift those negative comments that I’ve previously had to really good ones, because people see that I am resilient and I’ve worked really hard. And by removing myself from some platforms, my confidence isn’t as hit. So I can be more confident when I’m doing the job. Because that’s the hardest thing.”
Recently returned from the World Cup in Qatar where she was part of ITV’s broadcast team alongside Ian Wright, Gary Neville, Roy Keane and Eni Aluko, Carney recognises that the negative side of social media is something that affects everyone whose role is to share their football views on a major broadcast platform. “We’re in an opinionated job,” she says. “Some people might disagree with my opinion and I don’t mind people challenging that. But there’s a level where it crosses the line. And that’s where it’s completely wrong.
“There should be better consequences to things like that. Things you wouldn’t say in the street, why should you be able to say them from behind a keyboard? It significantly affected my mental health, I still have issues with it quite a lot. It’s no solace but all the pundits get it. Everyone gets it and it’s wrong. But I’ve just removed myself from certain things and my health has improved massively.”
Carney emphasises that as well as the challenging times she’s experienced since retiring, there have also been some “magnificent” ones. “I’ve just come back from broadcasting at a World Cup with some amazing people. I went to both Champions League finals. The Women’s Euros was incredible. So I’ve had some really positive moments as well.”
This summer will mark four years since she called an end to an incredible career littered with accolades and trophies. For Carney, football was always the “easy” bit. She was extraordinarily talented. Saw things on the pitch that few others could. Was nicknamed the “wizard” for her ability to conjure up match-winning moments of magic.
Away from the pitch is where she fought her most fierce battles. And it’s those that she believes have helped to strengthen her over the years.
“The thing that I’m really, really proud of, is that when there have been bad moments, I’ve always shown up to work. It was the same in football — if you get sent off or miss a penalty you’ve got to go again.
“It’s similar to when you play — the more experiences you have, the more you can deal with things. Where there’s discomfort, there is growth; that’s something I live and die by. If I feel uncomfortable in certain moments: grow. This is a time when you learn and you move forward.
“If I missed a penalty, which I did in my career quite a few times, did I want to take another one? Yeah, I did. Did it feel uncomfortable? Fucking absolutely it did. Did I feel uncomfortable in moments on TV? Absolutely. But you’ve got to improve.
“A couple of times. I did think, ‘Sod this, I’m not doing this anymore’. But there’s still that inner drive and determination to go, ‘No, don’t (walk away). Keep going. Get better, get stronger, surround yourself with good people, and put yourself in the right team’.
“I always think, ‘If you give up then what does that show about you? What does it show everybody else?’. Life is hard sometimes. But actually, you’ve got a really really good opportunity. Take it. You just need to keep going with it.”
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