There are plenty of high-profile Brummies to shout about – indeed we do it frequently – but none more impressive or likeable than former England footballer and champion of women’s sport, Karen Carney
If, like us, you became completely obsessed with the Lionesses’ world cup campaign, you can’t have failed to notice former England stalwart Karen Carney’s smart analysis as well as her lilting West Mids accent. Not ones to pass up an opportunity to chat to an inspiring Brummie, we got in touch.
Karen grew up in Solihull and is a lifelong Blues fan – our MD is a Villan so it was touch and go whether this piece would run! She admits she didn’t get a choice coming from a massive Birmingham City family and says that from birth, her support for the club was ‘non-negotiable’. “We’re all Birmingham City through and through.”
Of course, it wasn’t a given that Karen would play the game – most people cheer from the sidelines after all, but once she’d kicked a ball, she was hooked. She says: “I was totally obsessed. I was the only girl that played and I remember a teacher saying, ‘the little one’s quite good’. On the back of that potential the school started a five-a-side team and we won a trophy.”
Holiday camps followed and her love for the game grew. Every birthday, Karen received a new BCFC kit as well the Brazil version. She remembers: “We didn’t have much money, so it was a fake Brazil kit for a while!” Aged eight years, young Karen was treated to a mascot experience and walked out onto the pitch in her beloved Blues kit with her favourite player, Steve Claridge and rather prophetically, she got to do some pitch side punditry with big headphones and a microphone. She recalls: “It was wicked!” Karen made her debut for Birmingham City ladies aged just 14 going on to play for Arsenal, Chicago Red Stars and Chelsea as well as representing her country from 2005 to 2019.
Karen’s success is tinged with a bit of sadness as her big sister, who’s 12 years her senior loved to play football but at the time, there wasn’t a place for her to play. She got involved with football regardless becoming a fantastic ambassador for the sport coaching and refereeing, but Karen knows her sister would have relished the opportunities she’s enjoyed. Not that it’s been easy for Karen, but at least playing the game was an option.
Having to contemplate a way of earning a living while playing football was tricky. Karen left home at 16 on a scholarship to Loughborough University. She says: “I’m from a proper working class family, not academic – smart but not academic. University wouldn’t have been on the cards without football and sport.”
After Loughborough, Karen started interviewing in Birmingham city centre for receptionist roles. She remembers: “I came home and said to my mom ‘I don’t want to do this. I want to go to America’. I worked hard in the gym and in the park and got drafted to Chicago Red Stars.” Karen moved to the US for two years on a professional contract coming back to BCFC.
Media work cropped up quite randomly during a period of injury at Birmingham City. She says: “Women weren’t really in the media commenting on football, so I credit Blues and Radio WM for having the foresight. I started to cover games while I was injured and learned quickly that preparation is key in live TV and radio – anything can happen.”
Karen says she’s attacked everything she’s done with ‘passion and hard work’ and that’s certainly evident off the pitch as well as on it. Post her playing career, she’s flourished. As well as her visible TV work and sports journalism she’s gained a masters and an MBA, she champions women’s sport at every opportunity, not least chairing a significant Government review looking at the unique challenges faced by girls and how to overcome those.
She works as a business consultant and a speaker and does it all with warmth, humility and gratitude. She’s the ultimate female role model of which, thankfully, there are a number in football today. Karen says: “If you asked my sister who her female role models were in football, she wouldn’t have had one. My 16-year-old niece could name lots.”
Despite now living in London (we’ll overlook that), Karen will always call Birmingham home. “I’m just so proud of the people in general and I’d like to do more stuff in the city – not necessarily football related. I want to help Birmingham any way I can. I always want the city to thrive and want the best for it.”