Karen Carney: Retiring England striker's role in transforming game

Karen Carney celebrates playing in her final match for England
Karen Carney is England's second-most capped women's player of all-time

For an assessment of Karen Carney's career, it is hard to beat the words of Chelsea manager Emma Hayes. "She's achieved everything she wanted to in her game," Hayes said last week.

When Carney started out, women's football in England was barely semi-professional. As she ends her playing career, the England team are attracting huge television audiences - and the potential for the future is enormous.

The Chelsea striker's journey has not always been an easy one - she has spoken openly in the past about struggling with depression, and she has also had to deal with rape and death threats from online trolls.

Her achievements, though, speak for themselves. She played 144 times for England, more than any other footballer bar Reading midfielder Fara Williams. She has just completed her fourth World Cup, and has made more appearances at major tournaments than any other English player.

As those who met her will know, she has done all of that with a humble and honest personality.

Carney, 31, played her final match on Saturday as England lost to Sweden in the World Cup third-place play-off.

That came four days after a semi-final defeat by the United States was watched by 11.7 million people in the UK on the BBC.

The women's game in the UK has come a long way in the 14 years since her international debut.

Proving herself on the big stage

Carney made her major breakthrough when England hosted Euro 2005, scoring a 90th-minute winner as Finland were beaten 3-2 at Manchester City's Etihad Stadium.

At that time, women's football in the UK was not getting the attention it does now. England went out at the group stage, and although three matches at the tournament attracted crowds of more than 20,000, other games were poorly attended.

One group fixture between France and Italy in Preston was watched by a crowd of only 957.

Carney would be part of the generation who captured the imagination. Before breaking into the England team, she had already done so at Birmingham City, for whom she made her senior debut aged 14.

That goal against Finland was just the start for Carney at England level. Eight major tournaments later, she finishes an illustrious career as England's sixth-highest goalscorer, having struck at two European Championships and a World Cup.

She was the youngest player to pick up 100 caps for England - appropriately achieving that in the first international women's fixture played at Wembley, against Germany in 2014.

At club level, she made history as part of the Arsenal team who won an unprecedented quadruple of Women's Premier League, FA Cup, Premier League Cup and Uefa Women's Cup.

A spell in the United States with Chicago Red Stars followed before she returned to Birmingham, where she scored the winning penalty in the 2012 FA Women's Cup final shootout against Chelsea.

She then joined Chelsea in 2015 - the same year she became the first female player to be inducted into Birmingham City's Hall of Fame.

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Karen Carney scores for England against Japan at the SheBelieves Cup in 2019.

Not bad for a woman who suggested that, without football, she might have remained in her first job as a supermarket worker.

"In the nicest possible way, my first job was at Sainsbury's - my mum worked there and I was a bag packer," Carney said this week. "I would have worked my way up there.

"I wasn't good at school so I wouldn't have gone to university. I'm so grateful for football and I don't know where I would be without it, but I know I would have worked hard."

A turning point for women's football

Carney was a central figure in what was arguably the breakthrough moment for the England team, when they finished third at the 2015 World Cup in Canada. It was a tournament that broke records across the globe and benefited the women's game back home.

That was followed by another semi-final appearance at Euro 2017. Better television deals, record crowds and increased participation followed.

The transformation over the past four years can be summed up with two numbers. Four years ago, just 5,665 fans attended England's final home World Cup warm-up match against China. Last Tuesday, 53,512 attended their semi-final defeat by the USA in France.

For Carney, that third place in 2015 "earned respect for the women's team".

"The success we had at the World Cup, there was a lot of participation and support off the back of that," Carney told the Metro in 2017.

Her career ends with England seeking to reach the next level and become major tournament winners. In France, she made time to help the squad's "young pups", such as Manchester City's Georgia Stanway and Keira Walsh, in the hope they can help the nation make that step.

"They remind me of myself when I was in my first tournament," said Carney.

Depression, online abuse and self-harm

Karen Carney and Laura Bassett
Karen Carney (right) celebrates winning bronze at the 2015 World Cup with former team-mate Laura Bassett

Carney's performances on the pitch have helped inspire the next generation; off the field, she also raised awareness of mental illness.

In both a documentary with the BBC earlier this year and in previous interviews, Carney has reflected on the struggles that led to her self-harming.

"That was probably the lowest point," she said in 2015. "But I'm here. We just want to inspire people to get through dark places and come through it, because you can."

Carney has spoken out against online abuse too. Last October, she received rape and death threats following her winner for Chelsea against Fiorentina in a Champions League match.

"It's tough - you do have to accept some form of trolling," she said. "You're going to get it but there's a level which is unacceptable and I felt mine completely crossed the line."

Carney hoped discussing these issues would help other footballers who have faced their own adversity, such as Reading midfielder Williams, who admitted to being homeless while playing for England.

"To be able to open up and speak about things comfortably in front of everyone just shows what kind of team we have around here and I think that's really special," Carney said.

What next for Carney and the game?

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I'll miss singing the anthem - Carney

She isn't done yet.

Carney, who said there was "nothing more she could physically or mentally give" as a player, wants to "give back" to the game that gave her so much.

She said: "Moving forward, I don't really know what I want to do. There is an opportunity within the media for me, but I would like to give back to football in some way if I'm able to help."

Chelsea manager Hayes says she will be "heavily involved at Chelsea".

"There's no way I'd let her knowledge be lost," Hayes said. "She is a fabulous role model."

BBC Sport has launched #ChangeTheGame this summer to showcase female athletes in a way they never have been before. Through more live women's sport available to watch across the BBC this summer, complemented by our journalism, we are aiming to turn up the volume on women's sport and alter perceptions. Find out more here.

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