In the second of The Mixed Zone’s series of articles ahead of the World Cup showdown in Newport, Katie Whyatt catches up with Natasha Harding to talk about her upbringing and the part former England manager Mark Sampson played in her career
Most of the Wales football squad would describe Natasha Harding as the team’s joker. She would stand out in any company, and not just because she has a tattoo of a camel on one of her toes. Her Reading team mate Remi Allen believes Harding is such an extrovert that she “could make friends with a pole”. Harding is affable, warm and amiable, yet also searingly honest, self-aware and erudite.
A conversation with her dips and zips from Hooch to The Chimp Paradox, the book by the acclaimed psychologist Steve Peters. She looks back on her past – particularly the hardships of growing up in an underprivileged area of Caerphilly – with unflinching frankness. Her right arm is decorated with Buddhist and Hindu iconography, and she describes herself as “a big believer in karma” because “for me, it is something that always seems to be brought up”. There were the challenges, too, of her move from Manchester City to Liverpool in 2016, which left Harding so riddled with feelings of worthlessness that she reflects now she “probably had some sort of mental health issue”.
For the time being, though, her thoughts are firmly on Friday’s crucial World Cup qualifier against England, and just how close Wales are to qualifying for the finals for the first time. “We’ve been able to compete with one of the best [teams] in the world with little resources and part-time players” Harding says. “To be in a position where we potentially could qualify shows that hard work is down to individuals and down to the team. If you have that team spirit, then you can almost do the impossible.”
Harding knows all about the mental side of the game. She was once a psychology sceptic. “If you’d asked me, I’d have been, like, ‘Oh, I don’t trust them. They try and work you out. They’re sitting in the background and they act like they know you’.” Then she read The Goldmine Effect. “It basically says that the difference between someone winning eight gold medals at the Olympics, and someone winning two, is the person who won eight was from a bad background. They had to work for everything they ever had – whether that was food, clothes, going to sporting events. The other person was from a background where they had things given to them. I do think that when you come from a less fortunate background, it’s in your nature to push yourself that extra bit. It’s going to hurt – but you’ve probably hurt worse in previous times in your life.”
Harding describes the area where she grew up as “quite a poor area in South Wales. There’s not a lot of money involved. We made do with what we had. I didn’t have the best clothes in the world. I didn’t have the new trainers – I would wear my astros, the bottoms would be falling off and we would tape them up. We always got told that you always have to be grateful for whatever, and I think that’s what’s got me to where I am now. We had to work hard for everything we had.”
She grew up surrounded by a dubious crowd. “I have a running joke that maybe I’m fast because I used to run from the police,” she says. “Like every kid, you might get into trouble here and there – but it’s harmless. I had a lot of friends who are now probably down-and-outs and have taken the wrong path compared to what I did. I still go home and I see the friends I grew up with – I’ll see them over Christmas – but they’re still doing the same things that we were doing when we were 14-15. In that sense, I feel very grateful.”
She says their indiscretions were “the typical things: drinking underage, smoking – the kids outside a shop asking adults to go in and buy the things we couldn’t get our hands on. People always say about drinks when you’re younger – Mad Dog 20 20 or Hooch … They were the things that you weren’t allowed to drink because you were under 18, but they were seen as the classy drinks, if that makes sense. We would go to a park, play football and some people would be drinking on the side – I’m talking 13-14 years of age, maybe even younger. You’d have a curfew for 10 o’clock, and I’d be running home, and I’d be half an hour away with ten minutes to get home.”
When Harding turned 15, she began playing for the school football team. She simply “stopped going out” and began coaching the younger age groups. She still “goes home now to see my teacher who meant a lot to me”. The sessions drew Harding from those dangerous spaces and she forged new friendships. “For me, it was about a team ethic, without knowing it at the time. I never had one or two friends – there were always six, seven, eight of us. I always had that family sense everywhere we went.”
Harding had the drive and the talent. Perhaps there was an inevitability, then, about the moment she made her first-team debut for Cardiff City in January 2007, aged 17. She spent two years in the reserves – “they said my personality wasn’t the right one, or I wasn’t serious enough” – before she went on to captain the side. But it was at Bristol Academy that Harding became a star. Under the guidance of Mark Sampson – albeit during the period now tinged by the safeguarding investigation into his “inappropriate relationships with female players” that led to his dismissal from the England job in 2017 – Harding’s career took off.
“I always say that Mark gave me a chance on the higher level,” she says, “when a lot of people probably would have gone, ‘Nah, I don’t know if I want her. She’s a bit of a loose cannon’. Mark used to call me a maverick. I don’t know if that was a compliment or not, [but it was] a more polite word than he probably would have called me before. But he was great. At Bristol, his man-management, for me, was very good. I can only speak on the experiences that I’ve had with him, but he used to know how to get the best out of us and make us go beyond that level.”
In 2013, the third season of the WSL, Bristol finished second, behind Liverpool and ahead of Arsenal, and secured a Champions League spot. “He made you feel that you were the best in the world. We all felt that we had value and we all brought something to the table. Without him, I think that jigsaw never would have worked. The few of us who were at Bristol, in that time and that era, are always thankful to him for what he’s done.”
At the end of the 2014 season, Washington Spirit came calling. The offer was irresistible: a move to the most competitive league in the world, to the club at which England’s Jodie Taylor, later top scorer at Euro 2017, had plied her trade. But Harding was denied a visa and blocked from entering the United States, forcing a rapid reroute to Manchester City. As plan Bs go, it was an extraordinary one, at least on paper. It was City’s second season in the top tier, yet within the doors of the club’s gleaming Football Academy, manager Nick Cushing was assembling a young group of players who have since become household names: Lucy Bronze, Jill Scott, Toni Duggan.
However, within ten months, Harding was at Liverpool. She reflects she was simply “just not what [Manchester City] were looking for”. But the psychological blow was huge. “Looking back now, I probably had some sort of mental health issue,” she says. “I was really anxious, I stopped eating a bit, I lost a lot of weight, I didn’t sleep right … I felt I was neglected at the time. It’s almost like someone doesn’t want you.
“That’s no disrespect to Nick as a manager or Manchester City as a club at all – they could have said no in the first place – but I went there hoping that the dream was still alive. I was part of this amazing set-up [and it felt like I was] almost shoved to one side. I don’t think that my head was in the right space at all. I didn’t play very good football because my confidence was very, very low.
“I remember going away with Wales – Jayne [Ludlow, the national team manager] would ask if I was OK, and I would just start crying. I don’t think anyone, in any sport or walk of life, would want to feel that they’re not needed or not wanted. For me, that was really hard to take: going from the highs of being one of the stars of Bristol, to potentially going to my dream move in America, to having that taken away and then to be cast away from Man City… As a football player, sometimes you don’t know how to deal with it.
“Because I didn’t have time. On the Wednesday morning at 10 o’clock, I had a missed call from my agent. ‘Liverpool have put in a bid. Man City have said you could talk to them …’ My head was, obviously, ‘They don’t want me, so I might as well speak to someone’. By 4pm, I had a phone call to say, ‘Congratulations – you’re a Liverpool player’. Going from preparing to get a house with some of the girls at Man City to then being told, ‘Actually, no – you’re playing for Liverpool …’ To get your head wrapped around that was pretty hard for me to do. I loved Manchester as a city, and I loved the people at the club. I wasn’t ready to move on. I’d already had a setback the previous year, to then have another one …”
Did she lose herself, her identity? “Yeah. People who know me know I am a very easy-going, outgoing character. I will talk to anyone. It doesn’t take two seconds out of your day to ask how someone is. But confidence is a massive key to anyone’s playing ability. When I went to Liverpool, I just … Looking back now, I probably should have asked for help a bit more.
“In football, that happens – but that was my first time of ever being exposed to that. It just added another dent to my confidence. It got to a point where I didn’t even want to play football anymore. I would never let that happen again. At the end of the day, I’ve realised [things about] loyalty: in football, you’re just a number. Whether that’s a bad or a good thing to say, we’re just another digit on their books.”
Harding is now “loving my football again”. In 2017, she was Liverpool’s joint top scorer, with a goal every other game. She credits her recovery to a stable support network: her mother “is a very headstrong person. Sometimes for people just to take that, ‘Oh, how are you doing?’ and to do things that don’t revolve around football. I think that’s the key to it, really. It just shows that when you’re really, really low, you can come out of the other end.”
In her spare time, Harding is also a director of the girls’ side of the South Wales Sport Academy in her home borough of Caerphilly, and runs soccer schools when she is back home. “I never had that opportunity when I was younger. People ask me, ‘Who was your idol? Who did you want to play for?’ And it was always male football teams and male football players. That’s a great achievement for myself personally, giving back what I never had.”
It is staggering how humble and unassuming Harding, one game from a World Cup and with 50 caps under her belt, really is. Later that evening, she sends a text. It reads: “Thank you for being interested in me enough to do an interview.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Whyatt. Katie’s latest articles