Kyle Walker is asked if, like most footballers, he is motivated to prove people wrong. It is a straightforward question with an extraordinary answer. “Maybe it is my upbringing, where I grew up, you had to survive,” the defender explains before bringing a hush to the room by revealing two deeply traumatic incidents, during his childhood, which “have moulded me into the person I am”.
Those incidents help explain Walker’s motivation and his determination to defy the odds and be fit for this World Cup as he takes himself back to when he was “12,13” years old growing up in the inner-city Sharrow estate in his hometown of Sheffield.
First there was an arson attack which claimed the life of one of his neighbours as she saved her children. Then a man took his own life close to where Walker lived.
“Those two [incidents] were the worst, the ones that stick in my mind. I didn’t know the person [who took his own life]” Walker says. “The police blacked it all off, it was right next to my house.
“I’m 32 now…At that time, when that happened, I didn’t realise. I wasn’t an adult. I wasn’t aware of what was actually happening. If I look back on it now, I think ‘that was actually quite bad’.”
Walker did not know the man but he did know the woman who was killed saving her children after “someone just chucked petrol through the door” and then “chucked a match in” to set fire to their home. “The kids got out. The caretakers caught them on some blankets,” Walker explains.
Did they jump? “The mum threw them out. The mum was a biggish lady and she couldn’t get out,” he says.
There is silence as Walker’s audience, a group of newspaper reporters, take in what he has just said before continuing the questions. He must have been deeply affected?
“I don’t tend to think about it,” Walker says. “I wouldn’t say it’s part and parcel of growing up because no-one should experience that. I think it has moulded me into who I am as a person and I think your path is written out for you to experience certain things in life.
“I’ve had to go through certain setbacks, certain doubts and highs as well which I have achieved at Manchester City. Your path is written out for you and what will be will be.”
There is another motto that Walker lives by: never be beaten. “That’s just been my life,” he says. “Everyone in some way, shape or form, writes me off or says certain things. When I signed for Man City, it was 'can’t believe they paid that much [£50million from Tottenham Hotspur in 2017] for a full-back'. X, Y and Z. It gives me that motivation to actually go and prove people wrong. Again, I have to think first and foremost of myself. And make sure my body is fine and can cope with that and secondly it is proving people [wrong] which I love to do.”
'We should be going far in this World Cup'
Not so long ago it looked like Walker would not make Gareth Southgate’s 26-man squad for this World Cup. A groin injury, suffered in the Manchester derby on October 2, led to surgery and a desperate race against time to be fit, working to 8pm every night at City’s training ground.
Walker has not played since but is physically okay now and will feature during this tournament. “I have got that conditioning, and strength in this groin to hopefully participate in this World Cup,” he says.
“I want to win. I want to… these moments don’t come around too often. They are very special moments. I don’t think any of us can take it for granted. A lot of us have been fortunate to play in two World Cups now. Okay, we did well in the World Cup [semi-final in 2018], we did well in the Euros. It’s a clean slate, though, it’s a new tournament and we have to go and prove that we should be here and we should be going far in this World Cup.”
'We need to take a little bit of arrogance into the game'
It raises another question: just how well can England, who face the United States on Friday and can qualify for the last 16 with a victory, do?
“To win this is the biggest prize of all. No England team has done it since 1966 so to win this World Cup, for every one of us, it would mean the world,” Walker says. “I think we’ve earned the right to have more expectation and that’s not a bad thing. I think when you have expectations it means you are a good team.
“There’s a very fine line between confidence and arrogance. We have to be confident, of course we do, and we need to take a little bit of arrogance into the game. The likes of Man City teams, Barcelonas – you go out there with your chest out and your head held high and you walk out there thinking ‘we’re going to win today’. If you are doubting yourself you are losing the game already. So expectation is good.”
Still Southgate addressed the squad on Tuesday, the day after the 6-2 victory over Iran. “I think Gareth said a very important thing,” Walker explains. “You come off the back of the win – a lot of people are high, a lot of people are a little bit down that they didn’t feature in the game, you’ve got the subs that have come on and made a great impact where they have mixed emotions so it’s about pushing the reset button and making sure you are back to square one and you go into the game like it’s the first game again.”
There does seem to be a bond between Southgate and Walker, whom the manager has relied upon as one of his senior players, even if he did drop him in 2019 for European Championship qualifiers.
“We have kind of lived it [England] together, I have been here since I was 19,” Walker says. “I’ve done the best part of 13 years with a brief period under Roy Hodgson when I didn’t get called upon and under Gareth as well. So again it is pressing that reset…The first one, you’re like ‘OK, well next one I’ll be in the squad’ because I wasn’t playing bad at Manchester City.
“Then the next one comes along and you’re not in the squad and you’re like: ‘alright, you need to press this reset button now in your head and make sure you can prove to the manager that you are worthy of being in this fantastic squad’.”
It is a squad that excites him – even more than feted England squads in the past. “I think you see the likes of Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Jack Grealish, Declan Rice,” Walker says.
“These players are not what we've seen growing up from the England team, where it's about wearing your heart on your sleeve and you go out and your hard work gets you through the games.
“Obviously that's no disrespect to any of the players – Wayne Rooney, Joe Cole, David Beckham… these players had an array of talent but probably not as much talent as what these have got. It's a joy that the English game is actually developing in that way.”
Understandably, given what he has been through, Walker is determined to savour every moment – and make it last as long as possible. “I know that I’m not getting younger so the periods and the moments and the special occasions are very few now but each game, whether that is a World Cup game, a Champions League game, a Premier League game, a Carabao or and an FA Cup I want to approach it with a mindset to win,” he says, adding: “I think you have to take every chance. You never know what’s going to happen in life.”