Manchester City captain Kyle Walker: Criticism hurts my mum and dad but fuels fire in me

Defender set to lead side into battle against Fluminense in Club World Cup final on Friday on back of stuttering Premier League campaign

Manchester City captain Kyle Walker during the Fifa Club World Cup win over Urawa Red Diamonds at King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, on December 19, 2023. Getty Images
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Kyle Walker is aware of the criticism - what’s more, he's used to it by now - but he has no problem taking the lead in Manchester City’s stuttering bid for silverware this season.

The full-back, hugely decorated since joining City in 2017, captained the team on Tuesday night, when the English and European champions made light work of their Fifa Club World Cup debut against Asian counterparts Urawa Red Diamonds in Jeddah.

Walker played a pivotal role in the 3-0 victory at King Abdullah Sports City, laying on a sumptuous assist for Mateo Kovavic to grab City’s second.

The win, and the tournament overall, provides Pep Guardiola's side some respite from recent domestic troubles. City landed in the kingdom fresh from Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace, when they surrendered a two-goal lead at home.

The draw, extending City’s unwanted Premier League streak to a single victory in six, means they sit fourth in the table, five points from leaders Arsenal.

The fault-finding, from outside at least, has followed.

“I'm always going to get heat; if I'm not doing something right, I get scrutinised,” Walker says. “That's been my whole career, but it gives me the fire to keep going.

“You do see it and I've had a lot of criticism from the fans about me being captain and that it's all my fault. We're a team. We're in a team game. I've said it continuously throughout my career that, if I wanted to play a solo sport, then I'd go and play tennis or golf.

“But I feel being one of the most experienced players and the captain, I'm going to have to take that burden, and it's something I'm going to have to just carry on my shoulders.

“And, as I say to the lads in the [pre-match] huddle, we're here because we went and achieved what we achieved, that no one's going to roll the red carpet out for us. We have to go in there, earn the right.”

Walker’s words take root from not only the Palace collapse, but the matches against Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur in which City conceded late goals to eventually draw.

“Teams are thinking now that they can come and play against us and do what they do, which it's full credit to them,” he says. “But especially the Liverpool, Tottenham and Palace game, we're always defending. And that's not me sticking up for the defence; we're not killing games off that we used to where we go and get three, four goals or games put to bed.

“And we're always defending on a knife edge. But listen, us as defenders need to deal with that pressure, because sometimes we have to hang in games and save the day sometimes.”

Walker’s correct that City could be, to some extent, victims of their own success. Last year’s historic treble – Premier League, FA Cup, Uefa Champions League – stretched their top-fight title haul to five from the past six years.

Successfully defend this season, still very much in play given the league has not even reached midway point, and they become the first English team to win the league in four consecutive years.

Also adding “world champions” to their roll of honours might go some way to changing perceptions. Or, as Walker points out, maybe not.

“I don't think we'll be looked at differently for a good couple of years now,” he says. “Because to go and achieve what the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United did, doing it year-in, year-out for a number of years.

“So to be considered the best club in the world, obviously, it's a great achievement, but the lads know we're probably just starting the building blocks for this club.

“Obviously. clubs have gone and won Premier Leagues in the past, but to go and do it for a dominant amount of time, like we've done it, it's not been done before.

“Hopefully we're starting a new generation and we set the path for the youngsters that are coming through. And the likes of Phil Foden, the Rico [Lewises], they emulate what we've been doing over the last couple of years.”

Should City clinch the Club World Cup on Friday – they face South American champions Fluminense in the final – they will reside as only the second English team to capture five trophies in a calendar year (the Uefa Super Cup the fifth).

Combine the quintet of titles with three consecutive league crowns, and City would have just cause to be considered the greatest Premier League team in history.

“It makes it sound easier when you say it like that, but to go and do it like your Manchester Uniteds with your Ryan Giggses that have won 14 Premier Leagues … it's a flip of a coin.

“I've been involved in the Premier League since I was 19. I’m 33 now, and I can assure you it's a lot harder to win a Premier League probably than it is to go on and win a Champions League.

“Champions League, you need a little bit of luck, it needs to swing your way like it did in the final for us [June's 1-0 win against Inter Milan].

“For us to do what we've done, we take great pride in that. But to be recognised as one of the top, top clubs in the world, I think we have to do it for a little bit more.”

Walker believes City’s struggles are not as bad as have been portrayed, that “we’ve been a little unlucky” even if he concedes in past seasons fortune has at certain times favoured his side.

“It swings and roundabouts, and we've been a little bit lucky that teams probably haven't capitalised on us dropping points,” he says. “So I still feel it's open.

“But we're concentrating on the game on Friday now. And that's to make history for this club, a competition we've never won as players or as a club.

“We'll go and tick that off and then we return to the Premier League with a tough, tough game at Goodison Park against Everton [on December 27].”

Walker highlights the departure of Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez, players of exceptional talent but bona fide Premier League experience too, and need for the summer arrivals – Josep Gvardiol, Jeremy Doku, Matheus Nunes, etc – to settle as another reason for City not quite clicking into gear.

But the squad are not panicking. Far from it. “We're right there, and I feel confident, the lads feel confident, that maybe this is what we need from such a high: a snap back down to reality, and we go again now,” Walker says.

“Hopefully that's the starting block where we go on our good run that we seem to do along the Christmas period and pick up the points.”

Still, given how the fixtures fall, by the time City return to league action next week, they could be as many as 10 points off the summit.

Yet Walker is not particularly concerned about that either. “No, not at all,” he says. “We've been in that position where we've been points clear and Liverpool were here, then all of a sudden they're snapping at our heels.

“What will be will be; we can't do anything about the Premier League while we're here. Our next game is on the 27th and then we play Sheffield United on the 30th. We'll take one game as it comes.

“The main focus of this tournament is to win this competition, not just coming here to play for third and fourth. Now we’re in the final, let's go and win that. And then we'll think about the Premier League when we return.”

Unable to call on arguably their two most effective players, Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne, for the Fluminense game on Friday no doubt hurts that immediate quest.

However, after Haaland has missed the past two weeks with a foot injury and De Bruyne's been an absentee since pulling his hamstring in the Premier League’s opening weekend, the pair have returned to training.

Obviously, their availability would provide a huge boost going into the remainder of the season.

“It's massive,” Walker says. “You can't have two quality players like that out. I feel that the lads have dug in, and we've tried to make sure they can come back as soon as possible.

“They've done fantastic, especially Kevin, to come back from the injury that he had in the amount of time that he's done, and he says it feels good.

“Who doesn't want Kevin De Bruyne on the pitch playing for them? Everyone does. Because it brings the goals, he brings the assists, and he's probably one of the best players in the world.

“So, as soon as we get him on the pitch safely and he can produce the numbers that he does, it's only going to be a benefit for Manchester City.”

Maybe, as Walker suggests, City will simply start firing, go on one of those unstoppable runs they always seem to, and everything will be back on track. Maybe, even, the criticism of Walker will abate.

Understandably, it’s hard to ignore. But it must be sweeter then to silence.

“You get it sent,” Walker says. “It's just natural. I've got a mum and dad that care about me. And then, when their son’s getting hammered …

“I just feel that in football you’ve got short memories. I remember going home in the car [listening to the radio] and, Jeremy's come in and been on fire, all of a sudden Jack Grealish should be out. Now all of a sudden Jack Grealish scores and keep him in the club.

“It is what it is. But that gives me the motivation. Keep hammering me and I'll just keep coming back.”

Updated: December 21, 2023, 7:06 AM