Cheeky. Funny. Two words that Liverpool’s Natasha Harding often describes herself by when we meet on Merseyside to talk about a career path that has seen the Wales international go through more ups and downs than a rollercoaster.
Two words also that many of her team mates, coaches and friends would likely describe the 28-year-old by, and anyone else who has ever come into contact with her. But growing up, there was a very different Natasha Harding beneath the surface, and she’s incredibly candid about her less than smooth childhood.
“I was always in trouble,” she admits. “Whether that was trouble with the police or something else. I grew up in quite a rough area, all my friends were boys and if they were fighting, I was fighting.
“You do all the stupid things when you’re little. We’d play the knock-knock game where you knock on someone’s door and run away, I was always the one who got caught, even though I’m pretty fast.”
Those troubles though set Harding on a pathway that would see her represent her country, play for two of the biggest names in English club football, and more than anything, give a young teenager a more settled life.
“I got into football because of the area I grew up in. That was an option for me to stay out of trouble. I started when I was 5, playing for a small team in Cardiff and I was there until I was 13. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t in trouble but it helped put me on a good path, I was one of the boys and if they got into a fight I was in the fight with them.”
She adds, “I was naughty but I was really cheeky, if I ever got into trouble I’d get myself out of it.”
On one such occasion, she had to apologise to a neighbour for taking all her new flowers to give to her Grandma.
“I’d have to go and apologise but I’d just be cheeky about it and they’d just let it go – that’s me all over really.”
After leaving her first club at 13, Harding took a step away from football with no local girls’ club for her to continue her development towards the top level.
She tried out rugby, hockey, athletics and netball but none seemed to quite relate to Harding like football had.
“Rugby sort of suited me because I had that aggression as a kid and it took me away from those troubles,” she recalls. “I was very good, a scout from Cardiff thought I was a boy because I had shorter hair, someone had to turn around and tell them I was a girl.
“When I had hockey trials for Wales, I turned up in shorts rather than a skirt and I was the outcast right away. It sounds stupid but I found it hard to relate to girls because I’d only ever grown up around boys. It was like ‘how do I react to girls?’ I couldn’t go up and just put one in a headlock but that’s how I’d grown up.”
Despite lending her hand to an array of sports growing up, it’s her teachers that Harding credits with her keeping on the path to the career she has today.
“They didn’t want me to be doing what my friends were doing,” she says. “Whether that was drinking, drugs, smoking, just getting into trouble. I applied myself to different things, my teachers were massive so when I’m home I make sure I go and see them.”
Harding adds, “I was getting swayed, you have that sort of peer pressure when your mates are asking you to go down the pub. I was 13/14 and drinking alcohol because my mates were all over 16. I was very different to my friends, I’d be the one sticking up for the ones getting bullied even though my friends were probably the ones bullying them.
“They’d go to parties and I’d be on my own kicking a ball around. I’d climb over the school fence and kick the ball around until I couldn’t see it was so dark. It can be lonely, I’m very much a team person and I’ll do anything for anyone.”
All the hard work would soon pay off, after a five-year stay at Cardiff City, the FA Women’s Super League was just getting underway, and it wasn’t long before one soon to be well-known manager came calling for Harding’s services.
Mark Sampson was in charge of Bristol Academy at the time, and it didn’t take long to convince Harding to make the switch across the Severn Bridge.
“I was in the reserves at Cardiff before they said I didn’t listen enough, big shock! I knew I had the potential and I knew I was good enough, but they didn’t like the fact I was myself and wasn’t afraid to say what I thought.
“I remember playing my first game against Sunderland, against Jill Scott and all the other girls that would go on to play for England. We got thumped, we travelled up in the morning and the pitch was like concrete, completely frozen.”
Despite being immediately returned to the reserve team, injuries and departures of key players such as Gwennan Harries, Loren Dykes and Jess Fishlock soon gave Harding the opportunity she’d been looking for.
“I was made vice-captain and then I had interest from Mark through Katie Sherwood. My coach wasn’t happy and put in a complaint about Mark, but I’m loyal and I didn’t go anywhere, I was made captain that season.”
But Harding’s head had been turned, in her own words, after promotion with Cardiff City. The ambitious attacker knew she wanted more, and it wasn’t long before the future England head coach offered Harding a contract.
“I knew I was more than capable of playing in the FA WSL,” she says. “I watched Bristol play Birmingham, Anouk [Hoogendijk] had just signed and there was a lot of buzz about it. I spoke to Jess Fishlock and she told me to come over, within a month I was training with the team.
“I was on trial originally, but I’d played six-a-side with Mark’s brother so he knew what I was about, I was a very raw player and I needed some guidance. Before I went to the Algarve Cup with Wales, he offered me a contract. It was £35 a game, which I was buzzing about because I’d never been paid to play football before.”
Guidance was what Sampson offered, the manager was only just into his thirties at the time and still very much honing his talent as a first team manager.
Despite recent controversies surrounding the Lionesses manager, Harding says she “owes him a lot” for her development whilst at Bristol.
“A lot of people have different views on Mark,” she admits. “But he gave me a lot of confidence. I played alongside Natalia, Jess and Laura [Del Rio]. Jess is one of the best in the world, Natalia scored goals for fun and he was able to get that confidence into players.
“He’s a people’s person, some players won’t agree with me but he was always great with me. I loved playing under him and he got the best out of me. Now with England, Mark has changed everything. I can tell you now the girls prefer it as it is now as opposed to under Hope [Powell]. He’s very much of the belief that if you’re happy outside of football, you’ll be happy inside football. Mark creates an environment where people to play.”
After question marks surrounded Sampson’s style of football when England exited Euro 2017 at the hands of hosts Netherlands, Harding admits his style perhaps isn’t the easiest on the eye, but gets results more often than not.
“We didn’t care what football we played, at Bristol we played football that was effective,” she says. “On paper, we should never have been second in that league, but we had team spirit and we knew our plan. We had pace, the ability to finish and some nutters at the back!
“He’d always tell me to do Natalia’s running, give the ball to her and she’ll score. He got the best out of me in that way because he knew my strength was running in behind. He made us very together and he got us working as a team. He’d let us go on nights out because he knew what we needed to be happy. You look at the men’s Wales team last summer, some of those players are Championship level at best, but because they were willing to fight for their manager, they could go beyond their best, and that’s what Mark can do.”
Sampson’s team overachieved to such an extent that it became impossible to keep the team together, and Sampson himself was offered the England job at the end of 2013.
England goalkeeper Siobhan Chamberlain would be snapped up by Arsenal, along with Natalia, whilst Fishlock would move to the USA with Seattle Reign.
Harding would almost follow suit, an offer came in from NWSL side Washington Spirit at the end of the 2014 season, and the Wales international had no thoughts about rejecting the offer.
But her past would cruelly catch up with her when she was denied a visa and entrance into the USA, it was a blow that would put Harding on the backfoot, but not for long.
“I can’t go into it all too much because I’m not allowed, but I was disappointed and it was something I didn’t even know I had against me,” she recalls.
“I was in Croatia when I got the news I couldn’t get my visa, I played in my first game out there after that and did my MCL. It was like two blows in one go, I was devastated. I wasn’t great mentally, but I can put on a good front so if I was hurt you wouldn’t know by my face.”
A new opportunity would come along though, Nick Cushing was in the second part of building the new Manchester City squad that had begun to come together just a year before.
Steph Houghton, Jill Scott, Toni Duggan, Karen Bardsley and Izzy Christiansen had all joined the revolution, and Cushing wasted no time in snapping up the free agent.
“City had just signed Lucy [Bronze] and Beatts [Jen Beattie] and I wanted to give it a go. I probably could have gone to a team that was better placed to win the league, and they did, but at that time I thought it was a really good choice for me.
“People say City have got everything, but once you’ve experienced it, you realise that’s how it should be. We’re professional footballers so why shouldn’t we have that? Liverpool did things nobody else did to get ahead of Arsenal, they were training every day whilst everyone else was training twice a week, City raised the bar.”
Working under Cushing for just a year, Harding was unfortunate to be part of the club’s only trophy less season, but she drew parallels between how Cushing – and assistant Alan Mahon – improved her in similar ways to how Sampson had at Bristol.
“I think Mark is a standalone, thank god there’s not two Mark Sampson’s,” she laughs, before adding, “He won’t mind me saying that!
“I could see similar traits in Nick, definitely, he did develop me as a player. Alan was great with me, I’d knock 50 crosses with him after a session, they wanted to invest their time in you. If you’d ask for extra practice at the end of training they’d sort it straight away, it wasn’t just about money, they invested time. It’s a similar trait to Mark, he’d invest his time and his effort into improving me as a player.”
Harding’s spell in Manchester wouldn’t last long, to most people’s surprise, she was allowed to leave the club at the end of her first season when Liverpool came calling to make Harding part of their rebuild.
“I was surprised as well,” she says. “They said Liverpool had shown interest and did I want to speak to them. I was like ‘Ok, why not?’ I remember looking for a new house on the Monday and by Wednesday I was a Liverpool player.
“I was genuinely surprised, I didn’t think they’d seen what I was capable of. Mentally that got to me and it broke my confidence a lot. The first half of the season with Liverpool I was awful, I was absolutely awful.
“I had no confidence, I just felt like I wasn’t worth anything. City brought in [Kosovare] Asllani, they wanted a bigger name, Asllani sounds a lot better than Harding.”
But Harding bears no ill will to City or Cushing, and can always be seen sparing time for the fans when she returns to the CFA for a game with Liverpool.
“There’s no bad blood at all between me and Nick. I felt this year in the Spring Series I was confident again, I was back to my best.
“The fans were fantastic and when I see them I try and make an effort. As women’s football players, we have to give time, sometimes they come out in awful conditions to watch some awful football for 90 minutes. If they’re willing to give that to watch us then why can’t we give five minutes to go and talk to them at the end?”
But Liverpool it was, and Harding admits the move was a “risk” given the club’s tough 2015 campaign and a huge rebuilding job for new manager Scott Rogers.
Matt Beard had left for Boston Breakers and several big players, including Fara Williams and Natasha Dowie, followed him out of the door.
Harding was one of nine new signings at the start of the campaign, but she has no regrets about the move to Widnes.
“The phone call I had telling me I was joining Liverpool when I thought I was going back to Manchester didn’t leave me a lot of choice,” she laughs.
“I had agreed the deal but the rest of the girls weren’t in for another week, then there was a signing pretty much every day.
“They were big signings, Mandy [van den Berg] is the Dutch captain, Emma Lundh had incredible potential but she was tough to get the best out of. She had incredible strength and stature, if she had the top two inches she’d be an incredible player. [Shanice] Van de Sanden, [Laura] Coombs, [Sophie] Ingle, they all followed. England internationals, Caz [Caroline Weir] was an unknown quantity but she’s been a brilliant signing.”
Despite the changes, Liverpool had a more than solid campaign. There were erratic results and plenty of goals flying in at either end, but Harding isn’t entirely sure what to expect from the new season, despite a very promising Spring Series where Liverpool could still win the title going into the final day.
“It’s difficult now because the season has changed,” she says.
“A lot of contracts around the league are up in December so it’s a tricky situation for clubs and players. The girls we have are very ambitious, we want to compete but there’s a lot more we could do to utilise our talent. We’re thankful for where we are and what we have, and I hope Liverpool can soon be back to where they were a few years ago.”
Whilst Harding didn’t get the chance to test her ability abroad, several of her current and former team mates have taken the decision to move on to new challenges this summer.
Liverpool’s Katie Zelem has signed for the newly established Juventus team in Italy, whilst ex-City team mates Toni Duggan and Lucy Bronze have joined Barcelona and Lyon respectively, the latter current European champions.
Whilst Harding was denied such an opportunity, she believes it’s an opportunity any British player would find difficult to turn down.
“It’s the same as any job I guess, if you’re working you’re looking for a promotion. There’s that financial aspect but it’s a new challenge for all three of them. You can say you’ve gone and played for Barcelona, I text Toni when she’d signed because it was so good to see someone go outside their comfort zone.”
Bronze meanwhile is now rated as not just one of the best right backs in world football, but one of the best players full stop. At the peak of her career, Bronze is joining the best club team in world football and Harding has no doubts she’ll only enhance her reputation across the channel.
“Lucy going to Lyon is fantastic,” she says. “If I was still regularly in touch I’d be telling her she better go, we never know what this league will be like in a few years so why not go at the peak of your career? She deserves the chance to play with the elite and win the Champions League.
“She’s improved so much, she was a beast when I went there but she’s got even better. When I joined City, I knew she was good but I didn’t know how good. If you asked her to run through a brick wall and put a cross in, she would do.”
Zelem meanwhile is very much still nurturing her own talent at the age of just 21, and taking a step into the unknown joining a club new to the women’s football world.
“We must be doing something right here if we’re producing talent that clubs abroad want. Zel can’t turn down an opportunity like that, you have to go.”
As the sun begins to set over the coffee shop we’ve been talking in, I notice Harding has the obligatory footballer’s tattoo on her right arm.
To a novice, it looks like a series of random and unrelated patterns and art, but after half an hour listening to Harding speak honestly about her life, there’s a sense there’s likely a lot more to the ink than meets the eye.
Pointing to different aspects of her sleeve, Harding says, “This one is a peaceful sign, this one is about protecting your family and another about protection too.
“There’s a lot I’ve been through, I never had a silver spoon in my mouth. The fact I can provide for my family, my brother, sister and little nephew is all because of football. That’s why I’ll always be respectful of the game I play, it’s got me out of a lot of situations. I do actually wear my heart on my sleeve and I’ve got the ink to show it.
“I remember being homeless for a day, people forget there’s a lot more to me than meets the eye. I protect my family, the people that I love. Believe it or not, I’m quite laid back. I know I said I was in trouble but you ask Laura Coombs, I’ll sit there after training and watch cooking programmes. There’s a lot more depth to me than being funny, I hope. I’ve made good situations out of bad times.”
Attention for Harding will soon turn to next month’s opening Women’s World Cup qualifier as she and her team mates look to reach their first major tournament.
The Wales squad could only sit and watch as England and Scotland walked out in Utrecht over the summer at the European Championships, and Harding will come up against her former boss when they meet the Lionesses in their qualifying group.
“When the draw came out, we were happy with it [the group also includes Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kazakhstan]. It’s going to be tough, the England game will be bigged up obviously but we’ll try and make it tough for them, even if we have to play on a bad pitch to do it!”
After speaking to Harding for so long, it’s no surprise the note she leaves on is about how incredibly passionate she is about her country, and what it would mean to walk out in France in two years’ time.
“We went out to watch the England vs Scotland game and as much as it was great to see so many girls we know, it was kind of bittersweet,” she admits.
“We’re a very passionate country and we’re unique in the way we are. We’re like the little blip on the side of England, if you go abroad and say you’re from Cardiff, people just ask if that’s in England. I can say on behalf of all the Welsh girls, we’re not doing this because we want to get there, it’s a lot deeper than that. It’s about a nation…”
By IBWM Senior Writer Richard Laverty.