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Natasha Harding interview: Welsh international the vibe-setter for irrepressible Vixens

Photo: Richelle Lewton

Photo: Richelle Lewton

 

Wales striker Natasha Harding has been one of the principle attacking variables in a Bristol Academy WFC team that has raced out of the blocks in the FA Women’s Super League this season and she can take some considerable credit for the vibrant mood on match day.

The former Cardiff City player is in her second season with the Vixens after her five goals in 21 games in the 2012 WSL campaign helped the team to 4th place. Progress is a central theme at the club and it has been very visibly in evidence during the early exchanges of the season as Mark Sampson’s side have already bettered their tally of wins for each of the two previous years in the league. The 2-1 victory at home to Lincoln Ladies on Saturday was the team’s fifth in the first six matches and ensures they go into the two-month break in 2nd place, kept only from the top by Liverpool Ladies’ superior goal difference.

Natasha scored her second goal of the season in the 2-0 win at Birmingham City and as her teammate, Spanish forward and playmaker Laura del Río, revealed on here she is the player whose playlist brings the changing room to life. Establishing the right atmosphere before a game is a necessity that all teams can identify with and when the music resonates with the players it gets all the best feelings flowing in unison. For Natasha on a personal level, collective spirit and friendship are important and she sacrifices her own song preferences on occasions for the enjoyment of some colleagues, even if these particular tracks have her feeling way beyond her 24 years!

“Some of the girls are into the chart music but we do get some who like indie and bands like The Killers and Paramore. That’s not really for me, maybe it’s just me getting old!
“We have mostly motivational music and anyone who saw our changing room would think it was like a night out with all the singing and dancing in there.’’

 

Photo: Richelle Lewton

Photo: Richelle Lewton

 

The Caerphilly-born forward is used to putting forth the extra effort for the team and it was seen clearly in the win over Doncaster Rovers Belles last month when her closing down led to Nikki Watts’ goal. As touched upon, she has to deviate from some of her own personal favourites when coming up with the Vixens’ playlist and she describes the contrast in taste.

“I’m mostly into hip-hop, Tyga ‘Hotel California’ is an album I’ve had on repeat recently and I’m looking forward to Wale’s new album this month. I have to get a few different ones on there though for the girls.
“I’m not a fan of dance, that’s a bit of a headache for me but I have to throw some of the 90s dance in there for some of the other players in the team.’’

In the 2-0 victory over Birmingham on Wednesday, Bristol’s first ever against the 2012 FA Cup winners, Natasha put the result beyond doubt with an 85th-minute strike after ex-Rayo Vallecano goal sensation Natalia had opened the scoring ten minutes earlier. It was the Vixens’ other outstanding Spanish talent Laura del Río who had capitalised on defensive indecision to set up Natasha and off the field there is a song that has been getting a fair few airings in the changing room that they both enjoy.

“Naughty Boy (featuring Sam Smith) ‘La La La’, that’s one the Spanish girls love.’’

 

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It has been two years since I started the site and Natasha is the 150th interview on here so far. Throughout all the music talk that has been delved into during that period my all-time favourite artist LL Cool J has only been mentioned once or twice, so Natasha gets some definite praise for bringing up the hip-hop icon when thinking of the first CD she ever bought!

“I wanna say it was one by Take That, I remember one by LL Cool J as well.’’

The Vixens’ league season got underway with a 4-3 home win over Everton on April 18th in which captain Corinne Yorston’s double was ultimately the difference. In addition to the six WSL games there have also been Continental Cup matches and of course the passage to the FA Cup final. Fitting in such a succession of keenly-contested and physical games as well as training and the responsibilities of everyday life that some forget semi-professional players have to juggle has not been easy.

England coach Hope Powell has seen her selection options hit by injuries to the likes of Birmingham defender Rachel Unitt and doubts hang over other prominent figures such as Arsenal forward Kelly Smith and captain Casey Stoney (Lincoln Ladies) ahead of her Euro 2013 squad announcement on June 17th. Liverpool Ladies manager Matt Beard has voiced his concern over the somewhat sporadic schedule of the WSL which sees a break of almost two months now coming into play with the European Championships looming. Bristol’s next game comes away at Everton on Sunday August 4th and the rest will be welcome in one respect for Natasha from a personal and team perspective.

“It’s been tough with the schedule being so intense and we’ve been one of the teams to suffer most with injuries. The break can’t come soon enough for that reason.’’

Despite the 3-0 defeat in the FA Cup final to Arsenal, manager Mark Sampson did commend the team for how they responded and refocused after conceding to Steph Houghton after 82 seconds. The Vixens suffered their first league defeat four days later at home to the same opposition but showed resiliency in the 3-2 loss at Stoke Gifford Stadium. Siobhan Chamberlain’s superb penalty save from Arsenal’s PFA Women’s Player of the Year Kim Little and goals from Natalia and Corinne Yorston (penalty) were encouraging, and Natasha casts her eye over the current situation as well as how life has changed for her since becoming a WSL player in 2012.

“It’s changed massively, I’ve been introduced to a more professional way and that’s what you want. With the games so close together it’s hard in terms of recovery time but it’s great to be part of it all.
“You’re treated like a professional and things like being on the bus with the team going to games, there’s nothing better than that. We had a big knock with losing the FA Cup final but we’ve proved we can come back.
“The league’s obviously more competitive, Arsenal were on a pedestal but teams are taking points off them now. Being part of a league and a team that’s competing for the top two or three places is exciting.’’

There are regular interviews on here with players from the National Women’s Soccer League in the US and the latest attempt at a professional division in the States is now two months into its first season. One of Natasha’s friends, a fellow ex-Cardiff City player and her former Bristol teammate and current national team captain with Wales, Jess Fishlock, plays for Seattle Reign in the NWSL. The midfielder features alongside the likes of US international keeper Hope Solo and will be joined later this month by 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year nominee Megan Rapinoe, who shared her own music love on here earlier this year. Natasha has a mention later on in the interview for her friend and she evaluates how the English women’s game can learn from the US.

“I think in America there’s always been money and that’s been an issue here for teams. BT Sport will be showing games, ESPN do now, which is a good thing, even though it’s not enough at the moment.
“There’s more exposure and celebrity for the players in America. Teams have got their budget here but I think overall it’s about getting that extra backing we deserve.’’

 

Photo: Richelle Lewton

Photo: Richelle Lewton

 

Coming from Ystrad Mynach in the Caerphilly area, Natasha’s international debut came at the age of 19 in May 2008 against Switzerland in Oberdorf and she made a very notable contribution in the Euro 2013 qualifier with Israel at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground in June 2012. She netted a hat-trick in the 5-0 win and Welsh women’s football has been progressing considerably since Jarmo Matikainen, once technical director in Finland, took over as manager. Ultimately, Wales missed out on Euro 2013 after losing 2-1 to Scotland in Llanelli in a game they needed to win to keep their play-off hopes alive but Natasha firmly subscribes to the view that there is every reason to be enthusiastic.

“It’s really exciting and it’s nice to say we’re actually doing better than the men’s team at the moment. We were so close to getting into the play-offs last year so I just can’t wait for next year.’’

At club level, everyone connected with Bristol Academy WFC can feel how things are moving forward and the club has consistently worked hard to create an experience for those who support the team. A huge factor in feeling part of a club from a supporter’s perspective is having belief in the players that wear the shirt and knowing that it means something to them too. The 2-1 win over Lincoln thanks to goals from Laura del Río and Nikki Watts, and a desire from the whole team to dig in when needed, means spirits are soaring for the summer now, even if manager Mark Sampson makes sure it stays under wraps!

Anyone can see in the performances of the Vixens this season that there is not only structure but also the creative freedom to enjoy the game, seen strongly in Natalia and Laura del Río for example. Natasha is in no doubt at all about how positive the outlook is.

“Being able to play with some of the players we’ve got in the team and to say you’re playing with Laura del Río who scored 40 goals for Spain is incredible. There’s great depth in the squad and players who are going to be in the England and Wales teams.
“It’s a great club to be at and with our fans I think every club should have that support.’’

A Great Britain representative at the 2011 World University Games in China, Natasha showcased the variety she has in her play against Doncaster in May. In the 3-1 win she hooked in a finish at the near post from Ellie Curson’s cross, held up and laid off the pass for Lucy Staniforth’s terrific long-range effort, and it was her shot that was parried into the path of Nikki Watts for the third goal.

Her career is naturally extremely important to her but she gives a look into other areas of her life with her recent education, an addictive liking for body art, and her long-term goal.

“I’ve finished my (sports coaching) degree and uni was a big part of my life for four years so it’s hard leaving that behind. Being around my friends is really important to me too.
“I’ve got an interest that’s maybe a bit of a bad one but it’s tattoos. The funniest I’ve got is one of a camel on my big toe and I’ve got a sugar skull, one on my ribs, and a family tree.
“I want to run my own business, whether it’s inside or outside of football, that’s something I really want to do.’’

The final question on here, although not always the easiest to answer, is guaranteed to bring up some intriguing responses and it is a way to get the inside track on the ability of the interviewee’s teammates from their viewpoint. Selecting from the best players she has worked with in her career so far, Natasha picks those she would have alongside her in a 5-a-side team. She begins with the Vixens keeper who has won praise frequently this season for the focus and ability when her team need her the most.

“In goal, Siobhan Chamberlain – she’s having a great season, I’m glad to have her behind me and I don’t think there’s many who can compete with her at her best. In defence, Jemma Rose – an up-and-coming England international who’s having one of her best seasons too.
“She had a great game against Arsenal in the cup final and anyone who plays against her will say that you don’t just get past her easily. She’s got a range of passing and there’s always a chance of her scoring with her free-kicks.
“I’m going to have to choose Jess Fishlock (midfield) and it will probably make her head go massive! Everyone admires her for what she’s done and for going to play in America.
“She takes games by the scruff of the neck and takes everyone else with her. Seeing her do that makes you want to perform and I’m glad to have been able to watch her play and have her as a friend.
“Up front it’s a tough one, but I’m going to say Laura del Río. A great player and even though it’s been tough for her with injury lately she showed in the (FA Cup) final in the 20 minutes she was on what she can do.
“Just running at defenders at pace they (Arsenal) didn’t know what to do with her and her technical ability is amazing.’’

@chris_brookes

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