“Special players like our mini Messi step up at special moments.” Those were the words of England manager Mark Sampson, having watched a 21-year-old Fran Kirby’s match-winning performance in the 2015 World Cup win over Mexico.
Now, after more than a year out with a serious knee injury, Kirby has exploded back onto the scene to become the top scorer in the Women’s Super League 1 Spring Series, scoring six goals in five appearances – including three from the bench – to steer Chelsea to the title. Sampson may be onto something.
The Lionesses’ boss did not lose faith either. He named Kirby in his 23-player Euro squad back on April 3 – less than a fortnight after Kirby returned from a 12-month spell on the sidelines. “It was a gamble for him to pick me,” says Kirby. “But when I got back playing I was feeling good, scoring goals, it showed the confidence he had in me.”
Kirby, still just 23, is proving herself all over again, having already had to fight back from a long spell out of the game during her teenage years. When Kirby was just 14, her mum, Denise, died unexpectedly from a brain haemorrhage. The tragedy brought on a delayed bout of severe depression for Kirby, who took four years out from football as she coped with the loss of the person who had been the driving force behind her entering the sport.
The No 10 burst into professional football in 2015, though, scoring 29 goals in 22 matches for Reading before her World Cup call-up and a big-money move to Chelsea. But then another setback struck.
“I took a knock in the first 10 minutes,” says Kirby, recalling Chelsea’s game against Liverpool in April last year. “I carried on playing the match though, and for another six weeks… then I found out I had a fracture in my knee.”
An initial five months out soon turned into a year, as Kirby once more retreated into a “lonely” place.
“You do feel more isolated,” says Kirby, whose rehabilitation took her away from her team-mates. “You’re doing your own stuff, you’re in at different times to everyone else.”
Kirby had to find a new support network to ensure she remained positive. “I made sure I surrounded myself with the Chelsea girls away from the training ground, so I knew I wasn’t just focused on the injury. I knew that if I was with the girls I was going to have a good time.”
Kirby’s Chelsea team-mates helped maintain her mental strength when she was facing early morning gym sessions while they were out on the training pitch. “Even if I wasn’t in at the same time as them, the girls would come in and make sure I was working hard or that I was OK. After training we’d all eat food together, go out bowling. For me, it was more frustrating on a ‘I want to play’ side than a lonely side.
“I was always driven to come back. Being injured is completely different. You know your body is going to heal, whether it’s going to take one year or two. Your body is an amazing thing. After a while, I realised I just needed to take my time and that it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Kirby’s new-found physical strength definitely did not happen overnight. At just 5ft 2in, the Chelsea forward decided to use her time out to build muscle in the gym and feels more like a footballer now than she ever has.
Back on target for England this month, rounding the goalkeeper to finish in the 4-0 win over Switzerland, Kirby is at St George’s Park with Sampson’s squad as they prepare to open their Euro 2017 campaign against Scotland in Utrecht on July 19.
It’s a tournament for which Kirby says she has “the best motivator” she could possibly have.
“It was always my mum’s dream. Growing up it was always her pushing me to want to play for England, to win things for England, it was always her dream. For me, my motivation is to achieve my mum’s dream. That’s everything she wanted.
“It’s my dream as well, but when you’ve got someone who so wants you to succeed and wants you to do well, you want to do it for them as well. Also my dad, making a lot of sacrifices for me, my brother making a lot of sacrifices for me, it’s something that you want to do for everyone.”
England’s bronze at the World Cup, finishing behind only Japan and winners USA, has left much optimism heading into this summer’s European Championship. Sampson has already declared the aim for the Lionesses is to win the tournament, and his “mini Messi” knows she will face extra scrutiny.
“It has definitely stuck,” she says of her Messi-tag. “A lot of people are still talking about it, the girls still call me it. For him to call me it is a massive compliment. If the England manager is calling you that then I’m obviously doing something right.
“There is the expectation, when people are watching you they’re expecting you to do the impossible and dribble past 11 players and put the ball in the back of the net. People do expect you to do things that are unrealistic but for me that is a positive that they think I can do that.
“It’s a motivation and a pressure as well… but one that I don’t mind having.”
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