She might have been likened to Lionel Messi, Ryan Giggs and Michael Owen, but pop star Olly Murs recognised Fran Kirby’s X Factor from her performances for the Lionesses.
Kirby arrived in Canada for the World Cup this summer as a relative unknown, but her goal in England’s 2-1 win over Mexico en route to the bronze medal meant she came back touched by fame.
And to emphasise the impact the tournament made back home, the 22-year-old Chelsea striker reveals: “I was at an Ed Sheeran gig a couple of weeks ago and Olly Murs came up to me and started chatting about the World Cup.
“He was really interested in the progress of the England squad. It’s great to see people take notice and be a part of what we achieved.”
If that stamped Kirby’s whirlwind journey from parks football to international stardom, it also marked the culmination of a remarkable display of resilience from a player who has overcome difficult times.
Kirby’s goal for England on her World Cup debut came just four years after she walked away from the game, suffering from depression, following the sudden death of her mother.
Kirby has since identified her father, Steve, as providing her crucial support structure when her mother passed away after a sudden brain haemorrhage during a feedback session at Reading football club’s centre of excellence. Kirby was 14 years old at the time.
That she picked herself up, and resurrected her embryonic football career, she says, is down to her father’s “strong and supportive” nature.
“He didn’t want to sit down and give up or show everyone that he was upset and struggling. Instead, he brought us all through it and reminded me that everything was going to be all right.
“He has taken on both roles of mum and dad in the family over the years and brought us all closer together as a result. I have so much respect for him,” Kirby said.
While family members played an important role in getting Kirby back into football, it was also the support of her former club Reading, which strengthened the young playmaker’s resolve during such a distressing time.
Kirby said: “The psychologists and Julie, the physio at Reading, were all very influential in my life during that period. Julie was very special, always checking up on me and inviting me over to her house for dinner, making sure I was getting out of the house.”
Kirby tried to find a way of staying active when her relationship with football became fractured, and she remembers keeping her mind and body occupied with visits to the gym.
“I didn’t miss football. I just didn’t want to think about it, so I shut it out.
“I was going to the gym every day, whenever I had the opportunity, and it really helped me. I definitely turned into a bit of a gym addict, but it kept me really fit and kept me going.”
The decision to return to the game in 2012 came after a lot of soul-searching. But Kirby rediscovered her love for football when playing for a Sunday league team with her friends.
Kirby said: “There was no pressure and no one was moaning at you if you made a mistake. Everything was just a laugh and if someone fell over the ball, you would have a giggle rather than get annoyed.
“I eventually said, ‘Enough is enough, you love football and you want to play, go and do it, work hard and see where you end up’. It was time to give it another go, so I dusted myself off and got stuck in.”
Within three years England manager Mark Sampson was labelling her as his “Mini Messi” – for which he was subsequently criticised. Kirby described Sampson’s comments as “flattering”, but also explained how they impacted on her.
“It did add a lot of pressure after the Mexico game,” she said. “I think people were expecting to watch the next match and see me dribble past everyone, including the goalkeeper, and score in the back of the net.”
Messi, though, is not the only male footballer Kirby has been compared to. Her manager for Reading’s under-10s, Dave Caswell, used to draw parallels between his leading goalscorer and two legends of English football.
“When I was younger, Dave used to call me Giggsy [Ryan Giggs]. He always told me to play on the wing because I’d be like Giggsy when I was older. I also received a few comparisons to Michael Owen due to his goalscoring capabilities.”
Kirby moved to Chelsea after returning from the World Cup for a British record transfer fee, reportedly around £50,000. After making her debut in the Women’s Super League against Birmingham, she responded to sexist comments on Twitter as being “boring and unoriginal.”
She understands that “some will never change their perceptions of the women’s game and some people do just sit on social media to abuse anyone and everyone”.
However, Kirby added: “If we weren’t technically good enough, we wouldn’t be where we are today. We are elite athletes who are aware of our own ability.”
The move from WSL 2 side Reading to Chelsea prompted some nerves, but any apprehension soon vanished with a debut goal against Birmingham.
“For me, I see every game as if I’m back playing in the park. I think back to when I was younger, playing with all the boys. I don’t like to overthink things much,” she said.
There are certain to be more England call-ups in future, but none will be as memorable as the one that preceded her inclusion in this year’s World Cup squad.
She said: “I remember chilling by the pool in Cyprus when my phone went and it was my manager telling me to check my emails because I’d been picked.
“It amazed me. All the hard work had paid off and it was really special because I was the first ever WSL 2 player to be selected.”
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Megan Joyce is an English Literature graduate from Queen’s University, Belfast, with an MA in Sports Journalism from St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. She covered all sports for a variety of media organisations while in Belfast, and currently blogs for BT Sport Rugby and writes for The Rugby Football League. Megan is reporting on Chelsea Ladies football team this season. Megan’s latest articles.
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