The status of role model is one to which many women’s footballers have now become accustomed. With Fran Kirby, though, the influence of her inspirational example extends far beyond young, aspiring female players. Hers is a remarkable story, and one which can only bring comfort and courage to anyone battling to overcome mental health problems or personal tragedy.
Kirby may be an England star, Chelsea double-winner and FIFA Women's World Cup™ bronze medallist, after all, but it wasn’t always this way. “When I turned 17, it all got a bit too much,” she told The Guardian last year. “I decided to stop doing pretty much everything. I quit football, I wouldn’t get up in the morning, I wouldn’t go out of my room. I was very depressed.”
These were problems precipitated by the sudden death of Kirby’s mother from a brain haemorrhage. The pair had been extremely close, with Denise Kirby the driving force behind her daughter’s burgeoning career. "If it was raining and I didn’t want to go [to training], she’d say: 'Get in the car!' My mum talked about me making it all the way."
Time has proved her right, of course, with Kirby – having reintegrated herself into the game after a year away – firmly established as one of England’s most exciting prospects. The promise of her evident natural talent was underlined in July, when Chelsea paid a reported British record fee to prise the 22-year-old from Reading. And while it hasn’t been a smooth journey to the top, Kirby says this breakthrough year has left her feeling more positive than ever.
“In terms of the issues I had in past, I’m very happy in my life now and don’t give them much thought at all,” she told FIFA.com. “I’m all about looking to the future now and, the way I see it, it’s onwards and upwards for me. But I’m happy that I spoke about what happened and, if it can inspire people who’re going through tough times or similar experiences, that would make me very happy.
“That’s what you want to be: a positive role model. It’s been great seeing that going around the country, with young girls wanting pictures and obviously inspired by what we as a team are doing. I must say, though, that 2015 has all been a bit of a whirlwind. Coming into the England squad, playing in the World Cup and getting the move I’d always wanted – it’s been crazy. I honest couldn’t have asked for any more, and I just don’t want it to stop.”
2015 has all been a bit of a whirlwind. Coming into the England squad, playing in the World Cup and getting the move I’d always wanted – it’s been crazy.
No wonder. It is not every year, after all, that you represent your country in a World Cup and win the first major trophies of your career. For Kirby, that silverware came in the shape of a FA Women’s Super League title and FA Women’s Cup double – Chelsea’s first successes in both competitions – and confirmed her belief in the Blues’ potential.
“Expectations come with playing at a club like Chelsea, but we always felt comfortable with those and confident in ourselves,” she said. “Really, we put at least as much pressure on ourselves as anyone from outside did, and that’s the way we want to continue. We definitely feel that we can make an impact in the Champions League going forward, for example.”
That ambition was dented, in the short term at least, by a 2-1 home defeat to two-time winners Wolfsburg last night in the first leg of the sides’ last 16 tie. Nonetheless, the England internationals in Chelsea’s squad will know that upsetting German opposition is by no means beyond them, having stunned the national team to take bronze at the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Kirby, though, missed that third-place play-off through injury and admits that such problems made Canada 2015 something of an emotional rollercoaster.
“I can only describe it as a bag of mixed feelings,” she said. “I started the tournament feeling quite ill and then there was the high of coming on against Mexico and scoring. But then I suffered an injury and couldn’t play from the quarter-finals onwards, which was a massive disappointment. Overall though, it was a fantastic experience and one I won’t forget in a hurry.
“Looking around the women’s game now, you can only say the World Cup has had a positive impact in pretty much every way you can imagine. You see it in the crowds coming in, the young girls who’re desperate to be footballers and the media interest too. We just want to build on that.”
Producing more players with the skill and style of Kirby will also go a long way towards maintaining the current levels of enthusiasm. The 22-year-old was, after all, dubbed England’s “mini-Messi” by coach Mark Sampson during the World Cup, and this high praise did not go unappreciated.
“First and foremost, it’s a huge compliment to be spoken about in the same breath as a player like that,” said Kirby. “It brought a bit of expectation and pressure too of course, and with it being my first World Cup that took some getting used to. But how can you be annoyed at hearing that said about you? Like everyone else, I love watching Messi. Growing up, it was probably Thierry Henry I enjoyed watching most – I loved the way he played and I tried to model myself on him a bit. But these days, it’s hard to see past Messi. If women’s football can produce a few players like him, we’ll definitely be doing ok.”