After keeping his secret weapon under wraps for most of England’s opening Group F match against France, England coach Mark Sampson was less cautious when it came to taking on Mexico in his side’s must-win second outing, handing pint-sized striker Fran Kirby a starting place for the Moncton showdown.
After showing her pace and dribbling skills in the first half, not to mention her ability to think on her feet and invariably make the right decision, the Reading forward made a lasting impact on the game in the second, scoring England’s opener in a crucial 2-1 win.
Rewarded for her efforts with the Live Your Goals Player of the Match award, Kirby was modesty personified when she stepped out of the changing room afterwards.
“I just tried to have fun,” said the 21-year-old, who certainly seemed to enjoy herself at the expense of the Tri defence, and made it all look very easy too, quite an achievement for a player making her first ever world finals start.
“It was the perfect setting for me,” added Kirby, who seemed at home in such rarefied surroundings. “We moved the ball around well and we were on the front foot. And I was lucky enough to have a few chances come my way.”
While the striker might be reluctant to brag about herself, her band of admirers is more than happy to tell the world about her, among them Alex Greenwood, her room-mate at Canada 2015: “I know her too well to be surprised by her performances any more. Fran can become one of the best players in the world if she keeps on applying herself.”
“It’s just crazy to get a compliment like that,” said the striker, whose club plays in England’s second tier, WSL 2. “She’s not the only one to believe in me either, which just makes me go out on the pitch and want to repay all the positivity people have shown me.”
A fresh challenge The least experienced player in one of the most experienced sides in the competition, Kirby, who Sampson has taken to calling “Mini Messi”, has rewarded his faith in her. Such has been her impact at the tournament already that she can expect an offer or two from England’s elite clubs when she returns home, in between calls from reporters.
“It’s new and exciting for a little girl like me to be getting so much attention,” said the shy goalscorer, with a broad smile across her face. “If I’m getting this kind of interest, it must mean that I’m making the people behind me happy, which is a feeling I love.
“My team-mates are incredible and they’ve been really good to me. They keep on telling me the same things: ‘Have fun’ and ‘We’re right with you’.”
Kirby also has the support of her brother and father in Canada, support that has long been important in her life. She was 14 when she lost her mother, subsequently going through a stage when she saw little point in getting up in the morning or playing football. Seven years on, she has recovered her passion for life and the sport she loves.
“I’m on the way to showing myself that I was right to keep on fighting,” she said, pondering the obstacles life has thrown at her. “I make an effort not to look back, but if I do, I try to gain strength from it. More than anything I want to make my family proud and make the most of the opportunities life has given me.”
Sampson, for one, is keen to give her another chance to shine, which could well come on Wednesday, when the Three Lionesses will look to build on the morale-boosting defeat of Mexico in their final group match against Colombia.
As Kirby acknowledged, England can expect a tough test from Las Cafeteras: “Colombia’s win against a side as good as France shows that we’ll have to be solid. They won’t be giving anything away, but that’s OK because we won’t be either.
“We’ve got real balance in the team and we’ve got what it takes to go and get another win,” added the striker, eagerly awaiting another chance to show the watching world what she can do.