Fran Kirby: The little artist looking to start on a fresh canvas
After injury halted her campaign four years ago in Canada, Fran Kirby is set to write her own script for England in France, writes Peter Sharland.
“I’d take my No.10 over Brazil’s No.10 that’s for sure.”
Those were the words from England manager Phil Neville around eight months ago after he had watched his side beat Brazil 1-0 in a friendly.
He was referring to the goalscorer that day, Chelsea’s Fran Kirby, and her famous counterpart in the yellow of Brazil, six-time World Player of the Year Marta.
For a manager to talk up their player is hardly a new phenomenon, it’s a tale as old as the game itself, and for Kirby it’s certainly nothing new.
Fran Kirby celebrates scoring against BrazilGetty Images
There was always something about Kirby, something that made you sit up and take notice.
She’s the sort of player with magic in her feet, capable of creating something out of nothing.
It’s a rare gift in football, technique can be trained and honed, but vision, and creativity, they are far harder to master, and often come naturally.
Whether it has been with Reading, Chelsea or with England, Kirby has regularly looked a step ahead of the players around her, but she’s always looking to create chances, be it for herself or her team-mates.
Fran Kirby of England calling for the ball during the International Friendly match between England Women and Denmark Women at the Banks's Stadium, Walsall on Saturday 25th May 2019Getty Images
She has played on the biggest stages in the world and shown that she more than belongs, she owns that arena.
Yet it’s incredible how easily that can all be pushed to one side.
On the eve of the tournament Kirby published an extremely powerful piece with The Players’ Tribune, talking about her depression and coping with the loss of her mother when she was at Reading, that led to her taking a year out of football.
Kirby’s honesty and candid discussion about her grieving throughout her career has been a constant breath of fresh air, a stark reminder that professional athletes go through strife and hardship the same as everyone else.
In a world where Instagram and Facebook lead to bizarre portrayals of people’s lives online Kirby’s brutal honesty about her struggles in the past few years has been a welcome breath of fresh air.
Today more than ever, social pressures are so intense on younger people that it can feel impossible to deal with a traumatic event such as losing a parent.
Just having one person read Kirby’s words, and realise that it is okay to be vulnerable and okay to seek help, makes it worthwhile, that is the power that athletes hold, they can show the way for people struggling with their own issues.
Just as important have been her calls for equal pay in the women’s game. With so much interest in this World Cup Kirby has rightly used her platform to demand more equality and the FA need to start responding in order to justify the good PR they love to lap up whenever the Lionesses are in town.
This is being touted as the summer which could accelerate women’s football’s already impressive growth, and Kirby has spoken about the potential changes that might bring, a change that might give people like her more of a platform to do good work on a similar vein to what she has done already.
“We have to be ready for everything that’s going to come with it. It’s exciting times. We want to be the face of women’s football, to encourage young girls to play. If I have to be recognised in the streets to encourage them I’m happy to do that.”
Kirby is unlikely to change, she’ll still go home to her dogs, work hard on her game, and continue to do things that others could merely dream of.
It has been tough since that incredible World Cup debut in 2015, particularly given the amount of injuries she has suffered but as Eurosport expert Carrie Dunn explains, she is more than primed to take over in France.
“Though she has had to recover from irritating injuries, a fully fit Kirby will inhabit that second striker role with aplomb and menace.
“If she is paired with Jodie Taylor - as she was during the Euro 2017 campaign to good effect - they really could produce something special."
Kirby is the spark, the inspiration for her teams, she plays with the freedom required to help make her sides click and she will be imperative for Neville as he plots England’s path to success.
In the absence of Ballon d’Or and Champions League winner Ada Hegerberg, Kirby will be one of a handful of players looking to make their mark on this World Cup, and by doing so make a claim to the Norwegian’s crown at the next awards night.
It won’t be easy, the likes of Lindsey Horan, Vivianne Miedema, Wendie Renard, Lieke Martens, Alex Morgan and Sam Kerr will all have eyes on that prize, but Kirby deserves to be in that discussion as potentially one of the best in the world.
Now is her time, she has remarkable experience for one so young, and she has all the talent in the world. This will be her masterpiece.
-- by Peter Sharland