England’s golden girl Fran Kirby on the season of her life… and why she gave up football after her mum’s death
Fran Kirby beams from ear to ear as we arrive at the picturesque hotel in Surrey to interview English football’s golden girl.
Kirby’s season has been unforgettable. The league and cup double with Chelsea, not to mention a hat-trick of individual awards: the PFA, the Football Writers’ Association and club player of the year awards taking pride of place on her mantelpiece.
Life’s pretty good if you’re Fran right now. No wonder she can’t resist an infectious smile.
Her diminutive frame and clever footwork has led to comparisons with Barcelona’s Lionel Messi. Not that she’s particularly fond of the tag, mind you.
Fran Kirby is currently English football’s golden girl after an unforgettable 2017-18 season
Kirby’s humble nature is endearing – chirpy and engaging, you warm to her instantly
The 24-year-old is a shining light on the pitch with her dribbling ability and clever finishing
Her diminutive stature and clever footwork have led to comparisons with a certain Lionel Messi
‘People expect you to dribble past 10 players and put the ball in the back of the net. It’s just something I’ve had to bite my tongue about,’ she explains.
That said, England women’s head coach, Phil Neville, wouldn’t mind a spot of Messi magic when his team play a vital World Cup qualifier against Russia in Moscow on Friday evening.
Kirby’s humble nature is endearing. Chirpy and engaging, you warm to her instantly.
The last few months have been a whirlwind — but memories of when time stood still are never too distant.
It’s almost 10 years to the day that Kirby’s life was shattered following the sudden death of her mother Denise due to a brain haemorrhage.
Her anguish is apparent as she recollects the period she was forced to cope with the loss of a person she still describes as the driving force in her life.
Kirby’s story is very touching, particularly as she was just 14 at the time. ‘She is still an inspiration to me,’ Kirby said. ‘It’s still difficult to deal with.
Kirby enjoyed a terrific campaign with Chelsea, winning a Super League and FA Cup double
She also scooped a hat-trick of individual awards including the PFA Female Player of the Year
Kirby will hope to fire Phil Neville’s England to success against Russia in Moscow on Friday
‘This season has been amazing for me personally. I’ve achieved a lot but it’s really hard not to celebrate those times with the person who was the main driver in my success.
‘I wish I could share this with her; a bond with a mother is so strong.
‘To lose mine when I was so young was a very difficult time and now when I do win awards there’s always that thought, “I wish I could celebrate with her”. She would be so proud.’
It has been an emotional journey for Kirby. Following her mother’s death, she gave up football and embarked on a period of soul-searching.
It made no sense to continue playing the game she loves if she couldn’t share it with the person she most wanted to. Kirby retreated to the family home in Newcastle.
‘I used to have a little Geordie accent when I was younger, they called me Little Geordie Fran,’ Kirby fondly recalls with her south London twang. The joke sums Kirby up perfectly. Through pain and adversity, she finds a way to smile.
‘It was a really difficult time,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t enjoying playing, I wasn’t enjoying not being a normal person. My days were taken up with football. I never had a time to rest.
‘I was playing at sixth form — training in the morning and going to the gym in the afternoon. I was doing my studying alongside it, then I’d go to training from eight to 10 at night.
Kirby was just 14 when her mother Denise suddenly died from a brain haemorrhage in 2008
She then gave up on football but formed an unbreakable bond with her father and brother
‘I just got to a stage where I felt extremely fed up with everything and needed to focus on myself as a person.
‘I went up north with my family and there came the realisation I needed to just take a step back and work on Fran as a person rather than Fran the footballer.
‘A lot of my life has been, “Fran plays football”. But no, Fran is a normal human being and I need to live my life.
‘When you play football you sacrifice and the most important time of my career was actually taking a step away from it.
‘I can’t remember the moment when I decided to return. I just remember looking at myself one day and thinking, “OK this is enough now, you’ve done enough moping around”. Mum wouldn’t have wanted to see me like this.’
Nothing will ever fill the void left by her mum’s death. But the way that she discusses the unbreakable bond that she has nurtured with her father Steve and her brother Jamie is heart-warming.
‘My mum was the one who drove me everywhere because Dad was working. Now he comes to nearly every game,’ says the 24-year-old. ‘He took on both roles as dad and mum. It’s really nice he comes to watch me.
‘Me and my dad didn’t really spend much time together. We didn’t really have that kind of bond beforehand. Now we’re in a really strong place, myself, him and my brother.’
It took two years but Kirby has learned to love football again.
At 17, she joined a Sunday league team. Seven years later she’s exchanging texts with Chelsea stars Cesar Azpilicueta and David Luiz.
Chelsea’s male players, including Cesar Azpilicueta, are supportive of the women’s team
‘The guys at Chelsea are really supportive of us, a lot of them message us, they’re watching our games,’ she explains.
‘They’ve been congratulating me for winning all the awards. They’re more aware of women’s football than people think.
‘The likes of Azpilicueta message the girls, congratulating us on winning, and David Luiz invited us all to his restaurant to celebrate.
‘I used to play in an all-girls team and we played in a boys league. We’d always turn up and see all these boys laughing at us and then we won 13-0.
‘They’d go home crying because they lost to girls.
‘For me, it was nice that the boys respected me as a footballer because I think it changed a lot of stereotypes.
‘To those boys I’d played football with, if someone said, “She is a girl, she can’t play football”, I’d like to think they’d turn round and say, “Hold on, I used to play with her and she can play”.’
You certainly can, Fran.