After she was diagnosed with a heart condition at the beginning of last season, it is a delight to see Fran Kirby shine bright at the highest level once more, writes Rich Laverty.
It might have been a tiresome and frustrating period for the WSL since Christmas, topped off by this week’s postponements of matches between Tottenham and Bristol City, and Birmingham City and Aston Villa. But one match on Wednesday cut through the bad news, and one player in particular shone bright under the floodlights at Kingsmeadow.
While Pernille Harder stole the show with the opening two goals as Chelsea took on Arsenal, it was Fran Kirby who continued to show she was back to her mercurial, effervescent best. Chelsea bounced back in style from an uncharacteristic loss against Brighton last week, securing a comfortable 3-0 win. They have all but ended Arsenal’s title challenge, putting further pressure on Joe Montemurro’s campaign to secure the Gunners one of now three Champions League spots up for grabs. And Kirby’s return to form is to thank for it.
The 27-year-old has had a torrid time of it with injury and illness. Her renaissance is not only a huge boost for both Emma Hayes and the England Lionesses, but for Kirby herself – and indeed anyone who is a fan of the sport.
Kirby’s childhood story is well-known, yet no less tragic; her ability both physically and mentally to bounce back and become the breakout star she was sums up the attacker’s spirit. Kirby remains to this day the sixth all-time top scorer in the second tier, despite only playing in the old FA WSL 2 for a season and a half, scoring 35 goals – 24 of which were in the 2014 season in a league where the maximum games played was 18.
Her then-record-breaking transfer fee to join Chelsea off the back of the 2015 World Cup announced her talent and increasing stature within the game to the world, and she was quickly influential in helping Hayes secure the team’s first FA WSL title just months after joining.
Kirby’s progress for both club and country was steady, but there was always a spark, and plenty of domestic trophies to go with it. Another successful 2017-18 season ended with Kirby named as both PFA Player of the Year and the FWA Player of the Year, such was the level at which she was performing.
When Phil Neville took charge of the national team, he instantly deployed Kirby in the number 10 role. This was met with some success, as she created the first goal of his tenure for Toni Duggan against France.
But tough times were ahead for someone who didn’t deserve them, given the adversity she’d already faced. Off the back of the 2019 Women’s World Cup – where Kirby found the net only once, in the third-place play-off defeat – she was diagnosed with pericarditis early in the 2019/20 season, an inflammation of the fluid-filled sac around the heart.
Kirby was so ill she admitted contemplating retirement before she’d even reached 26. She played just four league games for Chelsea during the season, and hasn’t featured for England in a competitive game since that defeat to Sweden over 18 months ago, though she did return to the squad for training camps late last year.
Despite her obvious talent, no one could have been quite sure how Kirby would return after finally recovering from an illness which left her with such little energy. This would be a difficult recovery for anyone, let alone an elite athlete who has to be at peak physical performance to play in such a great Chelsea side.
So to see Kirby thriving and smiling on the pitch this season has been a shining light in a tough 12 months for the sport, whether it be the empty stands, the off-pitch issues or the lingering cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic over sport in general.
They say good things happen to good people and Kirby’s incredible nine goals and six assists this season in 11 appearances for Hayes’s side prove the theory.
Against Arsenal, she was everywhere, linking up with Sam Kerr in the first half and being denied only by a superb save from Lydia Williams. Beyond that, her two assists for Harder were followed by a goal made all the more impressive by the fact Kirby was suffering from cramp as she ran through. It didn’t stop her slotting the ball low beyond the Australian international to seal the match.
Despite being just six weeks in, it’s not Kirby’s only highlight of 2021 so far. In January, Kirby raced through to score a critical winner in a top-of-the-table clash against Manchester United, just seven days before she hammered in four against former club Reading in a dominant 5-0 win.
To be one of the standout stars in an attack which includes Harder, Sam Kerr, and last season’s top scorer Beth England takes talent. But it also takes application and determination. There’s no doubt Kirby has all three traits. She has come back from another major setback in her career to put herself in a position where, come May, she might just be able to add to her medals and accolades of the past.
Follow Rich on Twitter @RichJLaverty