Even after being plagued by injuries during her career, the English forward’s growth and importance cannot be overlooked, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys
In 2015, Fran Kirby was called up to England’s World Cup squad by Mark Sampson. At 21 years old, she was the second youngest member of the squad, and the only player called up from what was then WSL2, where she was starting for Reading. At the time, Sampson dubbed her the ‘mini Messi’, the same reductive cliché handed out to any woman footballer who showed an ounce of creativity. Even at that age, Kirby was far more than a lazy moniker. She was a small bundle of energy and flair, confidence, and determination.
Against Mexico, she scored her first goal at an international competition. It was a goal typical of Kirby. She was lurking on the edge of the box when the ball fell to her. One touch to bring it under control, another to swerve past an onrushing defender, and a third to score. She was already wheeling away as the ball crossed the line, a tiny glance to make sure it actually had, but she already knew.
Eight years later and the ball falls to the forward on the edge of the area once again. This time, she does not need three touches: only one to arc the ball into the top corner. It is England’s opener in a meaningless group game against Northern Ireland, but it solidifies her in history. She becomes the first English women’s player to score in four consecutive international tournaments. Only Michael Owen has managed the feat too.
What is extraordinary is that a record based on consistency has been achieved by a player whose career has been constantly interrupted—another similarity to Owen there. Fran Kirby missed the knockout rounds of the 2015 World Cup because she picked up an injury. This would become a theme. She missed countless matches across 2016 and 2017 with a series of knee and ankle injuries. A couple of seasons of full fitness then came to a juddering halt as she missed the 2019/20 season with pericarditis.
Fran Kirby is a player who deals in opportunities. The hesitation of a defender, the bounce of a deflected effort: it is like she has already anticipated it. A creative poacher, not in the sense of scoring from the balls that land at her feet, but in turning nothing into something.
But she does not grab opportunities solely in the sense of how the game is played. In a career that has been determined by the cruel ups and downs that disrupt so many talented footballers, Kirby always shows up ready when she is able to. Nowhere was that clearer than in 2020/21 when she steamrolled her way back into a Chelsea team who looked like they had all the pieces ready to replace her.
Instead, there were 25 goals and 17 assists, a domestic quadruple, and a Champions League final: Chelsea’s first. Sam Kerr demanded that she be seen as the best player in the world. It didn’t happen. In fact, Kerr was voted higher in the Ballon D’Or, but the force with which she said it showed everyone how fiercely she believed it.
The Reading-born woman has not sparkled as much this year. In fairness, it would have been close to impossible to top last season. She was once again ruled out, this time for close to six months with fatigue. There were concerns over whether she would even make the Euros. A silly question. If there is one thing Fran Kirby recovers for, it is an international tournament.
England have reached the semi-finals of every tournament Kirby has played in. In that time, she has started 15 of the possible 20 matches for the Lionesses, but it has never felt as if she is the star. Despite the minutes she has racked up in an England shirt, there has always been a lingering sense that she was a player who was a bit too clever for the men managing her. They knew she was good but they did not know how she was good.
She probably won’t be the star at this tournament. Beth Mead looks to already have that firmly wrapped up. However, manager Wiegman has Kirby pulling the strings for this team in a way she has never done for her country before. Whether flicking the ball over Austria’s defence to create the first goal of the tournament or orchestrating the demolition of Norway, Kirby is quietly helping this England team tick along.
It is hard to forget the images of Fran Kirby at that 2015 World Cup, with her short hair and cheeky grin. It is strange to see her no longer as the wunderkind. Somehow over the past eight years, she became one of the most experienced members of the team.
Like opposition players wondering where the ball went when Kirby’s around, we just blinked and missed it.
You can follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph