The true grit of England's Fran Kirby
FRAN KIRBY PREFERS to cut to the chase. If someone wants to know about how she coped with her mother's death, then just ask her. If someone is keen to understand how she dealt with depression, why she once quit football or how the England women's national team carried on after sacking their manager two years ago, then just go and ask the question.Today is a bright, slightly chilly afternoon in London as she begins to field these questions near Kingsmeadow, home to her club, Chelsea FC Women. She has just finished a sponsor's event at the stadium, one of the many duties that's keeping her busy ahead of the Women's World Cup (June 7-July 7) in France. The gray Nike sweatshirt she's wearing, with phrases such as "Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of missing out, fear of doing too much" and finally, to counter all that, "Just Do It" emblazoned on the back, seems a pertinent choice of attire.
Kirby has cycled through many of those fears as she developed from a 14-year-old in England's second tier who suddenly lost her mum to a now-25-year-old Ballon d'Or nominee who's going to France to play in her second Women's World Cup for England. The ultra-focused forward, who can also be ultracritical of herself, has had to teach herself how to compartmentalize success and failure. "Everyone on [social media] is Sir Alex Ferguson," she says.
Now Kirby is in the best frame of mind since she was a young girl, when she celebrated every goal she scored in the local park the same way she does now in front of millions of people. But it's the unseen side of her life that has prepared her for this moment and unlocked her potential -- on the field and off.
GROWING UP, KIRBY was never far from a football -- and her mum, Denise, was her biggest advocate. One year, Denise wrote in a birthday card to Kirby that she would one day play in a World Cup. But her mum would never see that happen. In 2008, when Kirby was 14 years old, she died. They were in a feedback session with a coach at Reading FC Women's academy when Denise put her head on the table and passed out. She had suffered a brain haemorrhage.
It took a couple of years for the grief to settle in. Living with her father, Steve, and her younger brother, Jamie, Kirby fell into a deep depression, unable to get out of bed and sapped of energy. She broke down often, crying because she missed her mum so much. Kirby soon walked away from football, trying to escape the hold sport had on her life -- and to give herself some time to heal.
"That whole time [away from football] wasn't taking care of Fran Kirby, footballer," she says. "It was taking care of Fran Kirby.
"I'd spent the near part of 10 years playing football, and I decided I just wanted to be Fran. I didn't want to be sitting in a room with someone telling me how I was going to play for England and be the best player and how I need to do this or that. I constantly had that pressure, even when I was so young."
Kirby also didn't want to miss out on being a normal teenager. Her friends were learning how to drive -- and she wanted to be the first one behind the wheel. She needed time to herself, to be in control of her day-to-day, to learn how to love herself again. "Of course, you need to make sacrifices," she says, "and we miss weddings, we miss everything -- and I needed to take care of myself."
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After some respite, she had a moment of awakening. She kept fit in her time away from the game and loved the serotonin boost from testing herself on the treadmill. But gnawing away at her was her mum's wish for her to use her talent. She remembers looking in the mirror and telling herself she should no longer be miserable and needed to seize her opportunity. Then a friend invited her to Sunday amateur league, and the love returned.
Having become more introverted after her mother died, with football, the real Kirby -- the entertaining, mischievous, boundlessly talented but still soft-spoken, shy individual -- came through. She returned to Reading's academy in 2012 with a fresh outlook and went from promising youngster to first-team player. Three years later, she was included in the Women's World Cup squad.
Kirby now uses her experiences of grief and depression to help others. A look at her Instagram shows two different sides of her life. There are photos of her with her mother. Then there is a photograph of her with a thousand-yard stare as the face of Swarovski, or as one of Nike's ambassadors with the apt slogan "Don't change your dream, change the world." For both brands, in the videos where she features, she talks about her life, her grief and her desire to succeed. She's candid about such a painful time in her life but prefers to focus on how she handled the grief and built herself back up.
Emma Hayes, her manager at Chelsea FC Women, believes that Kirby's frankness about her mental health in the public eye serves to "soothe and comfort her."
"I'm just so proud of her for opening herself up, and especially [after my] becoming a mother, it makes me even more conscious of what she's been through," Hayes says. "I want to put a protective arm around her and tell her that everyone's super proud of her.
"She's a wonderful talent."
And it is that talent that England hope to see come to the fore in the World Cup, where Kirby, the quiet star, will be one of their key players. But it hasn't been a straightforward journey for Kirby -- or England -- since her breakthrough World Cup four years ago in Canada.
FRAN KIRBY ANNOUNCED herself on the world stage with England's first 2015 World Cup goal in a game against Mexico. The hype grew around the 21-year-old quickly, and praise from then England coach Mark Sampson threw her off her stride when he labelled her the team's "Mini Messi." She was a surprise inclusion in the squad, becoming the first player from England's second tier to be included on a World Cup roster -- and she wore the praise like a crushing weight.
"I felt people turned on the TV and expected you to score after dribbling past the whole opposition, and in a World Cup, that's not going to happen," says Kirby, who has 39 caps and 12 goals for England and leads the team in assists. "I had to learn how to deal with that -- in my first World Cup, after my first start. I was just a young girl from [Women's Super League 2] who in some eyes didn't deserve to play in a World Cup, so from going from that to being called 'Mini Messi' live on TV was quite daunting. I now know, it was also a massive compliment."
England are one of the favourites going into the World Cup and will look to carry the momentum from their SheBelieves Cup title into the tournament. They beat Japan 3-0 in the final. On the field, their form shows continual progression from World Cup bronze in 2015. They reached the Euro 2017 semifinals, losing to Netherlands, the eventual tournament champs, but by that September, Sampson was sacked.
The ultimate decision to terminate his contract was due to "inappropriate and unacceptable" behavior in a previous role, but the announcement came after discrimination allegations were made by two England players: Eni Aluko and Drew Spence. He was cleared twice by the FA while still manager but was later found guilty by an independent panel of making "ill-judged attempts at humour, which ... were discriminatory on the grounds of race." The FA issued apologies to Aluko and Spence.
"It was difficult," Kirby says, reflecting on that time. "It put people in a really difficult situation. We cared so much about them and playing for our country and playing well, that it almost became impossible. But I can't imagine how it felt being on the other side of it.
"I think we all tried to be as connected as we could be in that situation."
Phil Neville, a former Manchester United and England defender, was announced as Sampson's successor in January 2018. Through all the turbulence, the team stayed united -- and they have remained in the Top 5 world rankings since. Today, they sit at No. 3 in the world, behind the U.S. (No. 1) and Germany.
"We've always been a team that's spoken about togetherness," Kirby says, "and it is really like that. It's not something we say just because it looks good. We get on really well, we care about each other and want to win."
And now with everything she's learned and worked through, she wants to pass that mentality on to the next generation of English players. And sometimes that means reminding young players that boots weren't always free from sponsors.
KIRBY AND ENGLAND teammates Steph Houghton, Leah Williamson and Jordan Nobbs are part of Elle UK's August cover story, "The Women Changing the Face of Sport" -- and they take that charge seriously.
A huge part of the Lionesses' message ahead of this World Cup is continuing to build on the previous team's legacy and inspiring the next generation of English footballers. Before 2015, the team had never advanced past a quarterfinal finish in a World Cup. They first qualified in 1995 but failed to make the cut in 1999 and 2003. But the team slowly fought their way through the world rankings, going from No. 14 in 2003, the year women's rankings were introduced, to No. 6 right before the 2015 World Cup.
"We have a lot to give back to those girls who worked so hard to get England football to where it is now," Kirby says. "We have a duty not just to them but [also] to the young girls coming through that they have an opportunity to go to a football academy, be able to study alongside playing and be able to go into a professional environment and not have to hold down a job and then go training late into the evening.
"If we don't push those standards now, there's no hope for that to become a reality. We're in such an amazing position now."
Growing up, Kirby looked up to the women who came before her, especially former England greats Kelly Smith (1995-2015), who holds the team's top scorer record (46), and Katie Chapman (2000-2016), and today, she credits their generation with launching the women's game into the U.K.'s male-dominated football consciousness. Houghton, England's captain, believes Kirby has the same "game-changer" qualities as Smith.
"To have someone like her in your squad who can naturally change a game by natural skill and technique is something that not many players have," says Houghton, a defender for Manchester City F.C. Women. "The only player who really reminds me of Fran is Kelly Smith. I was lucky enough to play with [Kelly], and for us as teammates, we're lucky to have Fran in this squad. She's worked hard to get to this point."
Kirby's group triggered the current explosion of interest after their recent World Cup and Euros semifinal appearances. Each step forward -- whether it be the restructuring of the top domestic division in England, the switch to professional teams solely in 2017 or the increased number of matches on television -- saw their circumstances change. She remembers the excitement when she signed for Chelsea in 2016 and saw they had their own training pitch. This was amplified further when they were given their own changing rooms. Now Chelsea have their own building and centre of excellence.
"We're doing well, but there are still so many things we need to improve in the game," Kirby says. "We're in a position now where we're in the driving seat so the young girls don't have to do what the generation did before us.
"We try to remind the young girls that it wasn't as easy as it is now. We're trying to educate them, but everyone's aware the sport is growing. Now, with England, we have our own specifically made kit to use in the World Cup, and with [the World Cup] coming up, it's only going to get bigger and bigger."
As she talks in London, there's a quiet focus to her. She knows through her own growing profile how bright the spotlight can shine -- a spotlight, she admits, she really doesn't like, "I'm just so annoying," she says with a laugh -- but she also knows the importance of resilience and sometimes of protecting herself from herself.
And then her focus dissipates, and she suddenly looks uneasy.
KIRBY IS NOW worried about her dog, Cody. One of her Chelsea teammates has just dropped him off, and he is waiting in the car. She knows he gets agitated when he is away from her.
When Kirby was out for most of the 2016-17 campaign with a fractured knee, then suffered a grade 3 ligament tear in her ankle and finally, tendinitis, she got Cody. She needed to come home from another physio session and, instead of lying on the sofa and drifting into frustration, wonder what Cody had gotten up to. The cockapoo also helped her relax away from football. At a time when she was laid up, unable to kick a ball, there was something else to occupy that void.
Kirby takes a quick break to retrieve Cody, and both are noticeably at ease when she returns -- and it's back to the task at hand.
England opens play against World Cup debutantes Scotland on June 9 in France -- and Kirby and her teammates, including defender Lucy Bronze, are looking to bring the cup home. "These expectations and pressures," Bronze says, "we've put them on ourselves. We've said we want to win a Women's World Cup -- and the nation has got behind us. We believe in ourselves, and they're believing in us. We're in the best place we've ever been going into a tournament."
But even a world title might not be enough to satisfy Kirby's perfectionist nature. Win or lose in France, she'll be back at Chelsea for preseason training, looking to chase that elusive perfect wave. "She won't be satisfied until she's reached the holy grail," Hayes says. "Whatever that is for her, I don't know. But I want her to look at how much she's come through and find enjoyment in as much as possible of what we have, as life is short."
Cody is getting restless. It's time for Kirby to head home to Netflix to watch a film -- she doesn't have the patience for long-running series -- and the sofa. She has training in the morning, dreams to chase, and her own Everest-high standards to meet. She has the mental fortitude to park outside noise and just focus on being herself. All the while the young Kirby inside her is bursting with excitement and astonishment at the life she's leading now as a star footballer.
"When people ask me what I think about when I'm playing, I picture myself as a 10-year-old girl, playing in the park, scoring a goal and then celebrating," she says. "That's when I'm playing best."
And that's when Fran Kirby, footballer, and Fran Kirby are happiest.