England’s impressive third-place finish at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada has inspired a new generation of female footballers.
And one player on every aspiring girl’s lips ,after producing some magical performances over the summer, is a certain Fran Kirby.
Standing small, but strong, at 5ft 2in, the 22-year-old packs a powerful punch after helping the Lionesses achieve their highest-ever finish at a World Cup finals before sealing a reported British record transfer move to Women’s Super League 1 giants Chelsea.
Kirby shot to fame after netting an astonishing 24 league goals in just 16 league games for Reading in the WSL2 last term, where she became the first-ever second-tier player to be called up to the national senior squad.
Now situated at Wheatsheaf Park, she is on the brink of lifting her and the club’s first-ever WSL1 title after scoring in the Blues’ convincing 4-0 win over defending champions Liverpool at the weekend.
Holding a two-point lead over second placed Manchester City going into the final day of the season, Kirby is more than confident Chelsea have enough willpower to defeat Sunderland on Sunday and win the club’s second piece of silverware of the season following the Blues’ FA Women’s Cup triumph back in August.
Kirby spoke to Shoot exclusively about her summer move to Chelsea, what it is like to play for her country, England’s World Cup heroics, the Lionesses’ chances at Euro 2017 and the funny feeling of playing as herself on FIFA 16.
You take a two-point lead over second-placed Manchester City going into Sunday’s finale. How confident are you of lifting the club’s first-ever WSL1 title, adding to the FA Cup won earlier this season?
“I think we are really confident. Everyone is saying that there is a lot of pressure on us, but there has always been pressure on us from the beginning because of the squad that we have got and the ambitions that we have got. We put pressure on ourselves; so when people add extra pressure onto us, it doesn’t make a difference. I think we showed that against Liverpool with a 4-0 win, that we are not going to bottle it again this year and I think a lot of people thought that would define us a little bit with Manchester City winning. But we are all very confident. If anything; we are more excited about playing at home against Sunderland, who we obviously took a bit of a battering against back at their place, so we are going to make sure we get our revenge.”
What would it mean for you personally to win the league title in your debut year at Chelsea?
“For me, it is great to come to a club that has the ambition they have and to be a part of a winning side already is pretty special. Next season, I hope I will be here from the beginning and to do the whole season with the girls because you don’t really feel part of the whole journey so to speak. Obviously I wasn’t here last season when they didn’t quite get the win that they wanted. I am really excited to be a part of the squad that is going to hopefully win and then hopefully next season will be the same.”
Since arriving at Chelsea, how easy have you found it to settle in?
“I have found it really easy. I have known the girls from England camps and from before by playing against them. We did a lot of friendlies when I was at Reading against Chelsea, so I knew the girls beforehand. The girls have been really welcoming and I have really enjoyed it. Plus the training is really good, which is what I am here for.”
You have already secured Champions League football next term at Wheatsheaf Park. How excited are you to be taking on Europe’s finest next season?
“Yeah, I am really excited! I think it was a aim that we set out at the beginning of the season. Before the game on Sunday, that was the aim. It was to qualify for Champions League football, not to have a two-point lead going into the league final. We all knew that we had to be in the Champions League next season. I am more excited for the Champions League coming up next month, but obviously it was a great achievement for myself personally, the girls and the club as a whole.”
Going back a bit now, when and how did you first get into football?
“I think it was when I saw my brother at football training at the primary school around the corner, I just wanted to play. So I started joining in when I was about six or seven, when everyone else was around nine or ten. I wouldn’t take no for an answer and I would be there training with the boys. Me and my brother would always be playing on the streets, one vs one against each other. At the time, he was a lot faster and stronger than me, but I don’t think he would like to go against me now! My brother and my family, they were all so supportive.”
After taking a break, you returned to Reading in 2012 in devastating fashion, finishing as the division’s top goalscorer and helping them win promotion. What made you go back to the game?
“I think I just enjoyed it again. I think I went through a period where I didn’t enjoy training. I didn’t enjoy going out at ten o’clock at night and coming back when it was cold and wintry. I joined a Sunday league team and there was no pressure. Everyone would just have a laugh. You know; if you didn’t score a goal, people would laugh at you. It wasn’t the case of there being so much pressure on you to score. I think that was one thing that I really needed, I needed to enjoy it again. That definitely helped me. For me, my dream was to always be a professional footballer, so I couldn’t not get back into it when I knew it was something that I wanted to do.”
You also became the first-ever WSL2 player to represent England. What does it mean for you to represent your country?
“It is really special. It is really surreal for me. Obviously when I got my first call-up I was in WSL2, I was never expecting it. I think when I went away with the Under-23s and I got the chance to train with the seniors, that was mind-blowing because it was my first trip back with the Under-23s, being back with England, and the first day I was training with the likes of Steph Houghton. I was like, “This is absolutely unbelievable!” Then I obviously got my first call-up. To be able to put the shirt on, and not only that, but to score and play at Wembley for the first time was really special. A really proud moment for me.”
Moving onto this summer’s World Cup heroics. Firstly, what was it like to be part of the finals in Canada?
“You kind of have to pinch yourself! You have to pinch yourself to realise that you are there and you are a part of the squad and that you are doing something that thousands of young girls across the country want to do. It was again, very surreal. It felt like I just got my first England call-up again. I was really excited. To be part of the squad there, whether I played as much as I did or didn’t, just being there and experiencing being part of the group that achieved so highly, it was really special.”
You scored against Mexico in the Lionesses 2-1 win. How good did that feel?
“I think you can tell by my expression when I scored, I was more surprised than anyone else! It was absolutely amazing. For me, it wasn’t just that, it was the fact that my brother and dad were in the stands. They were there watching in Canada. Being able to score in front of them after they traveled all that way, it was really special for me and really nice for my family to see me score in a World Cup.”
Following your World Cup heroics, the women’s game has boomed with improved media coverage and increased attendances. How much further can you see the women’s game progressing?
“It is only going to get bigger. I think we have shown what we can achieve off the back of the World Cup; like you say, more mediatisation and attendances. More people coming to games, more people interested in women’s football and it is really continuing to grow. I think with the title race going down to the last day again; plus BT Sport showing it on TV, it is really showing how far the game has come from two or three years ago. It is great for us, because now we feel more like role models for the younger girls. Younger girls want to be like us. They say, “Oh, I want to be the next Lucy Bronze. I want to be the next Fran Kirby”, or whoever it maybe. It is really nice for us to feel that and I think in the next few years, you are just going to see it keep progressing.”
Looking ahead to Euro 2017; just how far can England go after your impressive World Cup campaign?
“We are really confident actually. Obviously coming off the back of a good World Cup campaign; beating Germany for the first time, there is going to be a lot of pressure on us now. I’m sure people will expect high things of us, but that was something that we knew was going to come with the success at the World Cup. We are quietly confident at the moment and I think a lot of people are going to put us down as favourites to win it, which is always a nice thing to do going into a major competition. But we have to stay focused and we have to make sure that we get out of our group, as winners, to have more of a confident state going into the Euros. But I’m sure we will do alright.”
Finally; FIFA 16 features women’s football for the first time in its history. What have you made of England’s addition to the game?
“It is another step in the right direction for women’s football. It is really surreal to actually play as yourself when you see your name and the commentators are saying your name. You expect them just to say, “Thing one, thing two…”, you don’t really think that they are going to say your actual name! It is great to be recognised and to be appreciated for the hard work that you have put in for the last 15 years. A lot of the girls, even longer. It is a really proud moment for all of us to be recognised by FIFA and it is obviously exciting because you get to play as yourself on a video game, which has never happened before.”
Plus, have you checked out your own statistics and likeness on the game yet?
“Yeah, I have! They go off the information that has been given to them and what you do in the World Cup. I am happy with my scores. I think they could have given me more on my right foot, but you know! To just be in the game itself; you don’t really look at your stats or figures, you are just happy to be on it.”