Last night, Fran Kirby produced a sensational performance in England’s 4-0 win over Sweden in the Semi-Finals of Euro 2022. It was just reward for a player who has overcome mental health challenges, injuries, and several bouts of debilitating illness to line up at Wembley on Sunday in one of the biggest games on the planet. Impetus’ Ben Gilby, who watches Kirby play regularly in the WSL at Kingsmeadow, profiles the player that Chelsea fans rightly call ‘Super Fran’ (27/7/22).
Above: The look on the face says it all. Fran Kirby after scoring for the Lionesses last night. Photo: Lionesses.
Fran Kirby is one of the most respected female footballers in the world. She’s played in and scored goals in countless big games for club and country – none more so than last night’s victory over Sweden in the Euros semi-finals. Yet in order to reach that status, she has had to overcome some major hurdles. Hurdles that occasionally re-appear and need to be overcome again.
Back in May last year, I was part of an online discussion with Kirby organised by the Women’s Sports Alliance, where the Chelsea and Lionesses star spoke openly about the challenges she has faced in her life and career. It makes her achievements all the more outstanding. It makes her one of the most inspirational female athletes England has.
“I lost my Mum at the age of 14, Kirby explained, “I didn’t allow myself a grieving space. I went to school the next day. It wasn’t until I was aged 16-18 that I noticed that things weren’t right in me.
“I didn’t understand who I was or what I wanted to be. With my Mum gone, I was growing up in a male-dominated household and we weren’t good at speaking about our emotions. We didn’t mention the word ‘Mum’ for four years after her passing.”
It was incredibly hard for Fran to chart a path forwards to overcome these difficult times. For Fran, the support of a physio at Reading FC was instrumental in her mental state’s improvement.
“It’s so important to find someone that you can talk to. Quite often it’s someone who doesn’t know you all that well. The physio at Reading was older than me and I’d sit on her sofa and just cry.”
“I could see that (my mental condition) was affecting other people around me. I was becoming a person that I wouldn’t like to be around myself.”
“I stopped playing football for a year after Mum died. I knew that I would get back to football eventually. I needed to find joy in myself. At the age of 13, I had people telling me I would play for England – that was tough to hear and live up to. I had anxiety about coming back, but football was the biggest part of my life. For a long time, I knew how much my Mum wanted me to play football. Now it’s a dream that I want to have. I still have bad days and I just accept that.”
Fran has also had to battle several major injuries and health scares over the course of her career. She outlined how the mental impact of this is not quite the same as the struggles that she faced after her Mother’s passing, but that didn’t make them any easier to overcome.
The period between 2016 and 2017 saw the Berkshire-born player suffered back-to-back injuries which were hampered by slow recovery times due to problems diagnosing the exact nature of the injuries. It led to a period of around 12 months out of the game during which Kirby suffered pain so bad that she struggled to walk due to knee problems and bone edema (deep internal bruising).
“I went through so many ups and downs (in that period) and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I found in the end that the best thing to do was to be honest with the people around me about how I was feeling. I learned a lot about myself and took a lot of time to work things out.”
The season before last saw Kirby experience another incredibly challenging period after being diagnosed with pericarditis, an inflammation of the fibrous sac that surrounds the heart which left her with sharp chest pain, fever, shortness of breath, and general weakness.
“Mentally it was one of the craziest things that I’ve experienced in my life, Fran said. “It was a trauma. Just thinking about coming back and playing football scared me because of how I was feeling. I just couldn’t think of anything worse than getting back playing.”
“Then I got injured in my first England training camp after recovering from the pericarditis. That was possibly my biggest mental battle.”
Fran feels that it is incredibly positive that more professional sports stars are talking about their mental health battles. “We have to be honest. We’re not robots, we’re human beings. It gives the fans more of a personal relationship with you. If they can see our struggles and we’re getting through it then maybe they see that they can too if they have struggles.”
The relationship with fans is something that comes with positives and negatives for sports players’ mental health. “When the fans are happy with you, it’s great. When they are not, it’s hard to separate this. I try not to get too caught up in opinions of me. I don’t look at comments about my performance because it can impact you.”
In terms with how mental health is dealt with at Chelsea, Fran is hugely positive. “Emma Hayes has been amazing through everything that I’ve been through. You need to feel reassured and valued. You need to feel what you are doing for your job is important. I was still being told how valued I was and how I was part of the squad.”
Fran went into this summer’s Euros on the back of another major debilitating illness which meant that she didn’t play any football from February until the end of the season. It was touch and go as to whether she would be ready to be considered for selection for Sarina Wiegman’s squad.
The Lionesses’ head coach recognised that Kirby was ready, and the Chelsea star hasn’t looked back, starting every game, and scoring in England’s 5-0 group win over Northern Ireland before last night’s goal at Bramall Lane to seal her country’s 4-0 win over Sweden.
Fran Kirby is going to Wembley on Sunday. She’s been there before a number of times before with both club and country. Yet this time is extra special. A truly inspirational female athlete with an incredible backstory is going all out to lift one of the biggest trophies in women’s football. If anyone can do it, Super Fran can.