Close control, swiftness of stride, before that telling touch to open the door to a beaming Fran Kirby celebration. When it comes together, it is just like a favourite old song fading back into the senses, and as far as this season is concerned, it somehow seems to sound better than ever.
Upon her eventual return to action last year, Fran Kirby’s previous dazzling best was repeatedly referred back to – as a fond reminder, but undoubtedly too as the benchmark that many would measure her comeback against. As a natural accompaniment, the Chelsea and England forward was often asked to recount the struggles she had come through, with pericarditis keeping her out from November 2019, and into a 2020 that would see its action wiped out in any case for a number of months.
One of women’s football’s most universally popular players, just to see the 27-year-old back on the pitch was guaranteed to go down a storm with so many, but this season has seen her soar, possibly even to new heights. In 2021 in particular, she has arguably been the standout headline-maker, scooping January’s FA Women’s Super League Player of the Month award in this past week.
Her Chelsea side are after nothing less than top billing, both at home and on the continent, as their quest for that first UEFA Champions League title resumes with its greatest intrigue yet. Chasing the number-one spot with her teammates is nothing all that new for Fran by now, and the rules work a little differently on this site anyway…
So what if we switch stadium for studio? Tactical understanding makes way for vocal harmony, and it’s out with the pre-wrap, in with the bass traps! If ‘Super Fran’ turned her talents to recording a song cover, as a collaboration with anyone she has played alongside in her career, what might be the end result to that one?
“Well, for starters, I probably wouldn’t do it!” she laughs. “You’d have to pay me a lot of money to do that one!”
“I’d probably pick someone like Ali Riley or Crystal Dunn. When Crystal Dunn was over (at Chelsea), she did the Fugees and she was actually quite a good singer.
“So, I’d probably pick Crystal and she could do most of the song, and I’d just do the background noises!”
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The 45-cap England international has never had to officially showcase such capabilities, perhaps surprisingly, given how widespread the singing initiation is for a team’s new player in modern football. So many aspects have been built up over the years at Chelsea Women since Emma Hayes’ arrival as manager, but when a certain goal machine from Reading joined in 2015, she was happy to find one at least being temporarily overlooked.
“When I joined Chelsea, it was kind of going through the stages where initiations weren’t quite part of the team at the time; it wasn’t until a couple of years later that they started to do the initiations, so I was quite lucky in that sense. To be fair, I always love a singalong in the gym or anything like that, so I’d say that’s my initiation every day!”
With a goal tally to currently match the number 14 on her back, Fran’s form has been supreme so far in 2020/21. As she will discuss later, there is some variation to how to help bring the best from her, but the headphones are always on her team sheet when match day arrives.
“Yeah, for sure, always listen to music. I love music, I love any type of music, so I don’t have a specific set playlist that I have, leading into a game; I like to just kind of go with what I’m feeling in that moment.
“Sometimes I’ll listen to really upbeat stuff, sometimes I’ll listen to relaxed stuff if I’m feeling a little bit nervous, but definitely always got the headphones in or blaring the music out in the car.”
There is no doubting what she can come up with when the vibe is right. Moments just like the goal to break the deadlock deep into England’s 2015 World Cup group encounter with Mexico, as the then-21-year-old sprinkled some stardust in Moncton at a time when the Lionesses desperately needed it.
With the ball falling around the edge of the box, she would scoop it over one defender, chop inside another, and prod home a finish off the far post. Three outstanding touches that set Mark Sampson’s side on their way to a crucial three points in what of course became a bronze-winning tournament, while the scorer had suddenly been elevated into the consciousness of a much wider public.
The goal was a piece of ingenuity that one Kelly Smith would have been proud of, and in her 2018 interview on here, the Arsenal and England great singled out Fran as the current player she enjoys watching:
“Players that I like to watch, Fran Kirby, because I see little bits in her that remind me of how I used to play: very direct, skilful, gets away from players, and she’s a threat. Every time she gets the ball, she’s a key player for Chelsea and for England.”
The two might be slightly apart on music at least, with Smith’s liking for disco shimmering through in that interview, though that is not to say that Fran doesn’t like a dash of vintage all the same.
“I listen to a real mix of music. I can go through a week where I’m listening to the new kind of hits, or I’ll listen to the old-school, so a bit of Whitney (Houston), a bit of Stevie Wonder, people like that.
“Then I can go to the complete opposite, where I’m listening to country music; this week, I’ve been listening to a lot of Carrie Underwood. Tomorrow, I could be listening to Wes Nelson, so it’s really, really mixed.”
In the tender stages of 2021 alone, Fran has nine goals already, and last month bagged the winner in the 2-1 against Manchester United that saw Chelsea equal Manchester City’s 31-game WSL unbeaten record. Brighton and Hove Albion would end it at 33, with the Blues having won ten in a row in all competitions by that point, but they came roaring straight back to strengthen their position at the top in a title race nowhere near settled just yet.
Jaw-dropping signings like attacking stars Sam Kerr and Pernille Harder in the past year or so make Chelsea surely the team best equipped to finally topple Lyon as Champions League winners. It is amazing to think that this time six years ago, the club had not yet even made their debut in the competition.
Fran was the scorer of their very first UWCL goal, in a 1-0 first-leg victory over Glasgow City in the last 32, and it was at the same stage of this season’s competition that she became the club’s all-time leading scorer. As she surpassed Eniola Aluko’s record with goals 69 and 70 against Benfica, Fran took time to pay tribute to her former teammate.
— Chelsea FC Women (@ChelseaFCW) December 9, 2020
A world-class forward she has undoubtedly become, but there was a time when she was tuning into another ‘Hotshot’, which brings us ever so neatly on to the first music Fran ever bought.
“Yeah, I remember, specifically because I remember I saved a lot of money up to buy this album, and to buy a little pool table for my house that my mum allowed me to get! It was Shaggy’s album (‘Hotshot’), the one with ‘Angel’ on.
“That was the first one I got, and I got a little radio to go with it as well so I could play the album all day while I was playing pool in my garage! So yeah, that one is definitely the first one I bought.”
Only a year apart in age from brother Jamie, Fran first went football training with him as a kid, and he was among the crowd in Moncton when she made her World Cup debut against France in 2015. A touch of brotherly influence was most definitely at work in Fran’s sound choices growing up.
“My brother was a big fan of ones like Busted, Green Day, so I got into that. My mum was trying to introduce me to the old-school singers, so Billy Joel, people like that; I listened to literally anything that was put on in the car.
“Then obviously pop music as well I was getting into at that time. A lot of the time it was through family, so Eminem, my brother was listening to Eminem.”
Musicians and footballers have dominated many a bedroom wall for people growing up (or even thereafter). Childhood Fran – who actually spent some of her time as a goalkeeper – may have struggled to believe that she would one day have a multi-million-selling artist (Ellie Goulding) publicly announcing her place in a World Cup squad for England, as so happened in 2019.
Fran has shared on social media various concerts she has been to in the past, including Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran and Michael Bublé – plus the odd Disney spectacular, of course – but what if she could choose from any performers from all-time to see?
“I’d pick two: I’d probably say Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.”
Fran’s link-ups with teammates have proved devastating on numerous occasions, but a gig is one setting in which they can kick back and let others take the stage. At her favourite of those she has been to, she was alongside one of her fellow Chelsea attacking stars.
“I would have to say probably Bruno Mars at the O2; he was really good, really good singer, entertainer. I think that was one of the best ones, and I went with Erin Cuthbert, so we had a real good laugh, just dancing around to his tunes.”
It was over in a different part of the capital where she produced an especially memorable virtuoso display in 2018, and against very strong opposition no less. The FA Cup final with Arsenal belonged to Chelsea, and while Swiss star Ramona Bachmann hit two outstanding goals in the 3-1 win to scoop Player of the Match honours, Fran was superbly influential, too. Having assisted one for Bachmann, she struck a perfect left-footer into the far corner from just inside the box – Wembley dreams all coming true.
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Chelsea won the double as unbeaten WSL champions by six points, and the season saw all sorts of accolades come 25-goal Fran’s way, including the PFA Women’s Players’ Player of the Year, and the inaugural female Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year. Having come back from her prolonged absence this season, Emma Hayes said in December that she was ‘probably in the form of her life’.
January’s Manager of the Month in the WSL, Hayes has been conductor-in-chief of all the Blues have become over the past eight years. Has she, though, ever dared to step where few managers have ever done so with success, and put one of her own song choices on in the changing room?
“I think she tries to stay out of the changing room for as long as possible!” says Fran. “But no, I’ve not heard her put a suggestion in.”
Back in the first year that there was a two-tiered Women’s Super League (2014), Fran was WSL 2’s leading scorer (for Reading). Her tally of 24 put her top of a goal chart that also featured a young Doncaster Rovers Belles pair side by side – Beth England and Millie Bright.
Chelsea captain Magdalena Eriksson told on here last year how the Lionesses pair are the ones most likely when it comes to the Blues’ matchday playlist. Fran gives an update on that, as well as how it tends to go down in the England dressing room, in these post-DJ Alex Scott times.
“I think Beth is still on the music. The thing is, though, it’s one of those where whoever gets to connect first is kind of on it, and Beth is always making sure that she’s connecting first!
“She’s got a playlist that she puts on and everyone can suggest songs they want on; it’s normally Beth on a match day. With England, I think Leah Williamson jumps on the DJ blocks, and it’s the same kind of vibe as in Chelsea’s changing room; it’s very chilled, the music goes and you’re kind of focusing on the game rather than dancing.
“Obviously, you have a few people here and there who are trying to make you laugh, like Jill (Scott). She’s always up for a dance – no matter when!”
She may have gladly slipped free of the initiation spotlight when joining Chelsea, but Fran recalls one of the New Zealand squad’s chief entertainers going all-in after signing in 2018.
“To be fair, we always have quite good initiations. We always let people do a dance or a song, or you can go in a group and do a performance.
“We had one year where everyone went in a group, and a couple of girls did a Grease kind of thing; it was Ali Riley and she had the wig and everything to play Sandy, so she was really on it. To be fair, everyone has good levels.
“We had one where people made up their own song, so that was quite cool. I think we have quite creative ones and everyone gives it a good go, for sure.”
Those new additions have only become more eyebrow-raising and exciting more recently, with Chelsea a side now who can count on not only five-star quality from around the world, but depth in abundance. Alongside their European ambitions, there is undoubtedly a deep desire to win a fourth (on top of 2017’s Spring Series) WSL title, and to seal it the conventional way this year, rather than having it confirmed on Zoom (these times, eh?).
Title rivals apart perhaps, just about everyone is hoping for swathes more of Fran’s irresistible form along the way. So, besides having teammates tuned into the same frequency on the pitch, what does she feel she needs from a manager in order to head into the action primed and ready to thrive? Mostly encouragement, or does getting her angry or amped-up to 11 (deliberate reference…) also reap reward?
“I think I’m a bit of both. You always want confidence in you from a manager and your team, you always want encouragement, and you always want that respect, and to feel valued.
“I think a lot of players play better when they feel that sense within their set-up, but also people being honest I think is a big part, not beating around the bush. As long as it’s not taken out of context and it’s constructive, then I think that helps me a lot.
“People talking to me and giving me a solution, rather than just saying ‘that’s not good enough’; that doesn’t help me. It’s more a case of finding a solution that we can come to and we can work on it.
“When I’m angry, I go one of two ways. That doesn’t really happen in games, I think that happens more in training, because I know in games I have to be completely, fully focused, but in training, I’ll get the ball and I’ll just try and smack it as hard as I can in the goal.
“Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t! So that’s normally how I do it.
“It kind of gives me a spur to work a bit harder or tackle someone. I think you can always channel however you’re feeling – whether you’re feeling calm, angry – channel it to do the right thing in the moment.”
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It will be seven years this August since Fran’s goalscoring debut for England against Sweden, and she is a player today who has netted for her country at all three of her major tournaments so far. The game has very obviously been a huge vehicle in many of her life experiences, but as anyone who has heard her personal story will know, she has come to understand better than many that there is a lot more beyond it.
She shares a current snapshot of what else captures her interest and provides much-needed balance, when she has left opposing defenders alone for the day!
“Well, obviously I have my dogs, so I walk them when I need to get some fresh air, and they’ve been a massive help in these tough times. I’ve been doing a part-time uni degree outside of football, Business and Administration, so that’s taken up quite a bit of time in the evenings to do that.
“I’ve been reading books about mindset and things like that; I think that’s actually been really helpful in terms of going into the season, little hints I’ve picked up on and been able to take in from reading those books. I’d probably say those are my three top things.”
She responds to the question of whether her choice of subject to study is with remaining in football in an alternative role after playing in mind at all.
“I think of course I want to stay in football. It’s not something where I wanna go ‘okay, I’ve finished playing now, I’m out,’ but I definitely want to find something away from football that I enjoy doing.
“I think we get so wrapped up in ‘football’s our life, football’s this, football’s that,’ and you forget that there’s such a bigger picture out there, such a bigger world than the one that we’re in. So I would love to kind of venture out into something else.
“I don’t know what, but that Is something I’ve really thought about and I’d like to do, to test myself and take myself out of the comfort zone of football and put it into something else to do with the outside world.”
From the kid who came up through the years at Reading, to someone who has played in front of millions, and has meaningful bonds with people from around the world to cherish – has it all changed her for the better?
“Yeah, for sure. I think I’ve had to learn a lot; a lot of life lessons since growing up at Reading, understanding the levels.
“Also growing with how women’s football has grown; I think at the beginning, that was quite tough. You went from an environment where there weren’t many people kind of talking about women’s football, there wasn’t much going on, whereas now, it’s getting bigger, it’s getting more media attention, and we are role models now.
“We have to show that in everyday life. When I first came through Reading, it wasn’t the case of everyone putting the magnifying glass on what you were doing.
“It’s kind of the case of understanding your roles now within women’s football and within society. I think it taught me a lot in terms of learning about myself.
“I think I had to get away from Reading to experience something new, take myself out of that comfort zone and learn who I am. I think over the last few years, I’ve really matured and developed that side of myself.
“I don’t think I would have got that if I’d just stayed in the same place. I wouldn’t have met the most amazing people that I have and travelled the world, so I’m extremely lucky.”
As the numbers back up, Fran can also be a pretty useful supply line for those around her, but it is over to her to put the finishing touches on this one. In the regular closing question, the fantasy 5-a-side arena is our destination.
The interviewee is called upon to choose four current or former colleagues to be on their team, just as examples of those they have enjoyed taking the field with. The rules are gently and ever so briefly modified this time, as Fran asks if she can sneak a guest player past the officials and into her line-up…
“So I need a goalie; I’d go with Ann-Katrin Berger. Obviously a quality, quality goalkeeper, one of the hardest ones I’ve played against.
“Kelly Smith – best English footballer that’s ever played in the women’s side. Could it be who I’ve played against? Just because when someone says ‘who’s the hardest you’ve played against?’, I always say Lauren Holiday.
“I couldn’t get anywhere near her for however long I was on the pitch. I remember hoping that it was gonna be my number that came up to be subbed at one point because I was so tired!
“I was just chasing her for the whole game, so I would always have her in my team. (Does she want a defender for the final choice?) No, we don’t need defenders, we’ve got hard workers!
“I’d probably say Sam Kerr in there, to score the goals, and get on the end of Kelly’s crosses.”
To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
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