Professional footballer Fran Kirby has a magnificent year in front of her, notably with the Fifa Women’s World Cup taking place this summer. Fran talks to Happiful ahead of this major global tournament, and shares her passions, along with her thoughts on depression, grief, and learning to put her own needs first
I defy anybody not to feel a sense of awe at the achievements and accolades listed in relation to professional footballer Fran Kirby.
In the 2017/2018 season alone, she scored 25 times for her club, Chelsea FC, picked up PFA and FWA Player of the Year awards, became the first player to win the female version of the latter, and was also named Chelsea Ladies’ Player of the Year, and Players’ Player of the Year.
If that’s not enough, Fran is also a member of the England Women’s Football Squad and will be making her second World Cup appearance in France this summer.
As you can imagine, Fran is immensely disciplined. She committed to football from an early age, with her first professional signing for her hometown team, Reading, at the age of 16 – although she had already been playing in their youth team for nine years.
Along with her passion for the sport, one of the first things that comes across is Fran’s self awareness.
“I talk to myself…” she explains. “I back myself when other people might suggest I’m struggling. I’m the kind of person that reflects on what I think, rather than listening to what others are saying about me. Our game is growing bigger, so you have to accept that you’ll get more criticism along with the plaudits. I’ve had to learn to deal with that quite quickly, and focus on my own opinion.”
But along with the praise, Fran admits she can be tough on herself. “I look at everything I do, whether in training or during a game, and if I’m not happy with how I’ve performed, it can irritate me. So I have to try to level out that self criticism by adding in more positives on top of those negative thoughts.”
Alongside her self-talk, Fran is a very visual person with a good memory. A technique she often uses to analyse her own performance, by re-playing, in her mind, moments from a game. This skill, it seems, is a family trait.
“My whole family are football crazy, so I grew up watching a lot of it,” she tells me. “My dad would sit there and analyse the game out loud, so I think I picked up on a lot of that. That’s where I learned to know what does and doesn’t work.”
Alongside these happy family memories, of course, comes the more difficult, painful ones. The sudden death of her beloved mum – and biggest champion – Denise, when Fran was just 14 was a real mental health challenge for her, and is something she’s been vocal about.
Around two years later, Fran experienced a bout of depression. “That was one of the harder periods for me. It taught me a lot about growing up, and learning to deal with really difficult situations. Obviously my situation was quite extreme.
“It was a time where I was feeling down, I wasn’t enjoying doing anything, I couldn’t get out of bed and I didn’t have energy. I think that’s when I began the self-talk.”
Fran stopped playing football for a while, but did start to go the gym, and trained on the treadmill. “I’d just run, run, run, and then when I got off, I would feel so much better.”
By doing the small things, getting out and exercising, Fran believes she was telling herself to start living life again. This depressive period was an important catalyst for her to stop and reflect on the grief, and to address her thoughts about her own future.
I’m the kind of person that reflects on what I think, rather than listening to what others are saying about me
“I had fallen out of love with football, because I was so down,” Fran says. “I needed to get back to ‘normal’. Football had taken over my life. When mum passed away, I went to school two days later and straight back to playing. I didn’t give myself time to acknowledge and accept what happened. I think that’s why there was such a delay in grieving.”
But when she did stop to acknowledge her emotions, Fran was able to come out the other side with a more positive attitude towards the beautiful game. Now, memories of her mum drive her forward. “I think that her belief in me was one of the biggest things that helped with what I was going through. She wrote me a birthday card that said I would be going to the World Cup – and that definitely motivated me. I knew I had to get to a World Cup, I had to live the dream that my mum told everyone about.”
While she’s worked through that initial grief, emotionally it can still be tough. “Being able to do what she wanted me to do, even when it’s going great, can be hard. We won the double last year, I won individual awards too, and the one person I wanted to pick up the phone to was my mum. It does still creep up on you, but now I can see it in a more positive light than negative.”
Fran has certainly achieved all that her mum hoped she would, and more. This year will be her second World Cup, after playing in Canada 2015 where she scored for her country at the age of 22.
“I will never forget the feeling when I scored at the World Cup. That was just…” she trails off.
Now, Fran wants other girls to know that feeling, by inspiring them to play. “Five years ago, being a professional footballer wasn’t really happening for women. Now there are professional teams, we want to inspire girls to play, and not only that, we want to change the game so that the girls coming through have the best possible opportunities.
“We’ll speak up when we don’t agree with something, so the next generation don’t have to. We want to change the way that people talk about women footballers; we want to change every detail that it needs to make it as professional as possible.”
And what areas in particular would Fran like to see change this year? “More media coverage of women’s football, greater accessibility for people to come and watch, and more information about when games are on – promote it on TV when the men are playing,” she replies immediately.
And on a personal level, what does the future hold? “I want to keep playing well for Chelsea, and win the World Cup for England. That’s every kid’s dream growing up.”
She pauses. “I want to improve not only as a professional footballer, but as a person, too. Sometimes people see you just as a footballer, and they need to know we’re human beings. That’s important for young girls coming into the game; they need to know we go through trauma too, like I did, and that’s OK as well.”