Chelsea for­ward praised for goals, awards and tack­ling men­tal health

World Soccer - - People Of The Year - Glenn Moore

At 17, Francesca Kirby walked away from foot­ball, a sport that had con­sumed her for 10 years and al­ready brought a de­but for Read­ing. She now knows she was suf­fer­ing from de­pres­sion brought on by the grief of her mother’s sud­den death three years ear­lier with a brain haem­or­rhage.

Kirby had been very close to her mother, Denise, who had been the one driv­ing her to matches, stand­ing on the side­lines and wash­ing her kit. Though fa­ther Steve took on both roles, chang­ing his shifts as a train driver to be­come her chauf­feur and sup­porter, amid the many other par­ent­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties the emo­tional void was too big to fill.

While Kirby had tried to shut out her grief, her foot­ball had pro­gressed – she had been called up by Eng­land un­der-19s and had been of­fered a schol­ar­ship in Amer­ica – but sud­denly she could not see the point of con­tin­u­ing if her mother was not there to share in the suc­cess.

“When I lost her I lost a bit of foot­ball as well. I would look out and try and find her in the crowd and she wasn’t there,” Kirby has re­called. “It be­came a dark stage of my life.”

She did not just quit foot­ball, at one stage she could barely find the will to drag her­self out of bed.

It took the sup­port of her fa­ther, and a spell of play­ing for fun in a Sun­day League team with friends, to reawaken Kirby’s love for the game. She re-joined Read­ing and the goals be­gan to flow. Full Eng­land hon­ours fol­lowed, then a record-break­ing trans­fer to Chelsea.

To­day, Fran Kirby is the lead­ing women’s foot­baller in Eng­land. In 2018 she be­came the first Foot­ball Writ­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion Women’s Foot­baller of the Year, a land­mark award – the men’s equiv­a­lent is the grand­daddy of all in­di­vid­ual hon­ours, first awarded to Stan­ley Matthews in 1948.

She was also the Pro­fes­sional Foot­ballers’ As­so­ci­a­tion Women’s Player of the Year.

Kirby was Chelsea Women’s player of the year too, af­ter a sea­son in which her goals led the Lon­don club to the dou­ble of Women’s Su­per League and Women’s FA Cup, and the semi-fi­nals of the UEFA Women’s Champions League. She was also in­stru­men­tal in Eng­land qual­i­fy­ing for the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

Kirby’s in­flu­ence as a role model is not just about the goals and awards. She has in­creas­ingly spoken pub­licly of her own ex­pe­ri­ences with de­pres­sion in an at­tempt to help oth­ers with men­tal health is­sues. In 2018 she recorded a mov­ing video, It’s OK not to be OK, for UEFA’s WePlayStrong cam­paign chart­ing her dif­fi­cul­ties and re­cov­ery.

Denise Kirby col­lapsed in front of her daugh­ter dur­ing a meet­ing with Read­ing academy staff. She passed away overnight. Kirby says: “My mum was the big­gest driver in my foot­ball ca­reer. Be­fore my mum passed away I was a very ex­tro­verted per­son.

“I be­came very in­tro­verted, quiet and anx­ious about what peo­ple thought of me. Peo­ple wouldn’t have liked me as a per­son, I didn’t like me as a per­son. It took me a long time to find my­self, start lov­ing my­self and take care of my­self again.”

Of her open­ness she adds: “I think the more peo­ple read about [men­tal health] in the media the more they [can] talk about it, to their friends, their fam­ily.”

Kirby now fo­cuses on re­call­ing her mum in a pos­i­tive way. “Her mem­ory is a mo­ti­va­tional tool for me,” she says. “I want to make my fam­ily proud.” That she has done, and con­tin­ues to do.

Tal­­ing for Chelsea and (right) with the Foot­ball Writ­ers’ award

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