Chelsea forward praised for goals, awards and tackling mental health
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.
Talent...playing for Chelsea and (right) with the Football Writers’ award