Last week in Lisbon, Fran Kirby netted her 69th and 70th goals for Chelsea against SL Benfica. It was a resounding victory for the Blues in their first Champions League match since 2018. Yet, the biggest celebration was for Kirby herself, who became the Blues’ all-time leading goal scorer.
Former Blue Eniola Aluko handed the baton with enthusiasm, sharing on social media how proud she was of her former teammate. Aluko showed no surprise that Kirby had broken the record, saying she “was born to play this game.”
As congratulations poured in from friends and teammates, it was clear as ever how integral to the Chelsea setup Kirby is – not only as a player, but as a role model and friend.
A legend in the making
Kirby joined the Blues five years ago from her local club Reading, where she had played since the age of seven.
At that time, manager Emma Hayes said: “She’s got the personality and the character to wear the Chelsea shirt. I think she will go on to become a Chelsea legend.”
Hayes’ prediction for Kirby’s career in blue would go on to fulfil itself in more ways than one. Kirby’s technical ability and intelligence confirmed her world-class finishing and opportunity creation.
Her talent and persona is now synonymous with success. She is an imaginative and unselfish player. The synergy she has with her teammates has facilitated Chelsea’s exponential success on the field. Kirby makes football look effortless.
But that’s far from the case. Whilst it’s only right to champion Kirby as a gifted footballer, her bravery and persistence are what make her truly special.
“It’s okay not to be okay”
At only 27 years old, Kirby has faced more adversity than many will in a lifetime. The loss of her mother at 14 and subsequent battle with grief and depression almost ended her football career altogether.
Kirby made the decision to stop playing in her mid-teens and focus on her mental health. Few would have the resilience to return to the game after such a break. But after joining a casual Sunday team with a friend, Kirby rediscovered her love for football. Feeling steadier on her feet, Kirby rejoined Reading in 2012 and went on to become the WSL 2’s top goal scorer that same season.
Her mental health journey was far from over. This became clearer than ever during an emotional feature for The Players’ Tribune where she expressed her determination to be open about her struggles. She stressed that it was “okay not to be okay,” and that it took her a long time to stop pretending that everything was normal.
Kirby’s advocacy for mental health has shone a light on the immense pressure many people feel to maintain the demands of their career despite facing devastating personal struggles. It’s something many of us can relate to, and having a role model like Kirby is invaluable.
After an incredible four seasons with Chelsea, in which she won countless awards and international fame, it was hard to believe that anything could stop Kirby playing again. But in November 2019, Kirby was struck down with a sudden, debilitating illness called pecariditis.
The severity of the medical condition was another roadblock for Kirby. She recalled “struggling to feel human” and considered picking up the phone to tell her Chelsea and England managers that she was giving up.
Kirby missed the rest of the 2019/20 season, unable to get out of bed, let alone kick a ball. Fortunately, she had the unwavering support of her friends, club, and teammates to help lift her out of the darkest months of her illness.
Kirby makes a comeback
Yet again, Kirby found the inner strength to fight back against the odds, and made a full physical recovery. Nine months after she fell ill, Kirby joined her teammates in their 2-0 Community Shield victory over Manchester City.
With the 2020/21 season now in full swing, Kirby is back and playing better than ever. Her absence was felt by the club, and despite new signings and big developments in the Chelsea squad, she remains an integral piece of the puzzle.
As the player to score the Blues’ first-ever Champions League goal in 2015, it only feels right that she should break the record in the very same competition.
Just as Hayes said back in 2015, it is Kirby’s character that has proved indestructible in the face of adversity. Fans and players of any age can look up to her as an example of determination, and, most importantly, showing vulnerability. She reminds us that the game is about more than just winning. It’s also about being part of a support network, and looking out for those around you when times get tough.
Kirby was a legend before she put on the Chelsea shirt. But now, she has gone above and beyond to make history at the club, and in the game she loves.