Fran Kirby is back. Those are words every England fan wants to hear, everyone with an ounce of compassion has been desperate for and every other team fear.
On 15 April Chelsea’s manager, Emma Hayes, had announced the forward’s indefinite absence because of a fatigue problem for which they could find no answer. It was the latest in a long line of body blows that have blighted the supremely talented player’s career, from the death of her mother at 14 and the severe depression that followed and forced her out of the game to having pericarditis, a debilitating condition affecting the fluid-filled sac around the heart, for much of the 2019-20 season. This latest setback left the Euros looking a world away.
“I don’t sit there and stress about things that I can’t control,” Kirby says from St George’s Park after being selected for the tournament. “I think that’s one thing that I’ve had to learn, because it just creates negative energy.
“I didn’t even think about being in a Euros squad in February to April time. It wasn’t really in my mind. So I think that was a reason why I do feel so much better coming into this environment, because I wasn’t stressing myself out about missing certain situations.
“We didn’t really know how long it was going to take, if it was going to take two weeks, if it was going to take four months; it was just a case of working with the best specialists, getting the best advice that I could get and hopefully being ready to go into the squad.”
Her inclusion in the 28-player provisional squad was heartening but far from a guarantee she would be deemed fit for the final 23. She, like a number of others, had two weeks to prove her worth.
She felt she had done enough by the time, one by one, the 28 were called in to meet Sarina Wiegman to learn their fate. “You’re sitting there waiting for your phone to light up to say: ‘Go to the room’ – a bit like X Factor,” says Kirby, with a grin. “I walked in and I saw her smiling so then I was like: ‘OK, hopefully she’s not smiling and sending me home!’
“She told me that she all along knew that I was going to be an important part of this team, and we had some really honest conversations leading into it. I had said to her: ‘I need you to be honest with me and I’ll be honest with you. If we both feel like I’m not ready, then we make that decision.’”
Building a good relationship with England’s manager has been important. Hayes has been vocal in her desire for “better management” of Kirby the player and person at national team level.
“Sarina’s been really good,” says Kirby. “Obviously with my injury and illness history it does take me a bit of time to recover from certain situations, or maybe there’s days where I can’t do the full session when we’ve had a game, or we have a busy week.
“There’s been constant communication there and I feel like Sarina’s really taken it on board, and she’s really managed the load, not just of me but everyone.”
Reaching this point has been a battle for all, in part because there was no straightforward answer to her fatigue problem.
“There were no specific answers on the tests where they could go: ‘This is the illness.’ It was extreme fatigue and extreme exhaustion. There was talk about underperformance fatigue syndrome. So there were loads of things that were getting chucked out here and there. It was a lot of working with different psychologists, working with different specialists in terms of nutrition and recovery. I got an oxygen tent put in my house.”
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Opening up publicly brought people who have experienced similar into her orbit. “I had some amazing people reach out to me and speak to me,” she says. “Not just women’s football fans, other competitors who have gone through very similar things to me, psychologists reaching out saying they’re working with players who have the exact same feelings.
That helped me to understand this isn’t just a normal type of fatigue, it’s fatigue that loads of competitors get throughout their career. I had a marathon runner reach out to me, another footballer, a rower, it was loads of different sports reaching out, saying: ‘I felt this actually helped me, this helped me, and this helped me,’ so it gave me loads of ideas that I could use. I wouldn’t have got that if they hadn’t announced what was wrong and I think that was a really big part in my journey to getting back.”
That there is no quick fix is still “a concern” because there is no way of definitively preventing its return.
“This is something I’ve dealt with for probably five or six years of my career; it’s not something that just happened in February, it’s been an ongoing feeling that I’ve experienced,” Kirby says. “So I’ve kind of learnt now what the triggers are, when I start to feel a certain way, and how I can prevent that from happening … it’s really important to listen to your body and when you need to take a break, you take a break and really benefit from it.”
At the Euros she has a chance to reward those who invested time and energy into helping her.
“The biggest drivers, of course, are your family and your friends but I have to say the club [Chelsea] and England were incredible,” she says. “I was seeing a different specialist every day to pinpoint exactly what was going on, getting the oxygen tent, getting to go to Barcelona to meet some of the best doctors in sport. It’s something that I can’t ever be more thankful for … hopefully, I can get on the pitch and show why I’ve been selected and go and win a trophy.”