England forward Fran Kirby says she is a “lot more mature” compared to the player who burst onto the scene at the World Cup in Canada four years ago.
Kirby, who was a part-time FA Women’s Super League 2 player with Reading at the time, impressed former head coach Mark Sampson enough during warm-up games for him to pick her in his squad for the tournament.
Coming off the bench with England desperately needing a goal in their second match against Mexico, Kirby announced herself to the world with the goal that set the Lionesses on their way to a bronze medal and first earned the nickname “Mini Messi” from her manager, though she doesn’t feel the changes to her game have been that big besides maturity.
“I’ve got a different hairstyle,” she laughed. “I am learning different things all the time. I was just this young girl who played as a forward, I wasn’t doing much defensive work. Now, I’m trying to change my game a little bit and work a bit harder off the ball and when I’m on the ball, try and create as much as I possibly can.
“I am more mature as a player and a person. I am trying to encourage my teammates whereas before I would be quite quiet on the pitch and only expressive in the way I played. Now I feel a bit more authoritative in those situations. If I feel someone should have passed me the ball, I can say that. I just feel a lot more confident.”
Not only is she a different player to four years ago, she’s in a different position. Consistently used as a striker by both Sampson and now club manager Emma Hayes at Chelsea, Kirby has been used as a No. 10 by Phil Neville since he took the England job in January 2018.
Kirby has come in for criticism for some of her performances, particularly during the tournament itself, and at times has looked frustrated or just not as sharp in the position as she has been in front of goal as a striker.
But Kirby, who celebrated her 26th birthday today, isn’t worried and believes her performances have built up during the tournament.
“At the start of the tournament, I knew I had to build momentum going into it and find my feet in that position. Against Norway, I really enjoyed it even though it is really hard work. In tournament football, you have to build match sharpness and your fitness, you have to build momentum. I felt in a really good space and hopefully I can build on that going into the semifinal.”
The four years for Kirby since Canada have been big to say the least. Immediately after the tournament she joined FA WSL giants Chelsea for what was then a British record transfer fee in the women’s game.
Since then she’s won the FA WSL title, an FA Cup at Wembley — where she scored — and has become one of England’s most recognizable names.
On the pitch with England, things have changed due to a change in head coach. While Sampson preferred a defense-first attitude, Neville has favored a much more attacking style of play, something which should get the best out of the likes of Kirby.
Neville has also added a certain degree of belief to a team that at times didn’t look like they knew how to get over the line under a head coach who was inexperienced at the top level. Neville may still be relatively new to the women’s game, but it’s becoming more apparent day by day how pivotal playing experience is to the group as they close in on a first World Cup final.
“We want to play and that comes with making mistakes in situations but continuing to do it,” she said. “That’s a massive part of it. When things were going wrong for us in Canada, we maybe hid away from our true selves. Now, we make a mistake, we get over it and we do it again.
“If someone gives the ball away, they are working hard to win it back and then they are not scared to go and get it again. We know we are not going to make 100 perfect perfect passes but it’s being in a position to go, ‘Okay, I have made a mistake but I want to go and get the ball again.’”
While Sampson’s biggest managerial achievement pre-England was taking Bristol Academy — as they were then — to an FA Cup final, Neville can call upon an array of positive and negative experiences from his time playing for Manchester United and England.
He was part of the treble winning side of 1999 and part of the “Class of 92” that became so famous for the success they had over the next decade with the club. He’s put those contacts to good use to get David Beckham to speak to the team before their quarterfinal against Norway and also changed the mind-set of how this England team needs to view themselves if they are to avoid a third consecutive semifinal defeat in a major tournament.
“I think the most important thing is that we are completely focusing on us,” said Kirby. “We give our opponents respect they deserve but it’s about how we can beat them. It’s not a case of how we stop them. It’s how we can hurt them going forward and how we can beat them in every aspect of the game.”
When asked if that mind-set builds confidence, Kirby added, “We want to focus on ourselves because we want to win. We can only do that by playing the best we can play. Phil gives massive confidence to every single player stepping on that pitch. He fills you with confidence. He makes you feel like you are a hundred million dollars. That makes you want to go out there and prove him right for picking you in the first place and that’s the relationship all the girls have with him.”
While Kirby has spent the day enjoying her own birthday, there was a more touching moment after the game against Argentina when Neville reminded the team post-match it was the birthday of Kirby’s late mother who died when the England forward was just 14.
Kirby was visibly emotional post-match after Neville made a speech in the post-match huddle but looking back she’s clearly very touched by the moment.
“I didn’t actually know that the girls knew it was my mum’s birthday that day. The way everyone acted around me was so special. I remember speaking to Phil before the game and I was like, Look, we need to win the game and then we can speak about it and be as emotional as we want.’ I knew I had to get the job done for the team.
“To see everyone’s reactions, have everyone coming over to me, it was so special and it made me feel part of this team and everyone looks out for each other. It was a bit of a surprise for me to see the girls and how they reacted, it showed the girls were looking out for each other. Some of the girls had been messaging my agent asking if it was my mum’s birthday.”
Team spirit and togetherness has been something both Neville and Sampson worked tirelessly on ahead of major tournaments, with Neville taking his team into the middle of the Qatar desert and bringing the marines into St. George’s Park for his team to spend the night camping in the grounds of the training facility.
“It’s just the little things that make you so appreciative,” she said. “Just having that sense and comfort. Some of the girls go into each other’s rooms to watch Love Island, we go to the beach — little things that make you feel you’re at home and bring you together as a team.”
Kirby thinks that spirit and togetherness can help them in what will be the team’s toughest test yet, title holders the United States in Lyon on Tuesday night for a place in the final next weekend.
“Absolutely, absolutely. It just shows how much we care about this team. Everyone has each other’s backs. If someone looks like they’re not okay, someone will be going to ask them. If someone’s having a bad day in training, people are going up to them and checking. That’s a massive part of being part of this team.”