'England's most talented attacking player' - Chelsea star Kirby flying after nine-month absence

Fran Kirby Chelsea 2020-21Getty Images

Most footballers would struggle to hit the ground running straight away after almost a year away from the action.

Fran Kirby is not like most footballers.

Her return to action this season after nine months out due to pericarditis, a heart condition, has many running out of superlatives to describe her incredible ability.

But after her starring role in Chelsea’s 3-1 win over Manchester City on Sunday, Blues’ boss Emma Hayes put it perfectly.

“Fran is, without question in this country, the most talented attacking player in the England squad,” she told reporters.

“Everybody needs to look after her because if England are going to win major trophies, it is important everybody recognises what a special talent she is, but also what a special person she is.”

It was November of last year when Kirby played her final game of the 2019-20 season - a campaign that ended with Chelsea winning the Women’s Super League title, after picking up their first Continental Cup in February.

Normally the 27-year-old would have played a starring role, but now she is making up for time lost on the sidelines battling a condition that almost ended her career.

After nine months without a competitive game, she stole the show in Chelsea’s Community Shield win over City in August and has provided two assists and three goals in four WSL games since.

On Sunday, she put the ball on a plate for Sam Kerr for a goal that was almost identical to that scored at Manchester United on the opening day of the season.

With her fantastic delivery and Kerr’s clever movement, the pair are forming quite a duo.

Kirby is crucial to the style that Chelsea are using to dominate teams this season. Her athleticism, speed and ability to pick the perfect pass are helping the Blues attack with real fluidity and ruthlessness. It is incredible, most of all, to think that she has been back for just seven competitive games.

She oozed confidence throughout the encounter with City, one of Chelsea’s biggest rivals for the title this season. Running at the visiting defence with pace and terrifying them with an intense press out of possession - as the Blues did all game - she got the goal she deserved late on.

Erin Cuthbert played the perfect pass, Kirby timed a perfect run and suddenly she was around the goalkeeper, Ellie Roebuck, wrapping up all three points.

“Fran is one of my good mates as well so seeing her journey, seeing what she’s been through, it’s an absolute pleasure to see the performances that she’s providing on the pitch” Cuthbert said.

“I think that’s a testament to all of the hard work she’s done. She’s really, really worked so hard, in pre-season and over lockdown, to get herself to a fitness level that means she’s competing with the team.”

Hayes added: “Yes, she’s got a club that loves her and we’ll do the best we can by her, but she deserves all the credit. She’s put all the hard work in.”

Her ability to work back to such a high fitness level, after a heart condition that meant she was told by a cardiologist that she may not play again if she did not “slow down”, is amazing.

But the joy with which she is now playing is the most exciting thing of all. The feel-good factor to her play, that which saw her cheekily flick the ball over a challenge from Lucy Bronze - one of the best players in the world - on Sunday, is as entertaining as it is effective.

Fran Kirby Chelsea 2020-21
Getty Images

“Her technical ability speaks for itself,” Cuthbert, who herself had a fantastic game floating into space in the middle of the park, said.

“She’s a top-class player. She’s always able to find angles for me and she makes my job easy. I can do the hard work for her and she can go on and score like she did today!

“I’m happy with that. She’s just outstanding and when I provide her with the ball, I know she’s going to provide something beautiful.”

After struggling with injuries before her illness, something that prompted Hayes to urge patience with the England star around this time last year, Kirby could well be playing the best football of her career right now.

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But the most exciting thing is, she is literally only just on the comeback trail.

“I think there is still another level I can go to,” Kirby said at last month’s England camp. “I think I can be more clinical in my finishing. I can improve.”

She is just getting started.