Chelsea have an embarrassment of riches at their disposal, but it was Fran Kirby who made the difference in Sunday’s top-of-the-table clash with Manchester United in the Women’s Super League and walked away with the Player of the Match award.
It was little more than a year ago that Kirby began her fight with an inflammatory heart condition known as pericarditis. It can cause shortness of breath, fever and weakness and was resulting in the player sleeping for up to 15 hours a day in the early stages.
Last spring, Kirby admitted she was struggling to ‘feel human’ as a result of the illness and even considered quitting football altogether. For Chelsea’s sake and the sake of the WSL and English football as a whole, it is a relief that she didn’t.
The 27-year-old, whose previous injury problems were finally behind her – making the diagnosis all the more frustrating, returned to action for Chelsea in September after ten months out.
Since her return, Kirby has become Chelsea’s all-time top scorer by scoring a Champions League brace against Benfica in December and netted a perfect hat-trick as part of a four-goal haul against former club Reading earlier this month. Blues boss Emma Hayes has remarked that she is in the ‘form of her life’. It is incredible considering the circumstances.
Kirby has eight WSL goals to her name in 2020/21 in just eight appearances and only Arsenal superstar Vivianne Miedema has scored more. As well as being Chelsea's top scorer, she is also the chief goal provider and is fourth in the WSL’s assist charts overall.
Kirby’s eighth goal of the season was the winner against Manchester United. She reacted fastest to a long ball from goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger that split the United defence and coolly converted the one-on-one to restore Chelsea’s lead just as the visitors had built up a head of steam and equalised.
The Blues are now top of the WSL table with a game in hand and increasing favourites for the title.
That Kirby is making such an impact for Chelsea is testament to her ability and mentality.
Chelsea’s squad is beyond ridiculous and any player not operating at an elite level would not get a look in. Even those who would walk into any other WSL team, and probably most in Europe – like reigning PFA player of the year Bethany England and creative maestro Guro Reiten - had to make do with a place on the bench on Sunday for the biggest game of the season.