Fran Kirby has not watched the Lionesses’ Euro 2017 semi-final defeat by the Netherlands. She can’t. “It was silent,” she recalls of the dressing room after England lost 3-0 to the eventual champions. “People were crying, upset, gutted that we couldn’t give the account of ourselves that we wanted.

“We had had a positive Euros. I’ve not watched it back, no. I feel we let ourselves down as players. That was the hardest part – we didn’t give enough.”

It was the team’s second consecutive exit from a major competition at the semi-final stage after a crushing extra-time freak own goal from Laura Bassett put Japan into the 2015 World Cup final at England’s expense.

“I think everyone is still hurting from the two semi-finals we lost,” Kirby says. “We want to make sure we get past that stage this time. Not focus too much on the hurt we experienced and still feel, but to use that as a motivation.”

It was after the 2015 World Cup that Kirby first got noticed in public. The Canada tournament had awakened a nation to women’s football. Despite the time difference a staggering 2.4 million tuned in to watch the semi-final on BBC One while in the United States 2.3 million watched on Fox Sports 1 – a record for a game not featuring the USA.

Kirby and the team returned with bronze to a heroes’ welcome. Then she was spotted for the first time. “In my local Tesco,” she says. “It was the girl behind the counter; luckily I was buying healthy food.

“It’s a lot more common,” she says. Particularly in Reading, where she played before switching to Chelsea. “A lot of people recognise me now, especially the younger generations, definitely. But it’s not that common. It’s quite nice that I can weave in and out sometimes without people saying anything.”

That could change dramatically this summer. Already the Lionesses’ faces are everywhere. This is expected to be the most-watched Women’s World Cup, with more than one million people expected to attend. Are the players prepared for the increased recognition?

“I just stay inside anyway! With my dogs,” says Kirby. “It’s going to be a transition for all of us. We’ve probably had it drip-fed in – it’s not gone ‘bang!’

Fran Kirby in action during the Euro 2017 semi-final defeat to Netherlands.



Fran Kirby in action during the Euro 2017 semi-final defeat to Netherlands. Photograph: Catherine Ivill – AMA/Getty Images

“The girls will be ready for it and we have to accept that’s going to come if we want to achieve what we want to achieve and be world champions. We have to be ready for everything that’s going to come with it. It’s exciting times. We want to be the face of women’s football, to encourage young girls to play. If I have to be recognised in the streets to encourage them I’m happy to do that.”

Part of Kirby’s rise has come through an array of personal sponsorship deals, Nike and Swarovski the most prominent. “I never expected any of the things that are happening to me, if I’m totally honest. I joined the international stage quite late, I didn’t do many of the youth age groups, so to come into the senior team and to be offered a Nike deal – a very, very low Nike deal to start with but I was jumping up to bite the woman’s hand off to sign the piece of paper.

“The girls are now getting sent things. Look at boots – a few years ago the girls all had to buy their own boots; it wasn’t a case of Nike dropping in boxes all the time. In that respect it’s got so much bigger. We had a new pair of socks on our pegs today and it was: ‘Look at these – they’re amazing.’ We’re still so humbled and excited when people want to help us. That just shows the character in this group – that we still get excited by a pair of pretty socks.”

Each pair of socks or boots is a step closer to a more equal game. But Kirby is sure of one thing: only winning the World Cup will give them the leverage to demand more.

“Ultimately we need to grow the women’s game,” she says. “That’s the biggest issue, it always has been. Then you can talk about equal pay and everything else. Ultimately we are doing the same job as the men but I understand that we’re not filling out stadiums. That makes it difficult to have that argument. As the women’s game improves and progresses, then they’re the conversations we can start to have.

“The USA are in dispute at the moment but they’re selling out arenas, they’ve won the World Cup and have some of the best players in the world in their team. They’re in a position to do that.

“We need to win the World Cup to have a leg to stand on in those situations. But if we keep improving the game on and off the pitch, those arguments can start to creep in.”

source: theguardian.com


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