Phil Neville has praised Fran Kirby’s quick return to the England fold as an “incredible achievement” after the Chelsea forward was sidelined for close to a year.
Stepping on to the training pitch at England’s training base at St George’s Park on Friday evening, Kirby stole the show in an intra-squad friendly, having made a successful return from debilitating pericarditis, a swelling of the fluid-filled sac around her heart.
“Seeing Fran Kirby in an England shirt was unbelievable,” said Neville. “Six to eight months ago I thought that was a long way away, but the work that she has put in herself, the work she has done to get mentally and physically right to play at the level she’s playing this season is an incredible achievement, exciting.”
Kirby also starred in Chelsea’s 9-0 thrashing of Bristol City last week, and Emma Hayes has described her form since returning as “unbelievable”.
“That’s nice,” said a typically modest Kirby of her Chelsea manager’s comments. “I am at a really good level. I think I am probably the fittest I’ve been for a long, long time just purely because it’s something I’ve worked really hard on for the last three or four months. I think there is still another level I can go to. I think I can be more clinical in my finishing, I can improve, but when you hear a manager say something like that it is really special.”
Hayes said the 27-year-old is someone she “cares about immensely”. She is not alone in that sentiment. Since the forward’s return, showing the pace and touch that many thought she may lose after such an injury-ridden year, there has been an outpouring of affection towards the player once nicknamed England’s “mini-Messi” by the former national-team manager Mark Sampson.
After Kirby was named player of the match in the training game, Neville enthused: “The best thing is the smile on her face. She’s falling in love with football again, she wants to play football. She’s playing like that kid that used to play in the park.”
“You see it,” said Kirby, who had a love-hate relationship with social media as she privately grappled with her illness, at one stage taking a step back entirely. “No support has gone unnoticed, reading everyone’s comments about me being back and all the positives I’ve had. But I need to keep working, I need to keep producing the performances.
“That’s the journey I’m on, I want to keep progressing on that, but it’s been incredible to hear people staying so many positive things about you, not just as a player but as a person. I’ve come back energised, I’ve come back smiling. I’m enjoying it. That means more to me, how people see you as a person.”
For Chelsea the return of Kirby could be more significant than any signing they have made, including the Danish forward Pernille Harder for a world record fee. Meanwhile, England have their chief creator back.
“She’s a world-class player,” said Neville. “She’s the difference for us when we want to get to a certain level.”