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The Puzzle

Jun 4 2019
Fran Kirby
England Women's National Team
Jun 4 2019
W

e were sitting on the Chelsea team bus on our way back to London when my teammates noticed that there was something wrong with me.

It was May 2018 and we had just beaten Liverpool away. The league title was all wrapped up. We had won the FA Cup too, and I had scored in the final. To top that off, I had won two individual awards and been shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or.

So, not too bad then.

You can imagine the mood on the bus. In the seats around me, the girls were on fire, singing and celebrating.

And I … I was crying.

I realise now how weird it must have looked. My teammates were probably thinking, Why is she crying? We’ve just won the double.

But all I wanted to do was make a call. There was only one person that I wanted to share that moment with. And I knew I couldn’t.

My teammates were probably thinking, Why is she crying? We’ve just won the double.

I never will.

The reason I want to tell you this story — my story — is that I want to show you that it’s O.K. to be vulnerable sometimes. We all want to be perfect all the time, or to at least appear perfect. But you know what? It’s O.K. to have problems. If you’re going through something difficult, it’s O.K. to feel emotions, to need help. Don’t just pretend that everything is fine.

It’s always better if you’re just honest … isn’t it?

When I was a kid, my mum, Denise, would tell me that I was going to become the best player in the world. It’s the kind of stuff all mums tell their daughters, you know? I’d be like, “But Mum, you have to say that, don’t you?” Even my dad, Steve, would be like, “Yeah, sure Denise, whatever.”

But my mum wasn’t quite like the other mums. She seemed to genuinely believe it.

She used to tell a story about taking me to the doctors for a couple of tests. The doctor threw a tennis ball to see how I would react. I think I was supposed to just catch it, but I kicked it straight back to him. I was three years old. My mum just went, “O.K., … I thinks she wants to be a footballer.”

She was my No. 1 fan and motivator. She would pull me out of bed in the morning, and when I got home from school she would have a bowl of pasta ready for me. Then I would train with Reading. If it was raining, and I didn’t want to go, she would drag me into the car and say, “You’re going.” She was a loud, honest, confident woman, and very strong. She had to be, because she worked as a nurse in psychiatric wards. She had done work experience at Broadmoor Hospital, where one of the inmates was Peter Sutcliffe, the serial killer known as the Yorkshire Ripper. She used to tell me all these stories from the wards. She would even show me the finger locks that she would use on her patients.

When that kind of stuff is your daily life, I guess getting a little girl to training becomes the least of your worries.

And yet she made my football her top priority. My dad was never really bothered about it. He was a train driver, doing a lot of shift work, and to be honest I used to find him miserable and moody. (We’re much closer now. Dad, you know I love you.) But Mum would always come to watch. She always believed that I was the best player. On the sidelines, she would even tell the other parents.

“Oh yeah, she’s good … but my daughter is better.”

Courtesy of Fran Kirby (2)

That was a big statement to make about our team, because we were good. We were an all-girls side playing in an all-boys league, and we acted as if we were seasoned pros. We’d arrive all kitted up, then we’d do a full warm-up routine with shooting and passing drills. We were 11 years old. On the other side of the pitch, the boys would stand there laughing. Before our first game, they kept laughing for like five minutes. Literally.

They were just messing around, you know, thinking what a joke of a game it was going to be. And to be fair, they were right.

We won 13–0.

We treated things pretty seriously. At the end of each season, I would go to a feedback session at Reading, in which you’d talk to a coach about what you could do to improve. With me it was always the mental part. As a kid I had been this bubbly, confident little girl, but if I made a mistake on the pitch, I would beat myself up about it. I also heard that I went down too easily, that I had to be stronger.

So I told myself, Come on, Fran, toughen up. Don’t be weak.

It was a kind of automatic pep talk, I guess.

When I was 14, I went to one of these sessions with my mum. We were talking with the coach … and then suddenly my mum said, “I don’t feel very well.” She put her head on the table and passed out. They took her to hospital. The doctor came in and said, “Is the father or the husband here?” I was too young to really understand what was going on, so I said, “Nah, you don’t wanna bother my dad, he’s working.” And the doctor said, “No, I think you need to call your dad.”

I called my dad, and my brother, Jamie. They came over. The doctors told us that Mum had a brain haemorrhage. They said there wasn’t much they could do for her. But I was like, “O.K., I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

I spent the night at my best friend’s house. The next day, we were sitting in the garden, and I remember the sun was shining…. It was the 29th of May. Beautiful day. Her mum came down and said, “Fran, you need to go back to the hospital.” When I arrived, I saw that my aunts had come down from Newcastle. That’s when I knew it was serious.

Then we got the news. Mum had died.


 

I can still remember the car ride home. My best friend was really crying. She was in a terrible state. But I … just wasn’t. In fact, I was trying to be funny, trying to make light of the situation. I was playing music on my phone: Bob Marley, “Don’t Worry About a Thing.”

“Cause every little thing …

Gonna be alright …”

I just could not comprehend what had happened. And it stayed like that for many years. At home, we almost never spoke about her. I was living with two males who didn’t really know how to show emotion. My dad worried about having to change his work schedule, so that he could be home more often. My brother was busy at school with his GCSEs. I was playing football as usual, and things were actually going great for me. I had gotten into the John Madejski Academy at Reading, and I was even playing for the England youth teams.

Caroline Irby/The Players' Tribune

Come on, Fran, toughen up. Don’t be weak.

But then the grief caught up with all of us. And as far as I know, it hit me the hardest.

The moment the penny dropped came when I was 17. I was away with England on a training camp in Manchester, and I was sitting in a room with Mo Marley, one of the coaches. Out of the blue, I turned to her and said, “I wanna go home.”

She was like, “What?”

I said, “I don’t wanna do this anymore.”

She said, “What do you mean?”

Then I began to cry. I must have looked like a little baby. My whole world had just come crashing down.

“I miss my mum,” I said.

So I went home. I called up Jules Townrow, who was the physio at Reading at the time, and I went to her house to eat pizza and watch TV. I repeated that routine a lot over the next few weeks. Then, later, when I went to visit my family up north, I talked to my aunties, and I told them, “I don’t think I wanna play football anymore. I just don’t think I love it anymore.”

I meant it. I just wanted to have a normal childhood, you know? And my aunts, they were different from my family down south. Football wasn’t everything to them. So they just went, “So quit. You don’t need to do it. Just go and do something else.”

That was the first time that somebody had told me, “You don’t have to do it.” And I remember going, “Do you know what? You’re right. Why don’t I just quit?”

So I told Reading I was out. They were amazing about it; they completely understood. Then I went into my shell. I’d have days where I wouldn’t get out of bed. Or I wouldn’t go to college. I could get as far as the bus stop, then I’d just break down crying. I’d call Jules. “Jules, you neet to come pick me up. I can’t go in.”

A few minutes later I’d be on her sofa, ready for another session of pizza and TV.

I felt like a zombie. I didn’t speak to my family. I was anxious in big crowds. I felt out of place. At parties, I would just stand in a corner until I could go home. When I thought about the happy little girl I had been a few years earlier, she seemed like a stranger to me.

And yet taking that time out was the best decision I have ever made. Because I needed to work on myself. I had to recover, to heal, to grieve.

I had to try to find myself again.

I still did some training. Still went to the gym. I just wasn’t playing football. Then one day one of my best friends, Sarah Devern, came round and said, “Why don’t you come and play for my team?”

I was skeptical at first. I felt I was done with football. But then she said, “We don’t train during the week.”

When I thought about the happy little girl I had been a few years earlier, she seemed like a stranger to me.

Really?

“Yeah. When you turn up, you don’t need to warm up.”

Go on.…

“You literally just turn up on a Sunday, then you play.”

So, no routines at all?

“Well, after the game, we go to the bar.”

Sold.

It was amazing. I could live the life that I wanted to live. I could do homework, watch TV, all that. Nobody was telling me about what I had to improve. No one was going to hammer me if I made a mistake. If we lost 6–0, it was okay, we’d have a laugh about it.

And that, really, is what brought back my love for football.

Then one day Reading needed players for a game, and I was asked if I fancied it. I agreed, but only if I could do it on my terms … and I really enjoyed it. I had friends in the team, I loved the atmosphere. Soon I was back playing regularly. Before I knew it, I had scored 32 goals in 21 games for the first team.

Then, in 2014, I became the first female player to sign a professional contract at Reading.

A year later, I was called up to England for the 2015 World Cup.

So, yeah … let’s just say that it was a whirlwind few years.

Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

To be honest, I was nervous at that World Cup. Everyone was talking about how I was the only player from the second division to make the squad, which put a lot of pressure on me. I hadn’t dealt with that kind of media attention before. My dad got to see me score against Mexico, which was amazing, and we came third. But, all in all, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have.

I was also about to leave Reading for Chelsea, who were in the top division. Straight away we won the league and the cup. Suddenly it seemed as if nothing could stop me. Then, in the 2016 season, we played at home to Liverpool in May, and I got tackled early on. I felt a sharp pain in my knee. I felt like coming off. But then I remembered the pep talk.

Come on, Fran, toughen up. Don’t be weak.

So I got up. I played on. I scored one of the best goals I have ever scored.

At the time, it felt like a victory over my former, weaker self.

And in the weeks that followed it seemed as if nothing had happened. I felt pain in my knee every once in a while, but I still trained. I did gym work. I played in the FA Cup final, which we lost. But then the pain got worse and worse. Soon I couldn’t jump. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t drive my car. I couldn’t even get into the car. I was in so much pain.

It had been two months since the Liverpool game.

I had a scan. Turned out I had bone edema, a deep internal bone bruising. The good news? No fracture. I began working different machines, eight a.m. to six p.m. I did pool sessions, I had massages. The pain was still there. I had MRI scans. No improvement. I had PRP injections, I had a specialist come look at it. Still nothing. After the third MRI, they finally decided that I did have a fracture.

That delay obviously didn’t help.

Finally, after nearly a year out, I returned to training. I was so relieved to be back out on the grass. But then I went to block a ball with my left foot. Landed awkwardly. Felt something.

It was a Grade 3 ligament tear in my ankle. More weeks out, more injections.

So much for being strong and not wanting to go off.

That year out was extremely tough mentally. My return wasn’t easy either. Just before I came back, I was named in the Euro 2017 squad. And since I hadn’t played in the Spring Series yet, people began to question me. They were like, “She hasn’t even played yet. She’s not even good enough. How can you pick someone who’s injured?”

To be fair, I get why they were saying that. There was a lot of uncertainty around me.

But I also knew that when I did come back, I had to prove these people wrong.

And, well, you know how it went…. I finished top scorer in the Spring Series, with six goals, even though I had missed three out of eight games. Then in April, I was nominated for the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award. To be honest, I didn’t actually think I’d win it. On the awards night, I was still in my room getting ready when my phone rang. “Fran, you need to come down now.”

I was like, “But it hasn’t started yet. I’m not ready.”

“No, but you need to come to have pictures. You’ve won!”

Caroline Irby/The Players' Tribune

I’ll never forget that night. Then, the day after, I was driving back home from the awards when Georgie Hodge, my agent, called me. It turned out I had won the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year award as well.

I was like, “Oh … okay!”

Just amazing.

I was pretty much on top of the world. So when I sat on that bus with my teammates a month later, the awards in the bag, the league and cup secured … I thought about my mum. I think about her every day, but especially when things are going well, because I want to celebrate with her. To see me win everything like that, it would have been the most important moment of her life.

And so I cried. I let it all out. I just didn’t feel like being tough or strong. I didn’t feel like caring about what the other girls thought.

This time there was no pretending to be O.K. when I wasn’t.

I think about her every day, but especially when things are going well, because I want to celebrate with her.

I think that a lot of my teammates realised that day how special it is to have someone close to you who you can call. My life has often felt like a scattered puzzle, but even when everything seems perfect, and I can see the whole picture, there is still that piece missing.

The one person I want to tell.

My mum is still present in my life. Every goal I score, I dedicate to her. When I am not doing well, I also think about her. Sometimes I can still hear her loud voice as she drags me into the car to go to training. I can still smell the pasta. Then I realise that what she would have wanted is for me to be the best version of myself that I can possibly be.

And the best version of myself is also the most honest one. That’s why I am telling you my story, like it really is.

So I’ll leave you with this … just in case anyone out there needs a little reminder today:

It’s O.K. not to be O.K.

Fran Kirby
England Women's National Team