Ta-dah! Emma Hayes led the applause for Fran Kirby as the combative striker became the latest Chelsea Women centurion.
She actually achieved the feat against West Ham at Rush Green last month, but Sunday’s Women’s Football Weekend clash with Manchester United at Kingsmeadow was the first chance the home crowd had to acclaim the milestone.
That the 26-year-old has achieved 100 matches is testimony not only to her loyalty, but also to her gritty determination to work her way back into the team after injuries which many players might have regarded as career-ending.
Hayes sometimes says that Kirby has “four knees”, referring to the rebuilding and recuperation which has been needed to keep the forward in contention for club and country. And while her legendary pace is now usually restricted to short, influential bursts as she builds her match fitness back to the levels of a year or two ago, she can still make a huge difference to a game.
When Kirby came on to replace Guro Reiten after 63 minutes of Sunday’s league game against Man U, she’d not only spent the first 18 minutes of the second half pounding the touchline in front of the long, low east terrace, but had also been working hard on the pitch with the Chelsea fitness coaches right through the halftime interval.
Kirby took to the pitch to a roar from home fans who appreciated that a 0-0 result against United would allow City to snatch top spot in the WSL.
Chelsea – and manager Hayes – are determined to win the league this season, pained by having to watch Arsenal and City competing in European matches and itching to join in the continental caper again.
They all know that Sam Kerr’s arrival at Cobham shortly after Christmas (the Aussie goalscorer is currently holidaying Down Under and tying up loose ends at home before making the move to London in December) will lift the Blues, but know that the limited number of matches in the WSL mean it’s imperative they are close to the top in January.
As the chants of ‘Fran Kirby, she’s won more than you’ echoed around the Chem Flow end of Kingsmeadow, where the United ultras were concentrated, the 5ft 2in Mighty Mouse sprinted forward into the Red penalty box and was clattered, just before she reached the goal line, by Millie Turner, the Devils’ No21.
Ref Jack Packman – a late sickness replacement for Elizabeth Sims, who had been due to referee the game – pointed to the spot, and Maren Mjelde fired home for the only goal of the game.
Kirby had a good chance to make it 2-0 with nine minutes of the match remaining, but she was forced wide by a well-disciplined United defence, and the chance went.
So how is Kirby facing life after 101 total appearances for Chelsea (and 32 vital league goals)? “Obviously last year we weren’t happy with how our season went, so now we are just trying to keep our feet on the ground and keep working hard, keep putting in the performances and keep winning,” she said in a club interview to mark the achievement.
“We always talk about wanting to play well, but all that matters is getting three points on the board. We want to continue that and continue the run.”
Kirby said that the entire squad had learnt a lot from last year’s campaign, and the issue with the string of early 0-0 results which gave Chelsea a mountain to climb.
“We’ve learnt that we have to be patient in everything we do,” she said. “We got frustrated a lot last year and we weren’t scoring the goals that we were previously, and we’ve learnt to keep going and keep pushing.
“Last year, when a team scored against us, our heads went down. This year we are still fighting for every ball, even when we go a goal down. We have a different character this year, we keep pushing and get the goals.”
She said that belief was the key strength, and the collective effort not to let any small setbacks in games frustrate the team as a whole.
In all competitions, Kirby has scored 65 goals in her 100 appearances, and made scores of assists in her four years at the club. If there’s one thing she’s really grown to appreciate, it’s the need for full and proper recovery time after matches, to nurse her stamina and extend her career.
“At the moment it takes a little bit longer to recover after games, which is one of the reasons why I was not selected for the national team because Phil [Neville] wants people to be training a couple of days after games, and doing all the fitness tests they need to be doing to play,” she said, explaining her Lionesses absence.
“For me, at the moment, I’m not in that position. I’m fit to train and play games, but everything else on top of it would be a bit too much at the moment. For me I want my season and career to go up for a while, rather than go up and then back down.
“I want it to keep building and keep going right, so hopefully I can get myself back in form.”
Next up for Chelsea, the Conti Cup clash with Spurs in midweek. Fran expects to be rested for the match, to allow her to play a part in the trip to Birmingham in the league next Sunday. The Continental Cup game is on Wed Nov 20 at 7pm.