Chelsea Football Club boast what is probably the most terrifying front line of any team in the Women’s Super League. Bethany England blasted the Blues to the 19/20 league title, earning Player of the Year honors in the process. In January 2020, they picked up Sam Kerr, who at 27 holds all-time scoring records on multiple continents. And to them they added Pernille Harder, ranked by the Guardian this year as the number one player in the sport.
Sometimes a superstar assemblage plays as less than the sum of its parts. Not so Chelsea, who are top of the league and scoring for fun — between them, the aforementioned trio have 23 goals and 12 assists in 15 games. Breaking into this team, in other words, is difficult. Not as difficult as defending against this team, but it’s still not an assignment any sane woman would relish.
Your heart is surrounded by the pericardium, a fluid-filled sac which dampens some of the body’s motion and also protects it from infection. As with all squishy biological things, sometimes this goes a bit wrong. When the pericardium itself is infected, the result is pericarditis, which sounds, well, pretty thoroughly painful — sharp chest pain, shortness of breath, severe weakness, the works. Serious bouts of pericarditis can last for months.
It turns out that pericarditis makes it quite difficult to play soccer.
When Fran Kirby missed the start of the 19/20 season, nobody was quite sure what was wrong. It took months for the diagnosis to be made public: a particularly severe case of pericarditis. Once one of Chelsea’s stars, key to both the 17/18 title and to England’s World Cup hopes, the 26-year-old could no longer even climb a flight of stairs without having to stop to catch her breath.
I was in a place where I just completely zoned out of everything. I was a ghost, a zombie, I wasn’t really there. I went from pushing myself to being able to train all week after coming back from injury and getting back involved to not being allowed to walk up the stairs more than twice in a day. That’s how extreme it was. I wasn’t allowed to go for a walk, I wasn’t allowed to do anything that would put stress on me, I had to lay on the sofa. For two months.
Kirby went from first-choice starter at Chelsea to a handful of snatched appearances in which she looked as though she was playing in slow motion. Given both her injury history — she missed almost a year with complications from a fractured kneecap earlier in her career — the debilitating nature of her disease, and Chelsea’s big-name reinforcements, it seemed pretty reasonable to wonder if she’d ever be more than a bit-part player at Kingsmeadow ever again.
But then she started the first game of the season, against Manchester United, and played a full 90 minutes. Then she started the second, and the third, and although at first she looked a little rusty, she started scoring and didn’t stop. Midway through the season, Kirby became Chelsea’s all-time leading scorer, taking the crown off Eni Aluko with a Champions League brace against Benfica. And then she got better.
Always fast, Kirby seems to have come off her enforced break with afterburners. The combination of a six-month recovery from her bout with pericarditis and then the cancellation of English professional sport in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic gave her body the sort of rest it had been denied throughout her career, and Chelsea are reaping the rewards.
If anything I had a six-month rest, which is always a nice thing. I was still really poorly. I was able to just let my body get everything out it needed to get out. Lockdown for me consisted of running, gym work … things I hadn’t been able to do for the last five years because we’ve just had back-to-back tournaments or I’ve had injuries or the illness.
On January 17th, Chelsea beat Manchester United at home to leapfrog their opponents into first place. Kirby scored the winner, latching onto a long punt forward by Katerine-Ann Berger and leaving both United center backs in the dust through a combination of raw pace and surprising power. Against Arsenal, she pulled off a similar trick, sprinting a full 70 yards to slot past Lydia Williams to wrap up a 3-0 win:
Kirby has not only recovered from a disease that threatened her career, she’s come back as perhaps the most dangerous player in the league. She’s first in the WSL for goal contributions per 90 minutes (1.62), is tied for second in goals (11) and third in assists (6). Fifteen months ago, she thought she might have to retire; now she’s even better than she was when she won Player of the Year in 2018.
Rather then be daunted by Chelsea’s ridiculous collection of stars, Kirby has forced her way back into the first-choice lineup, pushing Beth England into a rotational role and linking up superbly with Harder and Kerr. Watching the trio toy with defenses is a delight — Kerr and Kirby move into space with an almost telepathic understanding, while Harder drives from deeper with the ball at her feet.
Bar a shock defeat against Brighton, their first loss in two years, the Blues have been superb this season, unplayable when in the right mood. They’ve beaten every other team in the league at least once, delivering some truly obscene hammerings in the process. It’s a great time to be a Chelsea fan, and knowing that this sort of performance is in large part due to the resurrection of a player whose career looked over makes it even better.
Bless you, Fran Kirby.