Saturday 13 October 2018, 01:29

England’s Mini Messi targets Fran 2019

  • Fran Kirby is known as ‘Mini Messi’

  • Phil Neville believes she’s superior to Marta

  • Does she believe England can conquer France 2019?

“I’d still take my No10 over Brazil’s No10 every day, that’s for sure.”

Fran Kirby grinned sheepishly, dismissively. Phil Neville had just dared to grade her above the incomparable Marta. Thirteen months ago the world would have smirked with the England entertainer at such a capricious juxtaposition. Not any more.

Kirby made merely seven Women’s Super League starts for Chelsea in her first two full seasons after joining in 2015. She suffered a fractured knee, bone edema, patella tendonitis and a grade three ankle-ligament tear. She underwent PRP injections, painkillers, hydrotherapy, ultra-sound treatment and magnetic therapy.

But an annus mirabilis right out of a Charles Perrault fairy tale has implanted Kirby as one of the finest players on the planet as the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™ approaches. The 5'2 playmaker’s exploits for English double-winners Chelsea saw her imitate male counterpart Mo Salah in claiming both the PFA and FWA Player of the Year awards.

And she has suitcased her club form on to the international platform. Kirby was in her entrancing pomp as England thrashed France 4-1 en route to finishing runners-up at the SheBelieves Cup in March. A week past Saturday, operating in the hole, Kirby scored the only goal against Brazil with a canny, flicked header. Three days later, deployed at the head of the Lionesses’ pride, the 25-year-old left Ellie Carpenter with one less air lunge to do during her next workout at the gym, pirouetted, and fizzed the ball home in a 1-1 draw with Australia.

“I think Fran doesn’t realise her full potential yet,” said Neville after his Marta comparison. “She can do virtually everything.”

Kirby responded: “Obviously it’s a great compliment for me. I’ve got massive respect for Marta, I’ve loved watching her play and I love seeing what she does on the ball. If I can try and emulate that in any way then I’m going to be happy with it.”

It’s not the first cumbersome comparison Kirby has had to shoulder press. Her splendid solo goal against Mexico at Canada 2015 got her championed as ‘Mini Messi’. The moniker stuck.

“It’s not something you can turn round to your manager and say, ‘Please don’t call me that’, because it’s a massive compliment,” she said. "But it comes with the added pressure. People expect you to dribble past ten players and score because of the nickname.”

Kirby may be self-effacing, but she’s not shy over her nation’s aspirations. The Lionesses reached the semi-finals at Canada 2015 and the UEFA Women’s EURO last year, but when asked if winning France 2019 is beyond them – England are the sixth favourites behind USA, France, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands – Kirby responded emphatically:

“No, absolutely not. We’ve had two semi-finals now and we felt the hurt in both of them. They were very disappointing for us, so we need to make sure we’ve learnt from them and go all the way to the Final.”

Kirby embellishes the ‘total football’ Neville is advocating – she even wears the No14 shirt for Chelsea trademarked by the concept’s forefather, Johan Cruyff, albeit because she idolises Thierry Henry. She’s imaginative, versatile, sharp to act, moves perceptively and synchronises melodiously with team-mates.

“We proved ourselves when we played in the SheBelieves Cup,” she said. “We’ve got the experience now, but we want to make sure we go all the way.”

Can Kirby make France 2019 go down as Fran 2019?