Latvia may be ranked 102nd in the world and England’s women’s team are expected to win by a heavy scoreline but Tuesday night in Riga will be a gala evening for Fran Kirby. The Chelsea player will collect her 50th cap, an occasion that once seemed beyond her reach.
Recovered from pericarditis, the heart condition that threatened her career when diagnosed in late 2019, Kirby is once again a mainstay. The refreshed England team have delivered a perfect World Cup qualifying record so far under Sarina Wiegman. “I have been a part of his team for a long time now, so for me to get that 50th cap will be really special,” Kirby said. “It’s just nice to be back and playing regularly with the team and for the team. I am really enjoying it.”
“Staying patient” was key to Saturday’s 4-0 defeat of Northern Ireland in Wiegman’s view. The first goal, Beth Mead’s first of a hat-trick, did not arrive until the 64th minute but came against a defence driven into the red zone of fatigue by the passing of Kirby and her midfield creative partner, Ella Toone.
“Especially in the second half, we were linking up well, and finding the pockets,” said Kirby. “We know she’s been on fire for Man United, it’s good that we can complement each other and she’s a young player coming through gaining experience.”
Toone is 22, a year older than Kirby was when given her England debut by Mark Sampson. Setting aside caretakers, Wiegman is the third permanent appointment Kirby, nou 28, has worked with, and the pair share a footballing outlook.
“The way she wants to play is the way I like playing – possession football – and you can see our performances are improving,” Kirby said. Under Phil Neville’s Dutch replacement, England have scored 22 unanswered goals in 2023 Wêreldbeker-kwalifikasie. More of the same is expected in Riga, despite Wiegman highlighting that conditions will be nothing like the bowling-green surface her players enjoyed when winning a first women’s competitive international at Wembley.
“I saw on TV a couple of weeks ago the Dutch men’s national team playing there,” said Wiegman. “The pitch wasn’t great. We have to be aware we may need two touches rather than one touch, or maybe we need to speed up the pass a bit more.”
Wiegman all but predicted a similar result to the 8-0 en 10-0 defeats of North Macedonia and Luxembourg. “I think it’s going to be a game just like the games in September, so they won’t be as good as Northern Ireland, they lost against North Macedonia so we will definitely have the ball all the time.”
Although the coach was not giving away her selection, the presence of Kirby alongside her in Monday’s preview press conference suggested last season’s football writers’ player of the year will reach her milestone, giving chance to reflect on her career so far.
“It’s been a rollercoaster for sure but it’s a journey I have been really proud of, and looking back I wouldn’t change a lot,” Kirby said. “I’ve been through a lot but it’s made me who I am. When I got my first England cap I was a very inexperienced player, quite young. I didn’t know the experiences I was going to have, playing in World Cups, playing in Euros, playing against the best players in the world.”
Kirby is a leading light in a squad of serious depth, probably the strongest ever available to an England coach, but stopped short of garlanding her current colleagues ahead of their predecessors. “When I look back I couldn’t pick what the best selection of attackers has been because I think every player has contributed to the team and helped women’s football grow to where it is.”
Kirby’s own contribution has been hugely significant, with surely plenty more to come.