When she was showered by awards in a glittering, all-conquering 2021, England's leading light Fran Kirby missing the Euros was unthinkable, but when a worrying illness struck in February, it appeared a serious prospect. Now the Chelsea star has spoken of her relief at making the squad for July's home tournament, after an oxygen tent in her house helped her recover in time.
The Chelsea star did not play for nearly four months after suffering from symptoms of "extreme fatigue and exhaustion" and had to sit out April's England internationals as well as the finale to Chelsea's double-winning season, but says getting herself healthy was on her mind rather than stressing about whether or not she would make England's final squad of 23.
Speaking at length about her illness for the first time, the 28-year-old said on Tuesday: “I didn’t even think about being in a Euros squad in February-April time. It wasn’t really in my mind. We didn’t really know how long it was going to take [to return], two weeks or four months. I had conversations with [Chelsea manager] Emma Hayes and said, ‘what will be, will be, if I’m ready I’m ready.’
"It wasn’t like you could have a brain scan to show you’re dealing with a certain thing. There were no specific answers, it was extreme fatigue and extreme exhaustion. But I feel really privileged that I had the club, Chelsea and England all coming together, brainstorming.
"Going in the oxygen tent always looked a bit scary but it was quite cool. I was seeing a different specialist every day to pinpoint what exactly was going on. I went to Barcelona to meet some of the best doctors in sport.
"I had some amazing people reach out to me from other sports who have gone through very similar things, a marathon runner, another footballer, a rower, giving me loads of ideas. That helped me so much to understand, this isn’t just a normal type of fatigue, it’s fatigue that loads of competitors get."
Kirby improved to be fit enough to make the bench, albeit as an unused substitute, for Chelsea's FA Cup final victory in May, and then joined England's camp at the end of the month. She made her long-awaited return to competitive action as a substitute in England's friendly against Belgium last Thursday, coming on with just under half an hour to go when the scoreline was 0-0 and helping the Lionesses to eventually win 3-0.
By that point, head coach Sarina Wiegman had already confirmed the former Reading youngster was in her final 23, telling each player in person individually, and Kirby says: "It’s more relief for me. [The squad confirmation] was one of those when you’re sitting there waiting for your phone to light up to say, ‘go to the room’, a bit like X Factor. I walked in and I saw her smiling. She told me that she all along knew that I was going to be an important part of this team.
"We had some really honest conversations leading into it. I [had previously] said to her, ‘I need you to be honest with me and I’ll be honest with you, if we both feel like I’m not ready, then we make that decision.’ I gave everything I could in those two weeks. You can only do as much as you can and hope that you’ve done enough, and for me, luckily I was one that did.
Happy Sunday everyone 😂☺️
3 points today 😍💙 pic.twitter.com/nRMTgopHdg
— Fran Kirby (@frankirby) April 24, 2022
“There’s been constant communication there and Sarina’s really taken it on board, and she’s really managed the load, not just of me but everyone. Previously in England camp, we’ve all felt that we’ve had to do exactly the same thing all the time, but [actually] everyone’s body is different."
This year's illness was not the first Kirby has suffered in recent years, after she suffered from a viral infection that caused pericarditis - an inflammation of the fluid-filled sac around the heart - in the 2019-20 campaign which left her "bed-ridden", and Kirby added, on that the lack of a precise formal diagnosis this time: "That is a concern, but for me I am learning each time, I've kind of learnt now what the triggers are and when I start to feel a certain way and how I can prevent that from happening."
Asked if she had feared she would not make it to 6 July's Old Trafford opener against Austria back in the Spring, Kirby replied: “I wouldn’t say that there was fear, I never really had in the back of my mind, ‘oh my god, I’m not going to get selected for the Euros now’, because I just wasn’t focusing my energy on that. There was definitely relief to get selected, but I [wasn't] thinking about it every day, because it’s not in your control.
"I don’t sit there and stress about things that I can’t control, because it just creates negative energy."
Kirby is now in line for more minutes back in an England shirt when the Lionesses host European champions the Netherlands in a warm-up game at Elland Road on Wednesday [8pm BST].