Chelsea and England striker Fran Kirby says she has found herself again and feels like a better player, after overcoming a viral illness that saw her absent from the Blues team since last autumn.
The 27-year-old was “sofa-ridden” for months after being diagnosed with pericarditis – relating to swelling around her heart – but was back to full fitness in time for pre-season and last Saturday’s Community Shield victory at Wembley.
On Sunday (14:30 BST), Kirby could face Manchester United in her team’s first game of the new Women’s Super League season, and her first WSL match since facing the Red Devils last November immediately prior to her diagnosis.
“There was a period where I was told by the cardiologist that if I don’t slow down, I could become chronic and not play again,” Kirby said.
“I had no idea what it [pericarditis] was when I got diagnosed with it, and I [did not find] one story where someone said they had overcome it.
“Hopefully the day after the Manchester United game coming up won’t be as dramatic as the day after the last!”
Kirby, who was named as the Football Writers’ Women’s Footballer of the Year in 2018, made just four appearances last term, having been injured at the start of the 2019-20 campaign, prior to the illness.
“It just made me realise how precious these moments are, for you to play football, and you should never take things for granted,” she continued.
“I’ve found a new energy for everything. I’ve found myself again, which has been the most important thing through this whole process. I’ve learned a lot about myself and the people around me and how important they are.
“I knew I was going to get over it. I knew that eventually I would be able to come back, whether it took two weeks, whether it took six months, I was like, ‘I’m going to get over this’.
“If I’m honest, I feel better actually as a player, I’ve been able to really focus on certain things that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do if we’d just gone straight back into a season.
“I’ve been able to have a proper pre-season, get my fitness up. I’ve felt really good in training. The girls around me, they’re saying that it’s like having a new player, a new signing.”
‘My team-mates saw me looking very vulnerable but were incredible’
Kirby says the support of Chelsea manager Emma Hayes was key to her recovery, adding: “She [Hayes] has been incredible. She’s been my rock, she’s been my go-to.
“She was the one that was questioning the doctor all the time, ‘Can we try this? Can we try that?’ She was always the one trying to find the answers and trying to help and it just meant so much to me.
“She’s great with everyone, it’s not just a case of she was looking out for me because I was ill, she’ll make sure that she has time for every player and I think that’s really important.
“She was always checking in on me, always asking how I was. When I wasn’t feeling great I could just go into her office, cry in front of her and not feel embarrassed about it.
“The doctor at Chelsea [was also] incredible. My team-mates were amazing. They’ve probably seen me looking extremely, extremely vulnerable and very poorly for a long time and they still managed to tell me, ‘You look better today, you look like you’re doing alright today.’
“I’d look in the mirror and think, ‘They’re lying, but it’s fine!’ I’m never going to not be grateful for what people have done for me these last few months and Emma is top of that list, 100%.”