Fran Kirby’s England rallying cry: ‘Let’s put a smile on people’s faces’

Fran Kirby hopes that England can give the public some respite from the cost-of-living crisis and rising fuel prices as they prepare to face Sweden in the semi-finals of Euro 2022 on Tuesday.

The Lionesses play the highest-ranked European team in the tournament in a fourth major semi-final in a row and the public has rapidly woken up to the team’s exploits on home soil after the thrilling victory against Spain in the previous round.

“If we get the chance to win in the semi-final and get through to the final, I think it will be incredible for people in this country to have something to celebrate and enjoy,” Kirby said.

“As much as we want to win, we want to put a smile on people’s faces. They may be going through a hard time in terms of the rising fuel costs and the cost of living right now. Hopefully we can give people an escape for 90-plus minutes when they turn their TVs on, they will have something to cheer about and will see how passionately we play for this country. Hopefully it gives them a sense of pride and they can switch off from everything that is going on.”

Kirby set up Beth Mead for England’s winning goal in their opening match against Austria and scored in the 5-0 defeat of Northern Ireland in the group stages but the Chelsea forward was replaced by Ella Toone in the quarter-final with Sarina Wiegman’s side trailing 1-0. Toone’s late equaliser and a brilliant winning goal in extra time from Georgia Stanway enabled the hosts to complete an emotional comeback in Brighton and Kirby said they are feeling the love of the public.

“It did not start at the beginning, but as the tournament has grown,” Kirby said. “I saw some amazing videos of people celebrating in Box Park and going crazy when we scored against Spain. It just shows the country is getting behind us, people want us to do well. We’re going out for walks and people are clapping us as we walk past. That’s never happened before, especially as all the tournaments have been away previously, so being able to have it at home and to get that buzz from the nation gets you excited and ready to go for the next game.

“It’s a bit surreal when you’re just walking down the street and people are out the windows clapping you. Hopefully it means that we’re making people proud and we’re inspiring them and showing them what women’s football can do in this country.”

England have failed to get past the semi-final stage at the past three major tournaments, having reached the last four at the 2015 and 2019 World Cups and the European Championship in 2017. Kirby, who was part of all three squads, admitted there is added pressure to go one better.

“It’s a difficult one because we have been here before and done this previously so you could say there is that expectation there. For us, and me personally, I know how tough tournaments are and how difficult it is. I wouldn’t say there is an expectation from us to get there, even if people expect it from us. The standard of women’s football is rising every year.

“We know when we beat a team like Norway like we did [8-0 in the group stage] that people are going to start talking about us winning the tournament.”

There is a chance, though, for the team to win England’s first major tournament since the men’s World Cup victory in 1966. “Of course, that’s why we’re here,” Kirby said. “We want to be winning trophies for England, I want to be winning trophies for England. Of course, we’d love to finish this tournament with the trophy but it’s not just as easy as that.

“Every team left in this tournament will give you the same answer: they want to win. So, for us, it’s about focusing on being in the best place going into the final, winning the semi‑final. To be classified as a good team you don’t have to win a trophy. We know what our ambitions are as a team and that is to win the tournament. I don’t want to be another player who loses in a semi-final and doesn’t get to the final of a major tournament with England.”

Kirby also said the impact of reaching the final and lifting silverware could be colossal, not least on the domestic game. “I hope so. We want to play in front of crowds like these week in and week out. I’m hoping people won’t be saying: ‘Oh, what an amazing Euros.’ I want people to carry on, saying how good the WSL is and talking about how many people are coming to games, that’s what we’re aspiring to.

“I’m not saying that the opening game of the WSL is going to have 40,000 people there, but in order to grow it we have to build and show that women’s football is a sport that people should be watching and hopefully we can bring that into the WSL. With the crowds that are coming to games, it shows the willingness is out there and hopefully becomes more normal rather than just: ‘Wasn’t that summer amazing?’”