Fran Kirby's grassroots story
My first football memory would be just playing with my brother in the back garden and with other friends around the area before then joining the school team.
But playing football was mainly because of my brother because I wanted to be better than him, I wanted to have something in common with him and just play football with him every day.
There were a few places we would play. We would sometimes go down to the Milestone Park in Caversham Park Village and also just play on the street really. We would play games like nutmegs, where whoever could get the most nutmegs and gather the ball afterwards would be the winner. And we would also play in the back garden, which wasn’t particularly big but we still made it work.
There is only a year between me and my brother which was really good. Eventually, he got a bit quicker so I was like ‘nope, I’m not playing anymore’ because I would try to nutmeg him but he was always too fast and would beat me to the ball. But I think I would beat him to the ball now.
I first joined an official club around the age of seven. I had been playing at school but then joined Reading. I was also playing for a grassroots team as well, so I was training for Reading and playing for them on a Saturday and then playing for Caversham Trents on a Sunday. I was the only girl on the team but I loved it. I had a lot of friends in the team and I am still friends with some of them now.
Then as I got older, I joined a girls-only team called Caversham United alongside playing for Reading. A lot of the girls who I played with at Reading also played for them so we had a really good team.
We played in a boys’ league and we actually finished second, which was cool.
I played grassroots football until around under-14 level and then Reading stepped in and said I needed to prioritise playing for them.
I played for the school teams as well. It became a bit more difficult in secondary school though because me and my best friend both played at clubs and we would always win so other schools started complaining about it and I think they brought in a rule where if you played for academies then you couldn’t play for the school team, which was disappointing. But I just wanted to play football whenever I could.
I played lots of positions growing up and I actually started off in goal! Because I would always go in goal against my brother, I used to love, love, love being in goal. Back then we used to change positions quite a lot and I loved it. I used to go in goal, save a few shots and then go up front and score a few goals.
It was probably around 12 or 13 when we started to take positions more seriously and you needed to know more about your role and your spot, whereas before it was about rotating and your development. I started out as a winger and then moved in-field as I got a bit older.
I stayed with Reading from seven until I was 22 so it was a long stint but a really enjoyable one. I met some amazing people and my friends from there are still my friends now and we have kept that bond. One of my friends, Grace Moloney, I have known since I was ten and she is now the goalkeeper there. So it is pretty cool that people have gone their separate ways but there are still people you know around the club.
Every coach I worked with helped play an important role in my development, there was not one specific coach. For example, there was Dave Caswell when I was first at Reading, there was Darren at Caversham and there were various different coaches at different stages. Kelly Chambers was my coach at around the under-14 level and then I went and played with her and she also manages the Reading Women’s team, so we have had that whole journey together. Every coach has given me something different.
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To think back that I was actually terrified to go to my first football session. When I first joined Reading at seven, their youngest team was under-12s, so I was a lot smaller than everyone else and it was a big jump. It was something that I was quite concerned about and it took me a while to go down to training but when I went down there, I loved it and realised that it didn’t matter about your height or strength as long as you had good strength on the ball and was quick on the ball.
That is something I still have to work hard on with my game because it isn’t easy when you come up against someone who is a lot bigger or stronger than you but I try to do things right on the ball and if I move the ball quickly then I can get away.
My Mum wrote me a birthday card when I was younger saying I would become a professional footballer, which is pretty cool when you think about it. Back then, I didn’t think it would be something which I could do professionally and it wasn’t until I was probably in sixth form that I realised it was something which I could achieve. At the time she wrote the card, I just thought ‘aw that is nice’ but it is incredible to think I have since gone on to play in the stadiums and against the players I have. I still have that card now.
As people know, I stepped away from the game when I was younger. When I first started getting back into football, I just went down to a Sunday league team with my friend and I didn’t train. I just went and played on a Sunday. It didn’t matter what the score was, you just played the football and then you left or some of the girls went to the pub afterwards. It wasn’t really about the score, it was just about having fun and it really instilled that back into me.
Before that, I had been playing at a high level for my age so it was quite a lot of pressure in that environment and I had a lot of people saying to me ‘you could go on and do this or that’. So going into a Sunday league environment and grassroots environment just allowed me to go in and enjoy it, not stress about the outcome or how I played. It was just about the enjoyment and that was really special.
A couple of years ago, I would have said football was my life and football is who I am. But as I have grown up a lot, I have started to realise how important other things are in your life and not relying on football.
But football is my biggest passion, it is the thing I most enjoy to do – if I am winning that is! When I’m losing I don’t enjoy it!
I am a lot more confident on a football pitch. That is a big thing for me. I tend not to get too involved off the pitch but on the pitch I am a lot more vocal and I’m trying to find solutions to things. I’m a lot more confident in myself and what I can do. I think that side of my personality shows on the pitch more than off it. I think people are quite surprised when they meet me off the pitch, that I am quite calm and like to keep myself to myself. Whereas on the pitch I will be barking out at people and saying if things are not good enough.
It is just the place that I can express myself, where I am most comfortable and I think I can express my personality in football on the pitch in a way that I cannot do away from the pitch as much. It gives me the platform to do that.
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