Fran Kirby felt like she’d never been away on return to England side

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Fran Kirby shook off suggestions she might feel intimidated by the new faces in England’s camp after she returned from her long absence in the 1-0 victory over Belgium on Friday.

Kirby had not played for England since the Lionesses faced the Czech Republic in a friendly last October and missed this year’s World Cup after undergoing knee surgery.

The Chelsea midfielder received a warm reception by the sold-out crowd in Leicester when she came on in the 65th minute of the Nations League clash.

Kirby said: “It feels like I haven’t been away. Obviously, I know a lot of the girls from playing against them.

“Everyone who has come in has brought a fresh face and a new standard. It has been nice to be in training around them and getting to know them more personally.

“I don’t think I need to mould in at all, I’m probably one of the oldest players here now. I think I know what I’m doing.

“It’s nice to be on the pitch, it’s nice to get a win, so I’m happy.

“I’ve been working really hard over the summer to try and get back as quickly as possible and to be involved tonight was really special.”

Kirby, who has suffered a spate of injuries and fitness issues in recent years, announced in May she would be going under the knife to fix a knee issue that had long plagued her, with doctors determining surgery was the only way to rectify the situation.

The 2019-20 season saw Kirby diagnosed with pericarditis, a heart condition, and in 2022 she was sidelined with a fatigue-related illness that led to her installing an oxygen tent at her home.

As for this most recent problem, Kirby said: “At the beginning it was quite tough because you don’t really know when the end of the injury is. I accepted quite early on that I wasn’t going to be part of the World Cup squad, not that it made it any easier.

“I was able to support the girls and feel the same emotions that they were feeling and going through. Being back with them now just means that all of the hard work paid off in the summer.”

Friday’s victory moved the Lionesses up to second place in Group One, with a quick turnaround before they face Belgium again in Tuesday’s return fixture.

England need to finish top to advance in the tournament, which also serves as a qualifier for next summer’s Olympics in Paris.

Kirby’s reception from supporters was perhaps second-loudest to only former Leicester goalkeeper Mary Earps, who seemed to elicit a roar every time she made a stop en route to earning England a first clean sheet since they faced Nigeria in the last-16 at the World Cup.

Kirby said: “The support that I’ve had over the past year has been incredible from fans – national team and Chelsea. I can’t fault anyone for their support and that has been really pivotal for me coming back.

“It’s frustrating when I’m injured and can’t be out there, so to hear that reception when I came on is really special and it’s something that I won’t forget.

“I’ve been working really hard to get back out on the pitch as much as possible and I want to stay there.”

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