At the end of an awful, often acrimonious week, blemished by an amalgam of controversy, Covid-19 and multiple postponements, Fran Kirby cut through the gloom engulfing the Women’s Super League. The renascent England forward’s four goals against her former club in the sole top-tier fixture to take place lifted Chelsea to second place as a mix of coronavirus outbreaks and multiple injuries all but ruined the league’s resumption after the winter break.
Temporarily at least, Kirby’s excellence against Reading distracted from the finger-pointing fallout from the ill-starred Christmas trips to Dubai taken by leading players from Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United. Infections acquired by internationals from the first two clubs were responsible for two of the weekend’s five postponements and Emma Hayes sounded suitably unimpressed. “I’m disappointed with women’s football this week,” said Chelsea’s manager, who prevented some of her players taking festive breaks abroad. “It’s been a dark week for the women’s game. We must make sure we get back to doing the right things at the right times.
“We have a huge responsibility to adhere to not just government guidelines but club guidelines. We have to do better, it hasn’t been good enough. The privilege bestowed on us to be able to go to work when other people are stuck at home is one we are in danger of losing if we don’t behave properly.”
Football Association sources have indicated that, as yet, there are no plans to pause a season in which Chelsea have leapfrogged Arsenal and are now three points behind the leaders, Manchester United, with a game in hand. Moreover, although the FA sanctioned four of the postponements, the merits of Birmingham’s unilateral decision not to play at Tottenham due to injuries will be determined by an independent tribunal.
Hayes believes the way to avoid suspending the campaign is to mandate clubs to increase their squads by drafting young players into first-team bubbles, thereby ensuring most fixtures can be fulfilled. “Every club has a responsibility to add five or six young players to their squads,” she said. “We have a responsibility to make sure this league finishes,” she said. “We’ve worked so hard to get the women’s game where it is. We must remember that and not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s not have another week like we’ve just had.”
Hayes revealed Chelsea suffered their own “bad bout of Covid” over Christmas but they looked the epitome of health from the moment Kirby gave them a 16th-minute lead. The England forward – adjudged just onside – rounded Reading’s goalkeeper, Grace Moloney, after Sam Kerr flicked a defensive clearance forward and sent her accelerating into the area. A classic counterattack was polished off by a fine, low, 12-yard finish.
Reading’s narrow midfield diamond and penchant for pressing initially made things congested for Hayes’s creators but Kirby, combining encouragingly well with Kerr, revelled in detecting pockets while stealing between the lines.
Perhaps anxious to remind her old club of what they are missing, she swiftly doubled Chelsea’s advantage after intercepting Emma Mitchell’s slapdash pass. Although Mitchell attempted to retrieve the situation, Kirby held off the centre-half adroitly before beating Moloney courtesy of another low shot. It offered further evidence of her personal renaissance since recovering from a virus that attacked her heart.
She completed her treble with the first half’s final touch. Erin Cuthbert’s clipped free-kick evaded Reading’s high defensive line before being hooked back into the area by Kerr – who somehow managed to keep the ball in play – prefacing Kirby heading beyond Moloney.
A 53rd-minute corner prompted the game’s fourth goal – and her seventh of the WSL campaign. Kirby outleaped Angharad James from Guro Reiten’s delivery and glanced another header home.
By the time the substitute Ji So-yun half-volleyed past Moloney, Reading were in tatters. “Fran scored four brilliant goals,” said Hayes. “But it was a total team performance.”