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Exclusive: Fran Kirby looking for lift-off as Lionesses prepare to take France 2019 by storm

Golden girl: Kirby could be England’s most potent World Cup weapon PICTURE: REX

FRAN KIRBY has to pinch herself when she thinks about the rising trajectory of her career, and how much women’s football has taken off. Now she just wants the ultimate prize to top it off.

England’s World Cup campaign begins against Scotland in Nice on Sunday and Chelsea striker Kirby is vying for a place in Phil Neville’s starting XI.

She was part of the England squad which won the prestigious SheBelieves Cup in the US in March and hopes the Lionesses can add a second, more major piece of silverware in France.

If they negotiate a Group D which also features Argentina and Japan and go on to win the tournament, it will send the profile of a sport already on the rise in this country into orbit, a fact not lost on England’s poster girl, who is already finding it hard to get her head around the team’s rising profile.

‘It’s been a bit of a whirlwind to be completely honest, things are still happening now that I can’t believe,’ the 25-year-old tells Metro.

‘I went into Niketown in central London and just seeing pictures of all the nations at the World Cup — that would never have happened before. It was a real “pinch yourself” moment.

‘Walking around Reading, where I’m from, I see some of the girls up around town in advertisements. We’re all working so hard to push the women’s game and it feels like that is working.’

Kirby has shown she can handle the pressure which came with being dubbed ‘mini Messi’ as she has become one of the world’s best forwards since her first World Cup four years ago in Canada.

The Lionesses won the bronze medal under Mark Sampson after a heartbreaking 2-1 semi-final defeat by Japan. Phil Neville (pictured above) took charge in 2018 and continued the team’s upward trajectory. ‘Phil’s brought expression and confidence,’ Kirby says. ‘We can’t dwell on previous tournaments — that won’t do us any good.

‘Of course we were disappointed in how they ended but this is a clean slate.

‘I don’t want to feel that again. Phil came in and said, “I want us to play football the way it’s meant to be played”.

‘Mark had his gameplan and it worked for a long time — we went from 13th in the world to third. Now we’ve shown people we’re good footballers.’ The team’s final World Cup warm-up game ended in a 1-0 loss to unfancied New Zealand on Saturday in front of 20,076 at Brighton’s Amex Stadium. It was not the ideal send-off but Kirby hopes attendances continue to grow.

Like her manager and fellow Lionesses, Kirby has been open in her aims for France. England want to win the trophy for the first time but they realise that will not be easy. ‘We’ve all made it clear what our ambitions are and what we want to achieve. Imagine what would happen if we won the World Cup — we want to be filling out stadiums at home, we want to get bums on seats,’ she adds.

‘Four years ago you’d have looked at a group and said, “these two will go through” but that’s not the case now. There are so many hard groups at this tournament. The standard is getting better year on year and that’s what we’ve been crying out for so long.’

Come home with the trophy and it really will be lift-off for Kirby and Co.

■ 12 — Goals in 38 matches for Kirby since making her England debut in 2014

■ 2 — Defeats in four World Cup warm-up games for Phil Neville’s side

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