This past year has been a whirlwind for everyone, but for Frances Kitching it has been even more so. Fran, aged 23, is a goalkeeper for Sheffield United women’s team, however, she also works as a maths tutor at Netherwood Academy in Wombwell. I spoke to Fran about how she balances her football and tutoring careers, as well as her opinion on the football industry.
So you have been in the football industry pretty much most of your life, can you tell me how you got into football?
I started playing due to my brother. My brother started playing football and he is about 18 months older than me, so I started playing when I was around six. In the garden, I would get in the net for him because he was an outfield player. I was terrible, I used to get the ball hitting my face and all sorts. Then I eventually got good at it and my Dad used to come out and watch and realise I was actually good, so he said: “Do you want to join a team?”
I joined my first team at seven which was our local team, Wickersley. I played there for around three years and then I got scouted for Sheffield United Academy. I was there until I was 15 and then moved to Manchester United. On my 17th birthday, I got a trial at Chelsea and they signed me straight up. I was there until I was 20 years old and then signed up for Liverpool for two years.
I left Liverpool in the summer of 2020 and signed up for Sheffield United again. When I was a kid, Sheffield United did not have a senior team, so I had to go elsewhere to continue playing. It is quite nice to be back and to be playing in my hometown.
Is there any reason why you decided to come back to Sheffield United?
Not particularly, there are two leagues in women’s football. There is the WSL which is the top league. It is: Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City and Everton etc. Then there is the Championship, which is the league I am in now. That is: Sheffield United, Leicester, Liverpool, Crystal Palace, etc. They kind of work the same way as the men’s leagues. When I went to Liverpool I did not play a lot, the other goalkeeper played quite a bit. I don’t feel like I got much exposure, so I had to sign for a team in the local area. I just wanted to get playing again and love football again.
You mentioned that you did not get much playing time on the field, how is playing for Sheffield United different?
Yes, I have played every game this season at Sheffield United in comparison to Liverpool. I am the oldest goalkeeper, it does not necessarily go in age, but at Liverpool, the other goalkeeper was around 28 to 29 years old. I was only 22 at that point in time so they seemed to go with her a lot due to the experience she had. I am just enjoying being back, playing and actually being in a competitive environment. When you are on the bench quite a bit it gets to a point where nothing you do is good enough as the other goalkeeper.
So, obviously, you want to get to the top of the league and you have been winning quite a lot of your games this season, where do you go from here to get there?
So we have got three (games) left in the league and one of which is the FA Cup. We are a part-time team and there are teams in the Championship that are full-time. Leicester, for example, are at the top of the league and they are full-time. They train every single day, so they are professionals. Whereas at Sheffield United a lot of us have got jobs and train as well. It is a balance that we have. At the minute, I have got the leading clean sheets in the league, so I am hoping that I win the golden glove at the end of the season.
How does it feel to have the most clean sheets?
It feels good but there are still three games left so I need to make sure I get three more clean sheets to win it. There is another player that is right behind me with the same amount, so it is a bit tight.
And how are you feeling about your game this Sunday against Crystal Palace?
I think it will be good. We played Durham last Sunday, which was a massive game because they are above us in the league. We should have won but we missed our chances. We could have won around 4-0 and I do think that if we had put all our chances in the first half then they would not have scored. We scored a goal, they came straight back through and equalised and then we could not get that second goal. It was better than nothing and it is a good result to get as they [Durham] are probably as close to full-time as you get. They train more than what we do, they train four times a week and we train three so it was quite a good result to get and to take into this weekend against Crystal Palace.
Looking back on your whole football career, what would you say is your proudest moment?
I would say it was signing for Chelsea. I probably developed there the most in my career as I joined when I was 17. At that time I was the third goalkeeper with two goalkeepers above me. One of them was around 28 or 29 years old and I looked up to her. She was the best in the world at the time. Being able to train with them every day and getting that opportunity to even sign with them was my proudest moment.
My proudest career moment was when the goalkeeper got injured and our second goalkeeper was ill, so they had to play me in the semi-finals of the FA Cup. We actually lost at penalties and if we had won I would have played at Wembley. The goalkeeper had broken their finger, so it was a long-term injury and the final was a few weeks later. I would have played a Cup final at Wembley, which is just mad.
You mentioned that you had signed for Chelsea when you were quite young, is there a lot of pressure going into big clubs at that age and keep up with the older players?
From the outside that is what people would think but from the inside, no. You feel like you are keeping up as you have the exact same training as them and you are probably developing more than you even realise. Looking back now I definitely was developing more and for me, they were just training sessions. When I went into Chelsea versus how I came out, I had learnt so much and I think the coaching staff there were just amazing. When you sign for a big club young, there is a stereotype to not let it get to your head because people think they have made it. My manager, the main coach there, always said to me: “You are doing well but make sure you stay humble because you never know when it could change.”
So when I speak to young girls, that is what I always say. I do not think that is particular for women and young girls, it is more for men because of the wage they get. They go and sign a contract for £5,000 a week and think they have made it. With women’s football, because the pay gap is so different, it is not exactly the same. I still feel like the manager’s advice is what I have taken with me throughout my career as now I am back where I started and I am loving it. I do not look at it as a step down because I have gone from being at Liverpool where I was not playing at all to a club where I am playing every week.
You mentioned the pay gap, how do you feel about the difference between men’s and women’s football?
I feel like it has definitely come a long way since I was a kid and I said in an interview the other day that I used to say to my brother when I was a kid: “How amazing would it be to have your name on the back of your shirt?” Now that is what I have and that is just normality, so it has definitely come a long way. I still think it is slightly behind, people always mention the pay gap and the fight for equal pay and I think it definitely does need to get closer. To an extent, it is but would it ever get there to a point where people are being paid millions of pounds? I don’t know. Our fanbase is what you would get closest to a league game, and this is the top teams like Chelsea, around 2,000 to 3,000 people. Then you see men’s teams filling out stadiums of 60,000 every week, there is obviously a difference there.
Also, I think the media can do a lot more in publicising that as well. Something that worked last season for Liverpool was that if you had a season ticket for the men’s game, you could get straight into the women’s games for free. Also, the WSL has landed a deal with Sky and that will definitely help publicise it a lot more. It is getting better, slowly. I did not have any role models that were women and I did not even know the goalkeepers that played for England at that time. I looked up to male goalkeepers when I watched football. So it is really nice to see that young girls have got someone to look up to.
Last year when you signed for Sheffield United you had also begun tutoring at Netherwood Academy, how was it going back to the club whilst starting this new career path?
It has been a hard balance and I find it difficult now every week. Going from being a full-time footballer, training at maybe 10 o’clock and finishing at two o’clock and that being my day every single day is difficult. I am now getting up at half-past six every morning to get to work, working from half eight to half three, coming home at four o’clock and then going to training at six. It was exhausting at the start but I have kind of gotten used to it now and found a balance. I would definitely say it is not easy as I am still doing my maths degree at Open University and I started that when I was at Chelsea. It is only a part-time degree with around six to eight hours a week.
However, coming out of A-Levels and still playing football at Chelsea, I thought that it was important to continue something on educational-wise as a football career will last you till you are around 30 years old. So I chose maths as I had always enjoyed it and I did an A-Level in it. With the wage and being in the Championship part-time, it is obviously not the same as it would be professionally, so I needed to get another job and I thought why not do something that comes easy to me.
How have you been finding university?
I find it quite difficult, to be honest, it is the school holidays this week and my main focus is university work all week because I am behind. It depends on the week. If it is a week where I am more tired and the kids need more help then I am going into training tired and my university work will not see the light of day. Some weeks I can breeze through it and we may not have a game that week. Sheffield United have been really understanding with it all as well. I make time for my studies when I can fit them in, normally it is just on my days off. On away trips, for example, I take my books with me and it is not ideal but I guess you have to fit it in some way.
And how has it been working in a school with pupils that recognise you?
To be honest, I do not think that anyone recognises me, the boys have been more interested than the girls. I said initially at the start that I play football and in a matter of days everyone had Googled me and followed me on Instagram. Obviously, I could not stop that and I said that to the school. With me being verified, I cannot put my account on private, so I am very careful as to what I put on my social media. There are a lot of young girls that follow me and look up to me, which is crazy because I never thought I would be in this position. Every day is different and sometimes some of the lads will come up to me and ask how I got on at the weekend, asking about the games. I think it has helped my relationship with the kids, that they can see me as normal and not just a teacher.
How is it being inspirational to those kids?
I have done a lot in the past few weeks in calls and people have contacted me about grassroots continuing. It is really nice to see, especially with the girls, how helpful it is to talk to somebody like me in my position. It makes me proud as I never had that when I was a kid because football was slightly behind. In regard to school, some of the lads obviously love it and it is nice to see that it is not just the girls. I do not think I have had any of the girls talk about football to me. It is good that the boys are actually looking at women’s football as it is a sport and it is nice to see that they have taken an interest in it.
Where would you like to see women’s sports in the future?
I think it needs to be on the level of the men’s. I think the new Sky deal is massive and ground-breaking for women’s football. I have seen on Twitter the last couple of weeks about ‘the women that paved the way’ that have now retired and it is what they wanted. You can see that this is now a movement that is happening. I think it needs to be talked about more, you will hear about London Derbies in men’s football, in every conversation and it is renowned around the world. That is what you want in regard to women’s.
Naturally, with more and more publicising and media, it would attract more fans and people need to get behind it more. It is hard at the minute with Covid but male football attracts all sorts of fans and it is not discriminatory against anyone. I would not say women’s football is discriminatory against anyone either but stereotypically it is probably just families and young girls. I think people need to look into it more to see that there is not really a difference between male and female football. If people actually watched a game then they would see that. Most of the trolling that goes off on social media are from male fans that say, ‘no one cares’ and are just discriminatory against women.
In our games in the Championship, I would say we get probably 3,000 fans a game so there is still a difference there with being part-time. A good thing that is happening as well is that the majority of the teams are now getting their own stadiums and not having to share with other teams.
Are you wanting to carry on till the end of your football career or are you going to go in the teaching direction?
Right now my main focus is football and it always has been. Education just fits into my life right now and ideally, I want to be in the top league playing full-time every week. That is what I have been used to since I was 17 and that is why I have found this balance so difficult between school and football. Being part-time just went hand-in-hand with doing something that just came easy to me. It is also something I potentially want to go into after football. My goal is to be back in that top league, be a professional and have a better income that I can actually live off.
You started your Sheffield United career in the midst of Covid-19, how has it affected you and your team in the past year?
It is has been difficult for every club. For example, last weekend because of Covid we had to take two coaches to a game. Even though we are getting tested and socially distancing, it has been an extra expense. Normally we have a roommate and we are all having to have separate rooms, so I could not imagine how much more that is costing every team. I think the impact financially on every team has been quite hard.
It has also been quite surreal as we got into it [Covid] in the break last season when they decided to cut the season short. From the start, it has been our priority to get the season going and to get tested every week. That did not come until after a while. Obviously now we are coming out the other side of it and we are just hoping for a bit of normality. It has been so weird playing games, and I have done it previously in friendlies when it has had to be behind closed doors. For that to have been every game and that we cannot have any fans in the stadium has been hard. It will be quite overwhelming when the fans come back but we will welcome it.
Do you think what you have had to go through will change football in the future or that it will go back to how it was?
As a team, we appreciate what we had before a lot more as it got taken away with regards to fans and not being able to have team meetings. I would like to say that it would go back to how it was before because that was normality for all of us. I think everybody will be a lot more appreciative of what they have been given and ready for it to come back.
And not only have you had to deal with Covid in your football career but also at the school you work at, how has that been for you?
At the start it was something I feared quite a bit but working at the school has been another source of income. We [the staff] are getting tested every week but it was never tested for in the school at the start. I am a key worker but there are people in my team who are not working. It was hard going into the school and thinking that I might get Covid even though I have been tested. I was a little bit scared if I am honest. That was the case for all the people in my team that are key workers. We have a girl on my team that does the testing in the labs for the Covid tests that get sent off. Now they have introduced testing in schools for students and staff, I feel a lot safer.
Was there ever a moment where you thought, to prioritise your football career you may have to quit working in the school?
Yes, when it was really difficult and exhausting to adapt. Obviously, football was my main focus at the start, it always has been and always will be. I have never been a teacher before and to go into an environment where there is extra work to do after school, prep to do for the next day and go to training; it was hard. Especially when I was thinking I could be taking Covid into training. My Mum also works in a school so she was like: “if you can get through a school now where you are finding it difficult, then it will look better in the future. Also if you do come back to teaching in the future or stay within teaching, it is a good experience to have.”
I am glad I stuck with it now, I have another month on my contract and I do not know whether they will renew it. Obviously, I was meant to be doing Year 11 GCSE revision but their GCSE’s have been scrapped. So, at the minute I am working with the Year 10’s, I do not know whether they will keep me on to continue doing that.
Do you have a plan if Netherwood do not keep you on?
For next season I would like to get another contract at Sheffield United, I would hope that my contract would increase but I do not think it will for a while. However, now I have the experience of being in a school, I could always look into doing that again. I would definitely not say no to that as I have enjoyed it.
Just to finish us off, what advice do you have for young boys and girls going into a football career?
Enjoy it! That has to be a given as if you do not enjoy it, and when they start young a lot of parents do put pressure on them, then why are you doing it? I will always say the advice I was given that if you do get to a point where you are in an academy or you are getting trials here and there, just stay humble. I have seen it myself where people do let it get to their heads and then you never hear of them again. Also, never forget where you have come from.