U17 Lions: Nya Kirby

Photography: Jack Bridgland / Styling: Jay Hines / Words: Tom Kershaw.

This article is an excerpt from the Under 17 Lions feature from Issue 01 of GAFFER: ‘England’s Finest’. Available from our online shop now.


Nya Kirby trudged nervously towards the penalty spot through Kolkata’s thick evening air, blacking out the shrieking crowd, his mind stuck in a mantra. “Stick with it,” he repeated. “The same corner, the same steps, just like in training.”


After a tense 0-0 draw with Japan, where the Crystal Palace academy star had already seen a stoppage-time shot cleared off the line, Kirby’s penalty in the shootout could clinch England’s place in the quarter-finals.


The travails of the whole team, from training camps in Florida to being defeated in the final at the Euros, rested on one kick on the other side of the world. “It was definitely the most pressure I’ve felt,” Kirby said. “I think it was in front of 50,000 people. You get lost in the moment, it was an amazing feeling. Whenever you score for your country, that feeling is so much different than scoring for your club. Especially that moment, knowing how much pressure was on you, that I had to score for us to go through. It was a something I’ll definitely always cherish. It still gives me goosebumps now.”


Kirby’s parents and brother flew out to Kolkata for the final, indiscernible in the stands amongst the hysterical home fans, charging towards the pitch to celebrate upon the full-time whistle after England defeated Spain just a few days later. “It was definitely an emotional time at that point,” Kirby recalled. “After the game, to see them celebrating as well. Everything coming together, and seeing your family. It was great.


Not many people can say they’ve won a World Cup so I’m really proud of that. We [the players] all keep in contact, we’re a very tight group. Our bond is very strong and I think that’s why we did so well in tournament football.”




"That’s how I want to be, always playing with a smile on my face."



So for now, Kirby continues to train with the first team, watching the senior players’ every little movement, each little step mapped out just as it was in India on the way to his unforgettable penalty. A cycle of “hard work and persistence to make the dream come true.”


But as the 18-year-old walks his Weimaraner through the streets of Croydon after training, a grin stretches from ear-to-ear, broken only by the errant whistle.


One promise to himself above all his ambitions: “When I used to watch Ronaldinho play, I remember seeing how happy he was. He always looked like he was enjoying playing football. That’s how I want to be, always playing with a smile on my face.


“The same corner, the same steps, just like in training.”
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