It’s been a tough 2017 so far for 25-year-old Emma Follis, injury kept her out of the entire Spring Series and she missed the Women’s FA Cup final at Wembley after new club Birmingham City reached the showpiece occasion in May.
Off the back of a couple of good years with Reading in which she helped take the club from FA Women’s Super League 2 to the top tier of women’s football, Follis returned home to Birmingham with Marc Skinner’s revamped side.
A self-confessed Aston Villa fan who spent 14 years at the club she grew up supporting, Follis couldn’t turn down the opportunity to move back to the West Midlands when Skinner came calling with an offer at the start of the year.
“It’s always nice to come back home,” Follis admitted. “As soon as I saw Marc was the new manager it made me realize it was a good opportunity. He’s a great coach and a great manager; Birmingham have always been that more elite team so it was an easy question to answer when Marc asked.”
Frustratingly for Follis, she couldn’t continue her good form with Reading until the beginning of the 2017/18 season late last month, injury ensuring the forward got only a sideline view when Skinner led his team out at Wembley to face this weekend’s opponents, Manchester City, out at Wembley.
While Follis is now back fit and featuring for her new club, she admits it was a difficult time having to sit it out.
“It was a really frustrating time, it’s the longest I’ve ever been out injured. It’s a hard thing to overcome when you’re new, you want to impress the fans, and get out there and enjoy that new atmosphere.”
She added, “The team made me feel welcome and Marc was great with it all, it just meant I had to work harder to get fit — hopefully it won’t happen again because it was absolutely terrible.”
The Blues now face their toughest test of the season so far, with evidence on the pitch of a new and more expansive style of football — Birmingham will still be hoping to frustrate Nick Cushing’s side in the same way they have on their last two visits to the City Academy.
A 1-1 draw toward the end of 2016 was followed by another 1-1 draw in May’s dress rehearsal for the following week’s FA Cup final, a match which would see Birmingham come out on the wrong end of a 4-1 scoreline.
Despite the disappointment, Follis is adamant the squad is in a better place than the Spring Series and is confident ahead of Sunday’s match.
“We’re in a different mindset now compared to the Spring Series,” she said. “We’ve been performing much better, the last few weeks have been about working on our own game, now we’ll analyze how they play.
“We’re in really good spirits at the moment and we feel like we’ve got a good chance. People are pinching points off each other, hopefully we can perform on the day and beat them.”
After a disappointing 2015 season, Birmingham came bouncing back with a resolute approach that saw them frustrate even the biggest teams when out on the pitch.
Birmingham became a team capable of clean sheets and victories no matter the opposition and that didn’t change when picking off both Arsenal and Chelsea on the way to May’s cup final.
Skinner has always been open about his wish to see his team become more expansive in attack, the proof perhaps evident already this season with a couple of high-scoring encounters against Arsenal and Follis’s former side Reading.
“Marc always drilled that defensive stability into us,” said the 25-year-old. “We still have that but we’ve been able to express ourselves a bit more and that’s my kind of game really.
“We’re quite new as a squad and Marc hasn’t even been in charge for 12 months. We’re all babies really in comparison to the Man City’s, Chelsea’s, and Arsenal’s who have been professional for three or four years now. We’ll always be playing catch-up but I think we’re closing up, they’ve got a lot of money but sometimes the quality can be outshone by how hard you work and Marc drills that into us.
Follis added, “I can see that progression in training week after week and Marc has the right ideas to take us forward. Birmingham always picked up points but they struggled to score goals and I don’t think we have that trouble now.”
So they shouldn’t. Aside from signing Follis, Birmingham also added England internationals Ellen White and Rachel Williams to their ranks during the winter, while the creativity of Andrine Hegerberg was added during 2016.
Birmingham also have a rich amount of young talent to boast about too. Although England U-9 international Ellie Brazil has departed for Fiorentina and Chloe Peplow is on loan to Doncaster Belles, the club has invested in giving opportunities to the likes of Connie Scofield, Abbey-Leigh Stringer, Aoife Mannion, Fran Stenson, and Jess Carter just to name a few, with the latter voted PFA Young Player of the Year earlier this year.
“They’ve got some really great coaches at youth level,” said Follis. “Paige Williams [Birmingham’s left back] coaches one of our younger teams. I’ve been to watch them and honestly they’re unbelievable, so much better than I was when I was eight or nine.
“It’s so impressive to see the passion and the teaching that goes into it, no doubt they’ll come through as brilliant players. We’re very lucky to have a good academy but to also be able to attract good players for the first team too.”
With club duties now going well and Follis settled back home where she grew up, the remaining question mark on the horizon is England.
A former U-19 and U-23 international, Follis has been out of the equation for England for a while now, but with former coach Mo Marley in charge it could be a case of a new door opening should she return to top form during the new campaign.
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to play for their country. Mo initially brought me into the England setup so it’s nice to see her name there.
“It would be brilliant, but right now my goal is to get fully fit and play how I know I can play for my club. I’d always want to pull on the shirt though, no doubt.”