It would be disrespectful and indeed wrong to suggest Birmingham City Ladies’ renaissance has come right out of the blue. But it would also be no surprise if new fans to women’s football found it remarkable that a side that diced with relegation 18 months ago now finds itself just days away from walking out at Wembley.
The truth, though, is somewhat different; since the creation of the FA Women’s Super League in 2011, Birmingham have been a constant challenger to the sides with bigger budgets. Powered by the likes of Rachel Williams, Eni Aluko, Karen Carney, and Izzy Christiansen, under David Parker and Marcus Bignot, Birmingham were runners-up to Arsenal in both 2011 and 2012 and beat Chelsea to win the FA Cup in 2012.
The club then took on Europe’s best and almost succeeded, knocking out Arsenal on their way to a semi-final against now-fallen Swedish giants Tyreso. But things soon went downhill, as a torrid 2015 season saw the departure of Carney, along with Jade Moore, Jo Potter, Remi Allen, Chelsea Weston, and Becky Spencer.
Going into 2016, progress looked like an uphill task. But despite being written off by many, the team pulled together and finished a remarkable 4th place in the league, while also reaching the Continental Cup final – losing 1-0 to Manchester City.
“When everything’s against you, you find that togetherness,” says new manager Marc Skinner. “The one thing I’ve always known is that as a club, we have resilience. David and Marcus did a great job instilling that, I now need to build on that and play football to compete with the best. I’ve come in to change our style, make us a bit better on the eye. I’m an ambitious person, I don’t get up in the morning to be mediocre.”
It’s a point Skinner has wasted no time in proving - having spent 13 years at the club in various roles before taking on the top job, the new boss swooped for players such as England international Ellen White and talented attacker Emma Follis over the winter.
Having added to last year’s foreign imports, the club’s impressive array of youngsters, and experienced captain Kerys Harrop, it’s little surprise to anyone that Birmingham upset the odds once again to defeat the last two winners of the SSE Women’s FA Cup to reach Wembley for the first time in the club’s history.
“Kerys is my captain, and she was my captain in the Under 16s team when I first came to Birmingham, that will be such a special moment for both of us to walk out at Wembley and I’ll be filled with nothing but pride.”
Skinner adds, “But I’m serious about what we do, as soon as the handshakes are done, it’s business time – we’re going there to beat Manchester City.”
Harrop herself is no stranger to the big occasion; despite being just 26 years old, the defender is the longest serving player remaining at the club, and one of just two who played in their successful 2012 cup final.
“For me personally, it will be a different feeling this time as captain and it being Wembley; it was a dream as a young girl, whenever people mention it I can’t stop smiling,” she says.
The defender has experienced the highs and lows with Birmingham more than anyone over the last few years and is one of a few who stuck around despite a difficult 2015.
But despite roaring back to the top half of the table last year and now heading for a second cup final in eight months, Harrop says not a lot has changed at the club, even after enduring a difficult year.
“Not a lot has changed at all really. We’ve got more backing from the men’s side which allowed us to bring in some good players from abroad, but we lost big name players too.
“That’s given the youngsters a real chance to step up, we’ve got a new manager too, and it freshens things up a bit. Players all of a sudden want to impress the new boss and that raises your game, and I think that’s transferred into the games we’ve played so far.”
Birmingham certainly haven’t had it easy. Being drawn against holders Arsenal in the quarter-finals looked like a tough hand to be dealt, never mind then being put up against 2015 winners Chelsea after successfully disposing of Pedro Losa’s side.
A dramatic penalty shootout would follow, and it was left up to new signing Ellen White to dispatch the winner after Ann-Katrin Berger saved from Millie Bright.
The German goalkeeper was one of four foreign players brought in halfway through 2016 to bolster the squad, along with Marisa Ewers, Isabelle Linden, and Andrine Hegerberg. Berger was rewarded for her efforts with the SSE Player of the Round trophy, but she insists penalties is a win-win situation for any goalkeeper.
“I love penalties because as a goalkeeper you cannot lose,” she laughs. “Everyone says the player has to score, but nobody says the goalkeeper has to save it - if I don’t save it, it’s not all about me.”
Berger also says she was blissfully unaware there was an award available for being the best player in the semi-finals.
“I had no idea you could win a trophy,” she says. “It’s been a great few weeks for me but also for the whole team, we’re a little bit tired now but it’s been such a good time for us.”
Norwegian midfielder Andrine, sister of Lyon star Ada, joined the club shortly before Berger last summer and has already become a firm fan favourite down at Solihull Moors, where the Blues play their home games. A dynamic midfielder with an eye for a defence-splitting pass, Hegerberg can’t quite believe how well it’s going in England.
“My goodness, a second cup final…I’m getting used to it,” she jokes. “No, it’s been great, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect coming here and I didn’t know too much about England, especially before the World Cup.
“But I’ve had so many good experiences in the twelve months I’ve been here, I’m really impressed with the club, the staff, the attention to detail and the way they work day in, day out. Now it’s up to me to prove myself because everything else is already in place for me to reach my goals.”
Beger and Hegerberg’s new manager says it was important to bring in foreign recruits who could add an “extra level of professionalism” to the squad, but also to continue putting their faith in youngsters.
Centre back duo Aoife Mannion and Jess Carter have drawn many plaudits over the past year, the latter recently picking up the PFA Young Player of the Year award as voted for by her peers.
But teenagers Ellie Brazil, Chloe Peplow, Connie Scofield, and Charlie Wellings have all seen their fair share of first team action, and Skinner hopes it motivates the next batch of youngsters to come through and be just as successful.
“Our average age is 22.3 years and there’s definitely a couple that dragged that average up,” he laughs. “We’re not scared of throwing them in, I’ve personally seen them grow up, we’re not blessed with a big budget that some teams have so we have to be creative in what we do. We’ll never be scared to put our babies, as we call them, into the limelight.”
Skinner also says it was important he put his hallmark down on the squad as soon as he arrived, knowing there would soon be interest from the “big three” in some of his more coveted young stars.
“When I came in, I said this is a chance to make us a team that doesn’t have to sell our best players. Our aim is to drive into that bracket of top teams, we know others have certain advantages on us but I’m a coach, I look every day at every little way we can squeeze performance out.
“We want to build, we had a lot of interest in Jess but the first thing I did was tell her our plans and she signed a contract extension. I told her I want to be in a position where we can turn the big three away. Previously we’d say if it was one of those teams we’d let them go, but I need to change that mentality, I need to get rid of it.”
Another of the younger players now on show is 22-year-old left back Paige Williams, another of Skinner’s winter recruits after the former Everton player decided to return from a spell playing in Italy.
Having only been at the club a matter of months, Williams has already seen the impact her fellow youngsters have had.
“I feel like one of the old ones here at 22,” she says. “They’ve done an unbelievable job for us coming in, they’ve got good experience from going away with England at different levels and they’ve brought that back here with them.”
Williams cruelly missed out on an FA Cup final appearance with Everton when an ACL injury ruled her out for the season before she made the move to Italy, but now the left-back is thriving and can’t wait to walk out at Wembley.
“I had high hopes when I came back, but to be heading to Wembley is only what I could dream of, the only time I’ve played in front of a crowd the size we’re expecting is on FIFA!
“I was so close to going to Notts County, in hindsight now you look back and think about the choice you’ve made, I’ve been the happiest I’ve ever been since coming and we’ve got unbelievable staff who work hard for us. You create your own environment and we’ve created a great one. Are we as talented on the pitch as Manchester City? Maybe not, but we work hard and we’ve got a good team ethic and that will take you places.”
Williams also believes there’s no secret ingredient to Birmingham’s recent revival and says beating the teams they have on their way to the final only inspires belief across the whole squad.
“At the end of the day you need a pitch, a bag of balls and a decent coach!” She says. “We haven’t had an easy run so we’ll go in there with a bit more belief that we can do it.”
Despite spending a couple of years away on the continent, there’s no doubt a girl growing up on Merseyside knows all about the wonders of the FA Cup, but how quickly did it take Hegerberg and Berger to grasp the importance of the nation’s primary knockout tournament?
“It’s kind of the same in Norway, to be honest,” says Hegerberg. “The cup is really big there but here it’s massive; I like that about England and it makes me want to deliver the cup to the fans. I hope a lot of young girls will come and watch. I think it’s important because things like that mean a lot to us and it’s a huge opportunity to inspire young girls.”
She adds, “It’s hard not to understand that it’s a big thing over here, and I’m so glad I’m going to get to experience it.”
The former PSG goalkeeper also echoes her team mate’s sentiments and adds she’s loved her time adapting to life in England and the FA WSL.
“We know it’s important to play in such a final because every cup final is different,” she says. “Not everyone can say they’re in a final to play at Wembley, it’s the biggest dream of every player – it’s not just a final.
“I love the way the league is here and the way teams play, it’s completely different to France or Germany, I’m really happy here, and I thank my manager and the club because they really want me here too.”
For captain Harrop, the occasion is certainly about much more than just a cup final, it’s about putting behind the lows that she’s experienced in recent times, and she’s fully on board with her manager’s aspirations to turn Birmingham into serial winners.
“There’s always high and lows, we’ve brought in good international players and some youngsters. Ellie, Charlie, Chloe etc have been great, and then you’ve still got the old birds like me and Woody [Emily Westwood] around!
“Marc’s very clear, he’s not here just to compete. He wants to win things, he doesn’t want to be an underdog, because we’ve had our glory years and we want to get back to it. We want to have that arrogance on the pitch and show we’re not about just making up the numbers.”
The 26-year-old also adds there’s nothing special about the training ground to inspire the squad, saying their motivation “comes from within”.
“There’s a few quotes flying around the dressing room, but everyone has their own reasons for playing,” she says. “There will be a few nerves, even us older players, but I’ll try and share my experiences with the youngsters. Playing in front of 30,000 people is different to playing at Solihull!”
Regarding team motivation, the manager adds, “We don’t write anything down, we talk face to face. If my players need to talk to me, they can come and talk. I motivate them with love, care and attention; I know that sounds cheesy, but they’re people before they’re footballers.
“I give them time, they don’t care what you know until they know that you care - that’s my mantra on it.”
Family will also play an important role on the day, let alone for Williams who couldn’t have her family watch her on a regular basis whilst she was playing in Italy’s Serie A.
“Family is massive for me; my dad is at every game and I don’t go a day without speaking to them. It was hard because they didn’t see me play much in Italy, when I went home and told my mum I needed to pack up my stuff she was like, ‘what?!’.
“There’s more to see than the four walls of Liverpool, and moving away was something I always wanted to try. I love my city, but it developed me as a player and as a person.”
Another player who knows the value of family is 23-year-old Hegerberg. Whilst her youngster sister is busy starring for the European Champions, both their parents played football back in Norway, as did their brother.
No matter where they’re playing or who against, Hegerberg’s parents always try their best to be in attendance and they’ll certainly be at Wembley on the 13th.
“My mum came to Manchester a few weeks ago to watch Ada against Manchester City,” she says. “I had a day off so I came to watch too; we realise it more and more now how lucky we are to have each other and we try to appreciate it as much as we can. There are a lot of ups and downs in football, so it’s great to have that little team around you all the time.”
Hegerberg also reserved praise for the Birmingham fans and says their passion is one of the biggest differences she’s experienced since moving to England last year.
“It’s like one big family! Even when I go away with Norway, the Birmingham fans wish me good luck like they would if it was the club playing. It’s important because when I grew up my idols were all men, we try as hard as we can to stay behind for the fans and we want to let young girls know it’s not a cliché to dream big.”
So, what would it mean? Players such as Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, and Steven Gerrard, and managers such as Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson have made the famous walk up the Wembley steps to lift the trophy, but manager Skinner says he doesn’t know how he’ll feel should they win.
“I’m a person who keeps my emotions in check; against Chelsea I went straight to shake hands with Emma Hayes as soon as the whistle blew.
“Then I had a little moment where a wave of emotion came over me, hopefully we experience that again but I don’t know what I’ll do on the day! Those are the moments I’ll just let happen rather than think about them now. We respect City and I love the job they do, I love the job Nick [Cushing] does but I want to win.”
It’s a sentiment very much echoed by his players. Ann-Katrin Berger says, “A dream comes true if we win. When we you play against Man City and you win the cup with Birmingham at Wembley, what else do you need?”
And it would be most special of all for Harrop - as captain, she’d be the one to lead her friends and teammates up the famous steps to pick up the trophy should the Blues succeed.
“It would mean everything, it’s what dreams are made of,” she says. “I can’t get ahead of myself but sometimes I do think about it, it’s always there at the back of your mind and having been here so long it would mean the world to me.”
There is one last, lingering question though. For a manager who has become quite the fashionista on the touchlines so far this year, will the Birmingham boss be sticking with the casual look or going all out for the suit and tie at Wembley?
“I spend every day in a tracksuit so on game day I like to dress up,” he laughs. “I’ve got a massive wardrobe of clothes I never get to use, but it will be a suit, no doubt about that. I’ll need to go shopping with Laura [Bassett, his long-term partner] but it will be a suit for sure.”
By Rich Laverty, IBWM Senior Writer.
Birmingham City Ladies was speaking on behalf of SSE, official sponsor of The SSE Women's FA Cup. Kids Go Free to the May 13th Final and tickets are still available via TheFA.com/Tickets.