A Biological Sciences student by day, a footballer by night and at weekends.
Half an hour in the company of Derby County Women midfielder Emelia Wilson certainly isn’t short of talking points.
Wilson turned 20 back in August and she’s got plenty on her plate, it is fair to say. It’s a good job she’s organised, at least she says she is!
As is the case with all the members of Sam Griffiths’ first team squad, she’s a mature and sensible individual.
Born and bred just outside Liverpool in the North West of England, Wilson’s football journey as a youngster saw her start out with Liverpool, Wrexham and then Manchester United.
She had a brief spell with Loughborough Lightning in 2021 before joining Derby midway through the 2021/22 season and entered the current campaign with 39 games and three goals to her name for the Ewes.
Wilson combines her studies across the East Midlands alongside training with Derby’s first team three nights a week at Moor Farm Training Ground, in addition to being a key member of the first team squad on Sunday afternoons.
She has a burning desire to progress in her football career and having just closed the door on her teenage years, time is very much on her side.
Her maturity shines through, though. She knows nothing is guaranteed and therefore wants to make sure that if, for whatever reason, things don’t work out on the pitch that she is set up well for the future.
Studying a Biological Sciences degree at Loughborough University is something that Wilson is passionate about. It certainly wasn’t a topic I thought I’d be leading on when we sat down to speak on an overcast Thursday morning in early October.
A quick search on the University’s website explains in a little more detail what the course entails:
“Biological Sciences is an exciting and rapidly developing field, bringing together knowledge, ideas and techniques to allow us to expand our understanding of the human body and its interplay with the environment.
“Our BSc Biological Sciences degree is designed to develop your understanding of the fundamental mechanisms underlying life and health in whole organisms.
“During the Biological Sciences course, you will explore topics including genetics and molecular biology, biochemistry and metabolism, cell biology and regenerative medicine, human evolution, anatomy and physiology, growth, development and ageing, as well as research methods.”
Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? Well, it is.
“People always say to me that what I am studying sounds intelligent!” Wilson laughed. “I do try to put the work in, and it is a hard degree.
“Loughborough is well known for its Sports Science degrees, but what I am studying now is a little bit different to that.
“I have tried to dedicate my time towards this because I know having a Plan B is always beneficial. If things don’t work out football wise, then I know it is important to set myself up for a good job.”
‘Plan B’ is something Wilson referred to several times during our chat in the Academy Parents Room at Moor Farm. Her head is very much screwed on in that regard.
A career in forensic science is a route she’d like to go down, albeit where her love for it stems from is something she finds a little comical.
“I would like to go down the forensic science route if I wasn’t playing football, definitely,” she said. “Being involved with the police, science and investigations is really appealing to me.
“I am probably into it so much because I used to watch Silent Witness with my mum when I was younger! What a programme that is.
“I quite like science and when I was at school it was my favourite subject. I was so sick of doing sports science and fancied a change, which is why I’ve gone with this degree.”
She added: “I am only 20 and my dad still reminds me that I am young! I am conscious that I need to have a Plan B and a Plan C behind me.
“I want to have a successful career playing football, but it may not happen. That could be down to an injury or not being good enough; you need to be prepared for those eventualities.”
Managing her way through the degree has had its challenges, especially when football plays such a prominent part Wilson’s life.
She is, however, grateful for the support of the University to ensure things don’t get on top of her.
“They are good with me helping to manage my football and education,” she explained.
“I know that if I am struggling, they’ll be there to help. That said, I try to be organised and manage my time well. I don’t want to fall behind so I try and submit my coursework as soon as I can.
“I like to keep football and education separate; I don’t want them crossing over. We all have days where you think ‘I don’t want to do this anymore!’ and I am no different.
“It can be a bit draining and I also think I am different in terms of my background to the rest of the people on my course. It has been hard at times to get used to the level I am learning at.”
Another challenge for Wilson is the lack of time with her family.
With her studies and football taking up more hours than she has available in a day at times, the opportunity to hit the road and return home isn’t always possible.
Even last Christmas, she only had five days at home before returning to Loughborough. It meant she spent New Year’s Eve on her own, which is something she wasn’t prepared for.
Her dad attends almost every game she plays in for Derby and her mum is also a frequent visitor, so there are opportunities see her parents. Those brief moments to catch up are ones that Wilson obviously cherishes.
“I don’t get back home too much and that is hard,” she said. “I try to as much as I can, to see people like my nan, but it is very difficult.
“I am at University all week and training with Derby three times a week in the evening, plus matchdays. If I go back, it is usually for a very short period time.”
Turning back the clock, Wilson has enjoyed playing football since she was four and is as passionate about it now as she has ever been.
Back then, she was playing alongside boys. By the age of eight, she was picked up by Liverpool at one of their Regional Talent Centres.
By the time she was a teenager, she had linked up with Wrexham. A trial at Manchester United followed when she was 15 and she went on to earn a scholarship with the Reds.
That meant full-time training and a college education programme. It was heaven.
“At the end of the Under-16s season you could either get a scholarship to go full-time or be released - it was as simple as that,” she said.
“That would mean training four times a week and doing college work too or having to look for somewhere else to play. I got offered the scholarship and between 16 and 18, that was my life.”
Looking back on the experience, it is something Wilson reflects on with great pride.
“It was crazy!” she said. “I was barely at home. I’d be up at 6:30am and out the door by 7am. I wouldn’t be at home until 7pm in the evening and that was on repeat every single day.
“It was a great experience, but I also learnt a lot by not playing regularly too. It was a huge learning curve about being mentally strong.”
She added: “It was an achievement for me to be signed up by Manchester United. My dad was over the moon. I don’t like to show off about it, but it is nice to be able to say it’s something I’ve done.
“There were other routes I’d have liked to have gone down if I didn’t have the offer from United. One of those was going into Women’s football quicker, rather than having to experience going from youth football to the first team here.
“The difference between the two is massive. In the Under-21s it is all pretty football, whereas coming into the first team environment it was more physical and direct.”
After leaving United at the end of her scholarship in the summer of 2021, she secured her place at Loughborough on her University course.
When it came to football, it wasn’t quite as easy. Sam Griffiths wanted to add her to the Derby County Women squad but, as she couldn’t drive at the time, she wasn’t able to commit to the commuting alongside her studies.
“I ended up going to Loughborough Lightning instead,” she explained. “I was 17 and couldn’t drive and was literally doing my lessons and playing for them. I was in accommodation in Loughborough and couldn’t get to Derby.
“Sam remained interested in me and luckily, she came back in for me in the December. I’d passed my driving test by then and everything fell into place.”
Having had little to no senior experience when linking up with Derby, it was certainly eye-opening for Wilson on several levels.
It wasn’t just on the pitch she had to adapt, there was the challenge of settling into a dressing room with several experienced senior players and big personalities.
“It is different because you go from playing against your own age group to 30-year-olds,” she said. “The games are more aggressive and competitive.
“I probably went from being out of my shell to back into it. I remember when I first came to Derby, there were big characters in the changing room.
“When you’re 17 or 18 and you’re around women who are 30, you don’t think they’re going to take your opinion that seriously. As time has gone on, I really feel I’ve grown in confidence to speak up.
“I just sat back and didn’t want to express my thoughts. I was scared of the senior players, I guess. In terms of on the pitch, I was always the same because you want to win.
“Off the pitch, I kept myself to myself. As time has gone on, I’ve come out of my shell and felt more comfortable.”
After almost two years with Derby, Wilson feels she’s benefitted from her time working with Griffiths and her talented coaching team.
She believes her game understanding has improved, alongside her technical ability.
Crucially, she knows there’s still rough edges to her game that she needs to iron out.
“I definitely think I have progressed as a player in my time here so far,” she said.
“When I first signed I was still aggressive, like I am now, but technically and my general understanding of the league and first team football has improved.
“Positionally, when I played at youth level for United, I was in defence and midfield and when I came to Derby it was in a formation I wasn’t that used to. I’ve had to learn positionally where I need to be on the pitch. In terms of my technique, I know I’ve improved too - but I can be better as well.”
As a midfielder, Wilson is at home in the number eight position although she’s capable of filling any role across the middle of the pitch.
That versatility has had a key part to play throughout her time with the Ewes so far and it has made a vital member of the squad.
Interestingly, though, she’s one that likes to let others grab the limelight when it comes to making an impact in the final third.
She said: “I do enjoy getting on the ball and creating chances. I am not really an ‘attacking’ midfielder that will run in behind teams and score. I am more that player who plays someone else in.
“I enjoy getting assists. I know it is nice to score and you get an amazing feeling from it, but I do take pride in setting someone up as I feel like I’ve done my job for the team.
“I know that I need to score more as well. It is something I need to implement into my game.”
Derby’s home games at the Don Amott Arena are regularly attended by several local young girls’ teams.
These range from younger age groups in the Derby County Female Talent Pathway to grassroots sides in the local area.
Wilson is encouraged to see the interest in Women’s football growing and she is embracing the opportunity to play her part in its growth, no matter how big or small her role may be.
“When I see young girls at our games now, it is nice that there are so many different faces,” she said.
“We also see kids from the Female Talent Pathway there and they look up to us as first team players and see us as good female players, which means a lot.
“When I was younger, if I wanted to go and watch a live game it had to be the men. Now, there’s so much more for young girls.
“It is nice to have that ‘role model’ status, but not in an arrogant way. I don’t walk around thinking I’ve made it or anything. I just hope that if youngsters do look up to us as Derby County players that it benefits them in some way.”
She added: “It is an incredible feeling, and I definitely don’t take it for granted. I like to treat all the kids the same and sign all their shirts and share a ‘high five’ with them. It is nice for the girls to have someone to look up to because when I was younger, that option wasn’t there.”
Reflecting on the growth of the Women’s game in recent years, it is something Wilson is encouraged by.
The England national side’s success, winning the European Championships and reaching this summer’s World Cup Final, has been integral to its rapid rise.
“It has progressed massively,” she said. “I remember when clubs like Manchester United didn’t even have a first team for the Women.
“Back then, if you got an Under-21 contract, that was the end game because there wasn’t a next step. It is nice to see how quickly it has moved forward although there’s still work to be done.
“The crowds are growing too. It is a nice surprise, but also it was only a matter of time before it happened.
“There was a lot more coverage around the Women’s World Cup this summer and stuff like that. That will have had a big impact in terms of getting the game into people’s thoughts.
“Back in the day for me, there was nothing other than maybe one channel where you could stream a match. There’s now loads of options to watch matches and that generates interest and probably gets people wanting to attend too.”
Wilson still has ambitions to play higher up the Women’s football pyramid, like any player, but she isn’t getting ahead of herself.
“It is my ambition to play higher, but I have to earn it and the time has to be right,” she said.
“Sometimes people of my age can step up to the Championship or even the Women’s Super League and won’t play. That isn’t my goal. I want to progress and play week in week out.
“There are many players that I can look at and admire, in the Super League and the other leagues as well. When I was at Manchester United, there was Katie Zelem and Ella Toone to look up to. They were relatable because they had progressed through the Regional Talent Centres. It was nice to see them in the first team, doing well and playing for England.
“It gives you envy to want to do well in the Women’s game.”
She added: “I don’t think there’s much difference in terms of the quality in our league and the one above, it is probably that some of the teams are full time so that means they’re technically that bit sharper and fitter. That comes from training more and regularly.”
Wilson believes, despite the disparity in the third tier of some teams being full-time and others operating on a part-time basis, that the league remains as competitive as ever.
An example she can point to is the Ewes’ recent victory over Nottingham Forest at the City Ground, when Griffiths’ side produced a superb performance to claim a 2-1 win.
“It is something we talked about as a team at the start of the season,” she said. “We agreed that we didn’t want to talk about other teams. Our focus isn’t on what they have and we don’t talk about it; we just need to focus on us and what we can do.
“What others do doesn’t impact us. We just need to give our everything during training and matches because we can control that.
“When you play against the top sides, you can tell they do more training in the week. However, we have proved we can compete. We pushed Newcastle all the way and we also beat Forest.
“I think a lot of it is down to if you want it more and who wants it more normally comes out on top. No team is better than any other in this league; it is about who turns up on each given day.”
For Derby this season, Wilson feels there’s a realistic opportunity of claiming some silverware in the National League Plate alongside pushing up the table after a slow start to the campaign.
It is competition Wilson admits the Ewes should be aiming to win and is of the view that it would be a fitting reward for the squad for their showings in recent years.
The vast majority of last season’s squad signed up for the current campaign and Wilson would love nothing more than to enjoy success with the close-knit group.
“We are in the National League Plate at the moment and I think we have a good shot at winning that,” she said. “We want to finish as high as we possibly can in this league too. We are competing against the contenders and we want to be right up there.
“We are all motivated to have a right go at the National League Plate and it would be nice as a team to win something. We didn’t have a great run in the cups last season, but to finish fourth in the league was outstanding.
“It would be nice to be rewarded and be recognised, with the players we’ve got, to get some silverware.”
Given she’s studying biological sciences and has her eyes on a potential career working in an area that would focus on forensic science in the future, it would almost seem quite fitting to see Wilson’s fingerprints over some silverware.
Interview and words: Tom Loakes