‘This is only the beginning – we’ll see how far I can go’ - Folami on his journey from Sydney to Suffolk
- Credit: Picture: Steve Waller
It’s been a hell of a journey to this point, but Ben Folami knows this is really only the beginning.
The 18-year-old striker thanks a lot of people when recounting the tale which has led to him signing a three-year professional contract with Ipswich Town this week.
He starts with his first best friend, whose name now escapes him. Without that early peer pressure there’s a good chance he’d still be back home in Australia playing a different sport entirely.
“I grew up in a place called Blacktown and then moved to Sutherland Shire, both about 20 minutes outside of Sydney,” he explains.
“Rugby League, AFL (Aussie Rules) and cricket are the big sports back home, but for me it’s always been football. I asked my parents recently why that was. They said one of my best mates was playing football when I was about four or five and basically I just listened to him!
“It turned out I was quite good at it. I thought ‘I like this’ and just stayed with it.”
By the age of 15 he is playing for local side Sutherland Sharks – which he admits was ‘very low if I’m honest’ – and had been doing some training with the A-League team Western Sydney Wanderers. Then unfolded a chain of events which led to a 10,000-mile life-changing trip.
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“My coach at that time knew someone who had connections,” he says. “A video of me got sent to Craig Johnston, the Australian guy who used to play for Liverpool, and that video then got sent to Mick McCarthy when he was on holiday in America, I believe.
“He obviously liked what he saw and invited me over for a trial. I came over in October 2014 for four weeks and then again in March 2015.
“It was a big shock because when I first came over it was freezing cold. I’d never experienced weather like it – I was used to have barbecues in the back yard at Christmas time! I only saw snow for the first time a few months ago.
“Obviously I was really nervous. I’d never been outside of Australia at that time, so to jump on a plane for 24 hours was a big deal. My dad came over with me, we stayed at a hotel and I got picked up by Steve McGavin for training every day. It was good and I obviously did alright because they wanted to keep me on. It all happened so quickly.”
After he was offered scholarship terms, the Folami family made the big decision to all up sticks and move to England.
“They are just people in ordinary jobs who gave it all up to support me,” he says. “My dad is Nigerian and he moved to Australia, and met my mum, in his 30s. They were both care workers – my dad with disabled kids and my mum with elderly people. My sister, who is 20 now, also moved over and changed her life.
“They’ve all made so many sacrifices for me and I am extremely grateful to them for that. Without them it would have been a lot different.
“Within the first month of training I had a scan on some swelling on my knee that wasn’t going away. I’ll always remember seeing the physio Jimmy (Reynolds) rushing down the hallway. I was thinking ‘what’s happening?’ My parents were there and they told me I was out for nine to 12 months. That was horrible.
“I got the surgery done, the club stuck with me, I got through that and haven’t had any injuries since thankfully. My family being here played a big part in me being able to get through that period.”
Folami repaid Town’s faith after his rehabilitation and began to catch the eye in the Under-23s. He started in a very young Town side that earned plenty of plaudits for their performance in a gallant 2-1 Carabao Cup defeat at Premier League side Crystal palace last August, but then had to wait until April for another taste of first-team action.
An impressive 45 minutes in the Easter Monday 2-2 home draw with Millwall was followed by a 30 minute cameo in the 1-0 home win against Barnsley – the match which turned out to be Mick McCarthy’s last in charge.
Two more senior appearances followed under Bryan Klug’s caretaker management, including his full Championship debut in a 4-0 win at Reading,
“I’m so thankful to Mick (McCarthy), Terry (Connor) and Bryan (Klug) for giving me the chance in the first team to show what I can do,” he says.
“The ex-gaffer was always on at me about using my body better and getting stuck in. He believed that was the only thing that was letting me down at times. He hammered that into me and finally it clicked that was the final piece of the puzzle.
“I guess I showed him that I was willing to do all that hard stuff towards the end and that’s why I got my chance.”
He added: “I’m quietly confident that I can make the step up and be in and around the first team for most of next season.
“Obviously it will take a lot of hard work because the step up from the 23s to the first team is a big one, physically and mentally, but I believe in myself.”
With fellow young strikers Ben Morris and Aaron Drinan also providing competition for senior players such as Martyn Waghorn, Joe Garner and Freddie Sears, he said: “That’s good – it always keeps you on your toes. When you see one of them doing well it encourages you. It affects how you feel and how you play, in all honesty.”
He continues: “I’m a player who likes to get the ball to feet a lot, but I think I can run in behind as well. I like to get the ball to feet, I like to take players on and I like to go past people. I like to link-up with other team-mates and play little passes.
“I enjoy playing on the wing too and have played there a lot for the 23s.
“I’ve learnt a lot from Waggy and Joe Garner. These are guys who use their bodies very well, which is something I’ve had to add to my game. Growing up Didier Drogba was my favourite striker.”
And while impressing for club is very much at the forefront of his mind, Folami has international ambitions too.
“I’ve always wanted to play for Australia and hope that happens one day,” he says. “I’m eligible for Nigeria, and could be eligible for England in a couple of years, but I can only see myself playing for Australia.
“All that’s a long way off though. The debut, the contract – this is only the beginning. We’ll see how far I can go.”