Skip to main content

Wales Women's Football: A squad on the verge of history

Euro 2022 is over and history has been made. After an incredible competition, England have won their first international tournament, defeating an excellent Germany 2-1 at Wembley. The English media have celebrated the triumph and both back and front pages of the nation's newspapers have been used to promote the success. Most commentators and pundits are calling the victory a win not just for the Lionesses but for the women's game across the UK. The same competition also saw a first major tournament appearance for Northern Ireland just three years after Scotland competed in the World Cup. With this in mind, there is one of the home nations yet to reach a major finals - Wales. 

In recent years, few could argue against describing the boom in Welsh football as its 'golden generation'. The men's side have reached back-to-back European Championships and have now achieved what many fans believed an impossibility, qualification for the World Cup. The tournament in Qatar is sure to have the eyes of the nation firmly fixed on Robert Page's squad as they compete at Christmas. Following the climax of the 2022 World Cup, the good news is that we only need to wait half a year for the Women's World Cup to begin in Australia and New Zealand. 



With just two games to go, Wales are second in their qualification group and in the play-off positions. It's a familiar position for the squad to be in having narrowly missed out on the play-offs in 2019 after ranking 6th out of 7 runners-up (only the top four made it to the play-offs). Furthermore, in 2014 we wrote an article entitled The Evolution of the Welsh National Team commenting that the 2015 tournament was within touching distance only for an agonising defeat to Ukraine in Lviv to end any qualification hopes.

Defeat to Ukraine in 2014 brought with it a change in leadership as Arsenal legend Jayne Ludlow took over as first team coach. Upon succeeding the popular Jarmo Matikainen, Ludlow's aims were clear, to reach a major tournament. Speaking ahead of the Euro 2017 qualification campaign, Ludlow was aware of the challenges the squad faced, “But the big thing is obviously to get these guys through to a major competition." With a squad growing in experience, many Welsh supporters believed this to be the side's best chance to date. Soon after, Bristol Academy centre-back Sophie Ingle was made captain, replacing the experienced Jess Fishlock.

Perhaps adding insult to injury, Fishlock was to be omitted from the Welsh squad for a qualifier against Croatia later in 2015. However, Ludlow's reasoning was to provide younger players with a chance to prove themselves in international football. Despite the omission, both Ludlow and Fishlock were quick to emphasise that their relationship was still positive with the latter tweeting her support to Ingle ahead of what would be another massive qualification campaign.


Hosting the Champions League Final showed a nation embracing women's football


Ultimately, the 2017 campaign ended in disappointment as Ludlow's side finished 3rd in Group 8 behind Norway and Austria. Perhaps even more disheartening was the failure to attract a home attendance of over 1000 supporters.  However, in May 2017 the Women's Champions League Final was played in Cardiff to an impressive attendance of 22,433 proving that there was indeed a willingness of football fans in Wales to watch the women's game. The FAW looked to use the 2017 final to inspire the next generation of supporters and players, making use of football's impact on 'self-confidence, self-esteem, wellbeing, feelings of togetherness, motivation and life skills'

The start of the 2019 World Cup qualification campaign saw a tentative but results-driven Welsh side defeat Kazakhstan 1-0 home and away with a credible goalless draw against Russia played in between. The home match against Kazakhstan was boosted by an almost record attendance of just over 3000. Leading goalscorer Helen Ward would comment that playing matches at the Cardiff City Stadium made a difference,

"It does make a difference playing here (at Cardiff City Stadium), seeing our posters on the wall, just being able to play on a pitch like this in a stadium like this is just a great feeling. So we're very fortunate and feel very privileged."

 

Following their positive start to the campaign, a goalless draw dubbed 'Wales' greatest ever result' against England would set the tone for the years ahead. For all of England's chances (22 in all), Welsh goalkeeper Laura O'Sullivan was equal to them. "We're still a developing team with areas to work on, but the commitment and work ethic tonight... it was Welshness," said Ludlow. "From a female football perspective it's probably the best (result in Wales' history)."


Attendances would remain the same until the side's final fixture at home to England. A 3-0 defeat in front of over 5000 fans left Ludlow's side heartbroken but able to see the positives of another near-miss. The late goals scored by England were the only ones conceded by an impressive defence over the entire campaign. It was a campaign heralded by rival manager Phil Neville as 'fantastic' with Ludlow echoing her English counterpart's sentiments before, perhaps harshly, commenting that her squad 'hadn't been good enough'. Some could argue that Ludlow's commitment to defence was ultimately to blame as only 7 goals were scored throughout the entirety of the qualification campaign.

Such negative football would see the following qualification process (Euro 2022) also end at the final hurdle, this time at the hands of Norway and Northern Ireland. Wales would excruciatingly miss out due to the inferior head-to-head results against Northern Ireland after two draws. Ashley Hutton's 94th minute equaliser in Newport would be the key goal in defining the group and seeing Northern Ireland qualify. It was a painful way to miss out for the Welsh considering their far superior world ranking (27 places ahead of the Northern Irish).  

A credible but frustrating home defeat to Norway would see a side too focused on defence and distrusted in attack. After falling behind to Frida Maanum's second-half strike, Wales dominated the final quarter of the game, when Ludlow's offensive restrictions were lifted. It left many supporters questioning that if the side had started the way they had finished, they just may have pulled off a real shock. Three consecutive near-misses would mean Ludlow's time in charge would soon come to an end with the FAW citing that the national team needed improving 'just a little bit' to get over the qualification line.


Replacing Ludlow would be English coach Gemma Grainger. Having previously coached throughout the English youth set-up, Grainger was well aware of the challenge ahead of her. Similar to her predecessor, Grainger's primary aim is to reach a major tournament finals. Boosted by an experienced squad who are all too familiar with near-misses, Wales have started their 2023 World Cup campaign well. Scoring 21 goals in just eight games, Grainger has seen her side comfortably dispatch Kazakhstan (6-0), Estonia (4-0) and Greece (5-0) with only narrow defeats to a formidable France staining an otherwise excellent run of form.

In September, Wales play arguably their most important games since the 2014 defeat to Ukraine, an away match in Greece before a home tie against third placed Slovenia in Cardiff. The Welsh fortress, the Cardiff City Stadium, will be used for the latter game with upwards of 10,000 tickets already being sold (a national record). Although on the cusp of history, both Grainger and the wider Welsh squad are not getting carried away. Speaking ahead of the game, captain Sophie Ingle was well aware of past near-misses and is confident that this Welsh side can go that step further. "When we’ve fallen short in the past we’ve been a bit naive maybe. We were obviously younger and not so experienced, but now it’s about believing that we can do it."

Grainger is already a popular figure at the FAW


Ingle is right. This side is different. Wales now boast an incredibly experienced squad with a sense of togetherness unbeatable in the world game. Greece and Slovenia will provide tough opponents but with growing belief and a team willing to learn from past mistakes, history beckons for the women of Wales.


Written by Ben Jones - Follow me on Twitter @TFHBs or @Benny_J

©The Football History Boys, 2022

Popular posts from this blog

Ardiles and Villa: Footballing émigrés | @RichEvansWriter

Military events in the South Atlantic – even at a distance of 8000 miles – had a profound impact on a celebrated pair of international footballers in the 1980s.  @RichEvansWriter  takes up the story: Ossie Ardiles & Ricardo Villa at Tottenham Hotspur When one thinks of footballers and war, images of khaki-clad figures of yesteryear tend to spring to mind – the kind of ‘moustached archaic faces’ that Philip Larkin details in his poem MCMXIV. However, footballers do not have to be participants to be affected by conflict. Indeed, as with any civilians, they may well be unwitting victims with no stake in political events beyond their control.  In certain instances, football risks turning into an extension of the battleground – where players, subject to barbarous words and threats, become targets of abuse. Such was the case in 1982 with Ricardo Villa and Ossie Ardiles – then both of Tottenham Hotspur – whose fates (at least in the short term) were determined by events unfolding on the o

The Crest Dissected - AS Roma

It’s been a good while since I’ve done a Crest Dissected but after a bit of a summer break and time at the BBC ( Cardiff and Swansea pieces) it’s time to get back down to TFHB writing! So following FC Barcelona , PSG , AS Monaco  and US Women’s Soccer this week I’m going to take a look at AS Roma and their intriguing history.  In the summer of 1927 an Italian Fascist, Italo Foschi , was behind the merger of three older Italian Football Championships clubs all based in Rome, Alba-Audace , Roman and Fortitudo . The purpose of the move was to compete with the well established clubs, especially in the Northern cities but Lazio were not behind the move meaning the Derby della Capitale rivalry was there from the beginning and Associazone Sportiva Roma was born. AS Roma immediately endeared themselves to the masses by taking on the capital’s colours, red and yellow, something Lazio did not consider as they favoured the greek myth of Olimpia and the colour blue. Romulus an

Football By Decade: 1960s

Following the immense changes to football in the 1950s, the subsequent decade was sure to reap the benefits of alterations to style, tactics and appreciation. The 1960s is when the game went truly global, of course towards the latter half of the previous ten years  the European Cup had been introduced by UEFA, only to be completely dominated by Real Madrid, winning the tournament 5 times in a row. However, as we will see the 1960s brought a wider change in world culture and a social revolution effecting even football, a sport which often sees itself as exempt from global issues. Firstly we are to look at British football. English sport at least had been dramatically and even brutally forced to rethink its entire ethos after the 1950s which had highlighted a long-term outdated nature to tactics and methods of play. We at the Football History Boys have not been short on explaining this - the 6-3 drubbing by Hungary in 1953 and embarrassing early World Cup exits in 1950 and 1958