A feature on the Wales as they push for a place at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
It has largely been a year of World Cup misery for Wales as Chris Coleman’s tenure as national team manager ended with his failure to qualify for the 2018 finals in Russia. But while the men prepare for the start of a new era under the guidance of a new manager, Jayne Ludlow and her women’s team are showing just how World Cup qualification should be done.
But this is no accident. This is the result of a calculated plan that began back in 2010 when the Football Association of Wales made the decision to employ the first full-time manager of the women’s national team. It continued in 2013 when a blueprint for the future of the women’s game in Wales was put in place, and it developed and progressed into what it is today when Jayne Ludlow was appointed in 2014.
On Tuesday afternoon, Wales Women achieved arguably the best result in their history as they claimed a 1-0 victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina in Zenica. The win came just a few days after Kazakhstan had been defeated by the same scoreline in Cardiff, and ensured that Wales would head into the winter break as the undefeated leaders of Group 1 after their opening four games.
The double-header had plenty of drama, but Hayley Ladd’s late goal in front of over 3,000 fans in Cardiff meant the the side would head to Bosnia the following morning in good spirits, and a late penalty save from Laura O’Sullivan added to the celebrations of taking six points from six in the latest round of qualifiers. Now at the midway point in the group, Wales are in pole position, and can look ahead to the second half of the campaign with incredible optimism.
Jayne Ludlow reflects on a “fantastic” end to the year after Wales continued their unbeaten run in #FIFAWWC qualifying:
— Wales Women’s Team (@FAW_Womens) 28 November 2017
The campaign started for Wales in Kazakhstan, and it was a fine volley from Jess Fishlock that proved to be the difference between the two sides in Astana back in September. A 0-0 draw in Russia followed, and while it remains a credible point against a side that qualified for the 2017 UEFA Women’s EURO finals, it is now the only blip on Wales’ perfect record during the current campaign.
This is Jayne Ludlow’s second qualifying campaign following her appointment in October 2014. The Arsenal and Wales legend replaced departing Finnish coach Jarmo Matikainen after he had narrowly failed to take the side to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup finals in Canada, but her remit was very different to that of her predecessor, as much as it was to continue to the progress that had been made under his command.
Qualification for the 2015 World Cup coincided with the launch of a long-term blueprint from the Football Association of Wales for the future of the women’s game. The opening match against Belarus was played at Cardiff City Stadium with 820 fans in attendance. The last home match of the campaign was against England at the same venue, but this time in front of over 3,500 fans, and the Lionesses claimed the win they needed to book their place in Canada.
That defeat left Wales with it all to do just to even reach the play-offs, and while they eventually failed, the campaign was significant in raising the profile of the women’s game in conjunction with the blueprint to increase participation and raise coaching standards and interest across the entire spectrum of the sport. The qualifying campaign did bring an increase in media attention and public awareness, but there was still a long way to go.
🏴 Well done to Jayne Ludlow and all involved with @FAW_Womens over the last week
— Mark Pitman (@markpitman1) 28 November 2017
The professional era for women’s international football in Wales started with Matikainen’s appointment in 2010. He was the first full-time women’s manager employed by the FAW, and his remit was to oversee the progress and development of the intermediate teams as well as the senior team. Women’s football in Wales was taken to a new level under his command, and he played an important role in building the basic foundations for the current success.
In addition, players like midfielder Angharad James have already experienced what it’s like to represent their country at the a major tournament, as Wales hosted the UEFA Under-19 Women’s EURO finals in the summer of 2013. Matikainen played an important role in the event, and it proved to be another key milestone in the recent progress and development of the women’s game in Wales.
But to move forward, Wales needed to take a small step back following Ludlow’s appointment, and her holistic approach meant that more youngsters would immediately be promoted through the intermediate teams and into the senior squad. There remain many elements to Ludlow’s job description covering both the domestic and international game, but as more and more investment is put into improving things on and off the field, the long-term strategy becomes all the more clear.
The opening games of the 2017 UEFA Women’s EURO qualifiers resulted in Wales losing heavily to Austria and Norway at the end of 2015. One year later, the side had collected seven points from their final four games, but more importantly, they produced much-improved performances against Norway and Austria to the extent that they were left disappointed at being held to a 0-0 draw at home by the latter in Newport.
📝 Wales Women maintain fine start to #FIFAWWC qualifying campaign after victory in Zenica.
Read our match report 👇
— Wales (@FAWales) 28 November 2017
A patient coach with a long-term vision, Ludlow identified the right areas to work on, and despite her limited time with the group she began planning for the current campaign. Austria qualified for the EURO finals with that 0-0 draw in Newport, and their celebrations at the final whistle showed Wales first-hand what could be achieved. Likewise, friendlies against the Netherlands and Portugal earlier this year showed the standard they must reach to achieve that sort of success.
Prior to the above friendlies and the current qualifying campaign, Wales headed to the Cyprus Cup tournament in March this year, and it became immediately apparent that the defensive issues identified by Ludlow following her first qualifying campaign had been her primary concern as the side conceded just one goal in four games to claim sixth place. It would prove to be an important factor ahead of the current qualifiers.
Now, after four qualifying games, Wales are yet to concede a single goal. The squad has a good mix of youth and experience that have played regularly together over the last couple of years, and the increasing number of professional players within the ranks has brought with it a natural improvement in the overall standard of play. Meanwhile, sports science, coaching, analysis and medical treatment has also benefited from continued investment.
Jess Fishlock is the most capped international player in Welsh football history, and marked a century of appearances earlier this year. Fishlock will turn 31 in January, and her international appearance record is all the more impressive when you consider that her club career continues to take her all over the world. Her dedication to Wales has never been in doubt, and her career deserves an appearance at the finals of a major tournament.
There were reports that Fishlock was considering her international future ahead of the current campaign, and she was relinquished of the captaincy when Ludlow was appointed before being left out of her first squad. However, Fishlock remained committed to the cause as Ludlow experimented and fast-tracked the players that would have a key role to play in the future, and she remains the talismanic figure in midfield.
Fishlock announced that she would continue with Wales for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup campaign, and her belief offered an early indication that something special was starting to happen. The achievements of the men’s at UEFA EURO 2016 proved to be an inspiration to the group, but also distracted from the progress being made by Ludlow’s side during that year as they slipped largely under the radar.
There is a tight-knit team spirit and a bond within Ludlow’s squad that echoes that witnessed from the men’s team as a place at the EURO 2016 finals moved nearer. From the relief of scoring late against Kazakhstan to O’Sullivan’s penalty save, the celebrations become all the more intense as the importance of each and every victory becomes more apparent.
Wales & England vying for supremacy ✔️
Republic of Ireland shocking EURO champions ✔️
Spain claiming revenge on Austria ✔️
Catch up on the latest from Europe’s #FIFAWWC qualifiers 🏆🌍
👉 https://t.co/McJiPwZMTo pic.twitter.com/Nony5SsAoa
— #FIFAWWC 🇫🇷 (@FIFAWWC) 29 November 2017
But women’s international football in Wales did not begin in 2010, and there are pioneers of the sport from the 1970’s onwards that are extremely proud of the part they played in helping it become what it is today. Many suffered in amateur conditions, but their dedication to the cause helped shape the current professional setup that will be the cornerstone to the inevitable future success.
The side were making front and back page headlines in the Welsh press this week, another unprecedented sign that the game is being taken far more seriously than ever before. The players are becoming well known in Welsh football circles, and young girls across the country now have female footballing heroes to inspire them as participation levels in Wales continue to snowball forward.
— Wales Women’s Team (@FAW_Womens) 29 November 2017
In addition, they have now firmly claimed the limelight as the men’s team take a break from competitive football, and recent results have attracted significant media interest. They still have it all to do in the second half of the campaign, but with trips to Kazakhstan, Russia and Bosnia successfully dealt with, the side will travel no further than Southampton during their final four games.
After facing England in April 2018, Wales end their campaign with three home games, and should a place at the finals in France still be very much within their grasp then there is sure to be unprecedented interest in the side. The final game of the campaign is against England next August, and while this was the fixture that effectively ended Matikainen’s tenure in 2014, it could very well be the match that defines Jayne Ludlow’s.