A feature on Bristol Academy WFC and the Welsh representation in their UEFA Women’s Champions League squad.
Think of Wales and the UEFA Champions League and images of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen will inevitably dominate your thoughts as the upcoming group stage fixtures decide which key players from Chris Coleman’s squad will reach the knock-stages of Europe’s most lucrative club competition. However, in a surprise twist, it is the UEFA Women’s Champions League that boasts the biggest Welsh influence, with the progression of Bristol Academy WFC to the last eight of the competition ensuring that women’s football in Wales will take another positive step forward in 2015. While missing out on qualification for the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada next summer was a disappointing end to a relatively successful campaign, Bristol Academy have ensured that Wales’ international stars will at least compete on the continent next year, and their path to the last eight has already made history and headlines across Europe.
With no-less than eight Welsh players in the Bristol Academy UEFA Women’s Champions League squad, it was no surprise to see new national team manager Jayne Ludlow in attendance at Bristol last week as the side looked to hold onto a one goal lead against Spanish giants Barcelona. Defying the odds and the match statistics to find themselves 1-0 ahead after the 1st leg thanks to an own goal on their visit to Catalonia, experienced manager Dave Edmondson masterminded a second-half revival in the return match after Barcelona had found scoreline parity through Vicky Losada after 40 minutes. Having found themselves defending against wave after wave of Spanish pressure, Edmondson responded at the break with a tactical switch in midfield and a few strong motivational words to revive his side. Bristol Academy subsequently began to ask questions of their own as they grew in confidence, and it was Nikki Watts who would eventually prove to be the history maker when she calmly slotted home a pressure penalty on 83 minutes to tie the score on the night, but crucially take Bristol Academy through on aggregate.
And so attentions turned to Wednesday’s quarter-final draw, and a further Welsh twist would follow. Drawn against German side 1.FFC Frankfurt, three-times winners of the competition, the last eight tie potentially welcomes back former Bristol Academy midfielder, and current Wales captain, Jess Fishlock. A talismanic figure for women’s football in Wales, Fishlock was the driving force behind the form and performances that took the national team within a result of qualifying for the World Cup in Canada during the last campaign, and the draw will have brought an inevitable wry smile from the influential playmaker who made her debut in the competition over a decade ago. However, the much-travelled Fishlock, 27, is currently at Frankfurt on-loan from US side Seattle Reign for the winter months. The UEFA Women’s Champions League resumes in late March, just a week or so before the start of the new US season, and Fishlock may not have the chance to compete her against her international team-mates as a result.
But Welsh interest in the UEFA Womens’ Champions League this season is not just restricted to Fishlock at Frankfurt and the representative of Bristol Academy. Back in August, Cardiff Met LFC competed in the qualifying rounds of the competition against opposition from Israel, Belgium and Portugal, but failed to make it into the knock-out stage of the competition despite claiming a famous victory over Portuguese side Ouriense in their final qualifying game. Qualifying for the prestigious competition as a result of winning the Welsh Premier Women’s League, the club are one of eleven such teams in the young and evolving domestic top-flight that will have been encouraged by the interest shown in the national league by Jayne Ludlow when she was confirmed as the new manager of the Wales women’s national team last month. Ludlow is under no illusion about the challenges that are ahead for the national league, but progress in Europe can only help improve the profile and status of the domestic top-flight, and Cardiff Met’s consolation victory may yet prove to be of more significance in the future than it was on their qualifying group.
But UEFA Women’s Champions League attentions are now firmly-fixed on the quarter-final fixtures, and it is testament to the progress that has been made by women’s football in Wales that the last eight features so much Welsh representation. FFC Frankfurt will be optimistic of reaching the last four having been paired with Bristol Academy, but the same assumptions were made by Barcelona in the last round, and the reality proved to be very different from the expectancy of the Spanish side. A successful if unheralded spin-off from the Jarmo Matikainen era, the Welsh influence and representation in the Bristol Academy squad is testament to the progressive development that women’s football in Wales made during the time that the popular Finn was entrusted with the responsibility of achieving such success. Jayne Ludlow has now been tasked with building upon the solid foundations inherited from Matikainen, and the legendary former player will surely be a keen observer once again when Bristol Academy look to make history next March.