A feature on a successful week of individual honours for Wales captain Sophie Ingle.
Football is a team game, but this week Wales Women’s team captain Sophie Ingle claimed a deserved haul of individual accolades for both club and country. Ingle, 25, was named Liverpool Ladies Players’ Player of the Year on Monday night, and followed it up on Tuesday evening by claiming the same award for her country, together with the Wales’ ‘fans favourite’ award. In any night of personal success, earning the recognition of your team mates by receiving the Players’ Player of the Year award is considered a mark of appreciation for an outstanding contribution to the wider team cause, aspects of which are often missed by those looking in from the outside. For Sophie Ingle to claim this award for both her club and her country is a true sign of not just her consistent quality on the field, but recognition of her personal impact and influence over her peers.
There is no doubt that Ingle has grown into her role as national team captain, and her quality and composure on the ball not only defies the expected characteristics of her position in the centre of defence, but also defies the traditional stigma attached to the quality of the women’s game. Ingle is technically superb in her position, and has the ability to create time on the ball with each touch measured to compliment either the one before or the one after. Her qualities are rare in the women’s game, and it is no surprise to see her shine following her switch to Liverpool Ladies from Bristol Academy in 2015. Having personally watched Ingle perform for club and country against the very best in both the UEFA Women’s Champions League as well as World Cup and EURO qualifiers, it is pleasing to see her talents deservedly recognised by those that appreciate her influence the most.
But things could have been very different for Ingle with football opportunities for girls few and far between in her formative teenage years. Her story is not an unfamiliar one, and there are many twenty-something women wondering what might have been if they had come through the ranks today. A huge increase in interest and opportunity throughout the country has been part of a calculated investment by the Football Association of Wales over the course of the last few years. No longer should young girls with a desire to play football and emulate their new female heroes be denied the chance to do so in a structured and safe environment, and with national team manager Jayne Ludlow taking a holistic approach to overseeing the development of each and every aspect of the female game in Wales, there is a solid plan of consistent progress in place that will inevitably benefit the national team.
And it is the fortunes of the current national team that Ingle leads with pride despite a reserved personal nature that only adds to her calming influence. “It’s really changed me as a player,” explained Ingle when I asked about the impact of taking on the armband for her country during the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifying campaign. “I used to be the quiet one and it wasn’t really something that I expected. I feel I have a lot more responsibility for the group now and feel a duty to look after the girls interests and take on more of a leadership role. I think it’s been a good thing for me as a person, and it’s also taught me to see the game in a different way.” The campaign may have ended in disappointment for Wales as qualification for the finals next summer once again eluded the side, but there were clear signs of progress along the way, and number of players now featuring at the top domestic level marks a significant shift to how things used to be just a few years ago.
Sophie Ingle replaced Jess Fishlock as captain of the side when Jayne Ludlow made a surprise announcement back in February 2015, but while the likes of Fishlock and Ingle’s Liverpool team mate Natasha Harding remain talismanic figures in the current Wales squad, Ingle’s qualities in her position are representative of the transition that the team have made under Ludlow since her appointment two years ago. Harding joined Ingle in Tuesday’s individual honours, claiming the Wales Women’s Player of the Year award, but it was the presentation to Bronwen Thomas, 16, as the Wales Women’s Young Player of the Year that marked the longer-term intentions that Ludlow has set for her side. Throughout her tenure, the manager has kept the competition and enthusiasm in her squad high by regularly promoting players from the intermediate ranks, and like Charlie Estcourt, who scored her first international goal in the recent EURO qualifiers, Thomas is another destined to be firmly involved when the next qualification campaign begins.
By that time, Sophie Ingle will have become something of a veteran having made her international debut back in October 2009, but will have a wealth of club and country experience to pass on. Rumours of Jess Fishlock’s impending international retirement were encouragingly dismissed at the close of the last campaign, and her role in helping to develop the next generation could prove to be even more important than her contribution to date as players emerge with the skills and benefit of better coaching received through their junior years. Meanwhile, there are technically few finer female players than Sophie Ingle for the next generation to look up to and try to emulate, and this weeks recognition serves only to highlight the often unmentioned talent that the current side have in their ranks.