It has been a year of change, optimism and excitement for the Cymru women’s team as the appointment of Gemma Grainger in March marked the start of a new era as the former England coach arrived to build on the work of her predecessor Jayne Ludlow.
Grainger made her intentions clear from the start as set out her plans to implement an attacking style of play ahead of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifying campaign that would begin in the second half of the year. High-profile friendlies offered a glimpse of what was to come as the new manager instilled a confidence in her players to rise to the challenge of taking on the very best of the European game and to perform without fear.
Inheriting a mix of youth and experience from Ludlow, the biggest change from Grainger was to implement an attacking tactical system that utilised captain Sophie Ingle in her preferred midfield position and not in the centre of defence. With influential figures including Jess Fishlock, Natasha Harding and top scorer Helen Ward committing to the next campaign, the positivity in the first camp was more apparent than ever before.
“I have no doubt Gemma will get the absolute best out of every person in this group and that is super exciting,” Fishlock told BBC Sport Wales back in April. “How she has been and carried herself with our group is nothing short of phenomenal, she has already been a breath of fresh air and refreshing. She's so personable and easy to talk to. Gemma knows what she wants. She seems like she knows how to get there and she needs us to believe that we can get there too.”
But the progress off the field has been as significant as that on it, with a record attendance for a Cymru women’s international being set against Estonia in October. Meanwhile, the squad have become role models to a new generation of young players, with participation levels rising at an exciting rate across the country in conjunction with a successful relaunch and rebrand of the domestic women’s game in Wales.
The new era began for Cymru in April against Canada at the Leckwith Stadium in Cardiff. The level of opposition confirmed that Gemma Grainger was not about to ease herself into the job and the visitors claimed a 3-0 victory. However, there were plenty of positives for the new manager to take from the match, and her tactical system offered an early glimpse into what the fans could expect when the competitive action returned. An impressive 1-1 draw against Denmark at the Cardiff City Stadium followed a few days later as Jess Fishlock equalised on the hour mark after Pernille Harder had opened the scoring.
Preparations for the World Cup qualifying campaign continued for Grainger and her squad in June as Scotland were the visitors to Parc Y Scarlets in Llanelli. Despite another spirited performance, the visitors capitalised on a defensive error and claimed a 1-0 win through a goal from Erin Cuthbert. However, Cymru had more attempts on goal with their attacking formation causing problems for Scotland on the counter-attack for what would be the final warm-up match before the World Cup qualifying campaign began.
World Cup qualifiers
With the identity of Gemma Grainger’s Cymru now established, the side turned on the style in the opening World Cup qualifier as Kazakhstan were comprehensively defeated 6-0 in Llanelli in September. Kayleigh Green scored the first of her two goals after 17 minutes while further strikes from Natasha Harding, Rachel Rowe, Gemma Evans and Ceri Holland completed the scoring. It offered Grainger the perfect start to Group I but the focus quickly moved to the trip to Estonia a few days later.
Managed by former Cymru boss Jarmo Matikainen, Estonia were always likely to provide a tougher opponent in Parnu, but an early goal from Harding would prove to be the difference between the two teams. A difficult away match in Slovenia followed in October, and despite falling behind on 69 minutes, Cymru responded through Green’s third goal of the campaign moments later. However, the striker was shown her second yellow card after 76 minutes as Grainger’s side held on for a point.
A record crowd of 5,455 were in attendance as Cymru returned to the capital to take on Estonia at the Cardiff City Stadium, and the side treated the fantastic support to an excellent performance as goals from Angharad James, Helen Ward, Natasha Harding and captain Sophie Ingle produced an impressive 4-0 victory from a dominant performance, while Hannah Cain and goalkeeper Olivia Clark both made their international debuts form the substitutes bench. The target for the side now was to finish the year on a high as they went into the November double-header that would open with a home against Greece before a formidable test away to France.
Greece arrived in Llanelli to horrendous weather conditions as Cymru cruised past their opponents in the wind and rain to earn a convincing 5-0 win. Holland scored twice in the victory with Ingle, Green and Harding completing the scoring as the squad headed to Guingamp high in confidence.
Despite Cymru frustrating their illustrious opponents, France took the lead just before half-time through Kadidiatou Diani, and another red card for Green made the challenge even more difficult. However, Jess Fishlock struck the post in the final moments, only for France to score their second on the resulting counter-attack through Selma Bacha to claim a 2-0 victory.
“I think it has to be considered one of the best performances we have produced since I have been in charge when you consider the level of opponent we were up against,” said Grainger to BBC Sport Wales after the match. “I am disappointed to lose, but we nearly equalised with 10 players. So while I am disappointed, I am proud. It shows where we are in terms of our progress. To come here and perform and almost get a result, that's where we feel disappointed, but I know we will look back and feel proud of the way we played.”
The campaign now resumes in April with the return match against France and a long journey to Kazakhstan. Cymru are currently sitting in second place in Group I with a two-point advantage over Slovenia. With four games remaining, the side are well-positioned after an impressive year, and there is plenty to be positive about as Grainger continues to take Cymru in an exciting new direction.