It has been an unforgettable 2018 for manager Jayne Ludlow and the Wales Women's senior team.
While the World Cup qualifying campaign eventually ended in disappointment, it is a year that will ultimately be remembered for the way this particular group captured the hearts of the nation.
Wales went into the final 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup qualifier against rivals England as the undefeated leaders of the qualifying group. Newport's Rodney Parade was sold out within 24 hours of tickets going on sale, and there was a real engagement between the team and the fans unlike anything ever experienced before.
Ludlow's team started 2018 at the midway point of the qualifying campaign, and found themselves well-placed with three of their final four games at home. Difficult journeys to Kazakhstan, Bosnia and Russia had already been successfully completed, and not only had the side avoided defeat, but were still yet to concede a single goal. Confidence was at a premium as the team headed to the Cyprus Cup in February and March.
A 1-0 victory over Finland was followed by a disappointing 3-0 reverse against Italy, but the team avoided defeat in the remaining two games against Switzerland and Austria, drawing 0-0 and 1-1 respectively. In addition to offering some talented young players game time, the tournament offered ideal preparation for the challenge that awaited in April, when Wales would head to Southampton to take on Phil Neville's England in their next World Cup qualifier.
Goalkeeper Laura O'Sullivan was in inspired form, and pulled off a string of saves to earn her team a share of the points in a memorable 0-0 draw. It was a defining performance and result for this group of players, and could have been even better if the officials had seen Natasha Harding's first-half effort from a different angle. Adjudged not to have crossed the line, England were spared, but Wales remained top of the qualifying group and celebrated long into the night.
The team returned to qualifying action in June with a double-header against Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Liberty Stadium, and this was quickly followed by the visit of Russia to Newport Stadium a few days later. A laboured 1-0 win over Bosnia thanks to a goal from the impressive Kayleigh Green brought relief as much as celebration at the final whistle, but it was the match against Russia that would confirm why this team were top of the group on merit.
Everything came together on a warm evening in Newport, as Wales cruised to a 3-0 win in front of a capacity crowd. Green opened the scoring with a brace with Harding added the third, but it was the nature of the performance as much as the result that was so impressive on the night. It was perfect way to prepare for the final and deciding match against England at the end of August.
Despite holding Neville's team at half-time, three goals in 12 second half minutes ensured that England would book their place at the finals in France next summer. The permutations across the other qualifying groups also meant that despite losing just once in eight games and keeping seven clean sheets in the process, Wales would also miss out on a play-off place. The qualifying dream was over.
However, Ludlow's determination to see her project through to fruition was apparent when she announced a four-year contract extension prior to the final match of the campaign. The year ended with a training camp and two friendlies in Portugal as the focus turns to 2021 UEFA Women's EURO qualifying. Time is a healer, and the positives of 2018 will be remembered long after the crucial defeat to England has been forgotten.
The 3-0 victory over Russia will be remembered for what occurred on the field, but it was the incredible strides made off the field that really defined 2018 for this team. Inspiring a whole generation, the players found themselves becoming household names across Wales, and in the process became female role models for the many young girls playing football in various schools and parks across the country.
The supporters bought into what the team was all about, and the new-found public interest and media attention was embraced by the players in return. The connection between the team and the Welsh football public epitomised everything about 'Together, Stronger' strapline that has defined our national teams in recent years, and set a standard that must be built upon ahead of the next qualifying campaign.
The defeat against England in the crucial qualifier was tough to take, and the tears that followed the final whistle said everything about the commitment and passion this group has for representing their country. A long-term injury to talented youngster Charlie Estcourt meant that her last match of the campaign was in the 0-0 draw with England, while tenacious midfielder Rachel Rowe was ruled out of the deciding match with an injury for a match in which her energy and influence would have been key.
Despite the excellent defensive record, goals remained in short supply, with the side only scoring seven goals in eight qualifiers. Ludlow is the first to emphasise that while the side have made progress, there is still a lot of work to do ahead of the next campaign, and she and her backroom staff will be working hard to ensure a better goal return next time around.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
“We have to get used to the pressure, the intensity and the tactical nous of teams who have been there and done it at major competitions. We have players in specific areas that are doing fantastically well, but we're still trying to find the correct solution at times in regard to our attacking plan.”
Jayne Ludlow discusses her squad at the Cyprus Cup in March
“I've been really impressed with Jayne. But I'm not surprised because I know her very well. She was a fabulous player, very demanding, and very meticulous in her preparation. There was no messing about. Playing for your country is the greatest honour you can have and it has to be taken very seriously. Jayne has taken that into her coaching career. She's very ambitious, and technically she's a very skilled coach.”
Former Wales international Laura McAllister CBE on manager Jayne Ludlow
“I'm a Swansea girl, and you can actually see the stadium from my garden!”
Midfielder Rachel Rowe looks forward to taking on Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Liberty Stadium in June
“There’s a good team spirit, and you need that to have the momentum going into these games. It’s almost like a family bond, and it has really helped us get these results because everybody works hard for each other.”
Goakeeper Laura O'Sullivan reveals a secret behind the success
“That was unbelievable! It made me a little bit nervous before the game, and I’m sure a few of the other girls felt the same, but you just swallow that up.”
Rachel Rowe reflects on playing against England in Southampton in front of over 25,000 fans
“What's been great is that we've peaked at the right times and shown improvements in each game, even when it's been tough we've shown a fight and determination that makes us hard to beat. I've had moments in my career that have been good but nothing matches this campaign. For me it's been the best, it's been phenomenal.”
Defender Loren Dykes ahead of the crucial final match against England
“We are extremely delighted to see Jayne extend her tenure. She has been key in the development of Women’s football in Wales and her hard work with the national side has ensured a positive future for the game in Wales.”
FAW Chief Executive Jonathan Ford on Jayne Ludlow's contract extension
“I didn't think there was any other choice but to sign a new contract. We're part of the way through a project that still has quite a bit of growth, and still a lot of work for us to do. I wanted to come back home to Wales for a reason, I wanted to help Welsh players achieve their dreams.”
Jayne Ludlow on signing a four-year contract extension
“It would be the best thing ever in my career by far, and one of the best feelings in my life. If it happens, come and ask me and I will try and describe that feeling. Our campaign, whether or not we get out of it what we want, has changed a nation and that is something we will remember forever, our success has changed thinking and that's amazing.”
Midfielder Jess Fishlock ahead of the deciding game against England
“The match against Russia - for me, that was the moment I knew our nation had grown. There was so much interest and so many people who were devastated they couldn't get tickets, that really pushed us on. Also, to sell out Rodney Parade for the England game in 24-hours, that just shows how far we've come.”
Striker Kayleigh Green explains how the increased attention proved inspirational
“I’m proud of the results, but there’s so much more development to happen and there’s a lot more challenges to come. That’s the bit I’m excited about, what is in the future.”
Jayne Ludlow believes there's much more to come from her Wales team
“Playing for Wales means everything to me, if I didn't play for Wales now I don't think I would be playing football. When you walk into this environment it's like you've come home. It's hard to explain. Even just coming into camp the other day, I felt like I was home with my family. I feel a bit emotional talking about it! It's unbelievable for me just to be here and to be a part of it.”
Loren Dykes on what it means to play for Wales
“It was emotional, it touched a lot of people on a personal level. For me personally, it took me a few weeks to get over it because we fought so hard, and it came down to one game where we could have made history. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be.”
Kayleigh Green reflects on the disappointment of missing out on World Cup qualification
“If you look at the campaign as a whole there were many times we could have crumbled, but we had fight, and it was really nice to see that we had that in us. A few personalities we hadn't seen before came to the fore. So I was really pleased with the character of the team more than anything, and how they stood up to be counted when they were needed.”
Jayne Ludlow reflects on the positives of the qualifying campaign