When Gemma Grainger arrived at Wales her aim was clear, get Wales to an international tournament. “There have been some fantastic foundations built over recent years here,” she told the media in her first press conference. “For me, the most exciting thing about this role is building on that and looking at what the next chapter can be with that goal of qualification to a major tournament.”
Reaching a first international tournament is something that has felt within touching distance for some time. The pain of near misses has been felt all too often. Missing out on reaching World Cup qualification to England in 2019. The gut-wrenching failure of 2020 where their head-to-head record against Northern Ireland saw them miss out on the Euro 2022 playoffs by the virtue of away goals, despite a far superior goal difference.
A new chapter
None of those bitter emotions were felt in Cardiff. Any tears shed were ones of happiness. The demons of 2018 and 2020 were wiped away by a 0-0 draw with Slovenia. A record 12,741 in attendance as Wales secured a World Cup qualification spot for the first time in their history.
It’s rather apt that this achievement took place at the Cardiff City Stadium. The four stands of that stadium have played witness to countless historic nights in Welsh football. in If you close your eyes and listen closely, those stands will likely echo songs like ‘Yma o Hyd’ and ‘hen Wlad fy nhadau’. It’s a ground where Wales’s men’s team have exercised many of their demons in recent years. The Hungary win in 2019. The win against Ukraine almost three months to the day which secured a first World Cup since 1958. Now the women’s side have done the same, overcoming their own obstacle at the theatre of Welsh football.
A team renewed
From the start of this campaign Wales have looked as though they can reach the playoffs. They’ve put lower-ranked teams like Kazakhstan, Greece and Estonia to the sword. They were inches away from drawing with France in Guingamp and Llanelli. Much of this change can be attributed to Grainger. A coach who arrived as somewhat of an unknown has quickly transformed herself into a Welsh hero. It was never going to be easy filling the shoes of Jayne Ludlow, but Grainger has done so and opted not to wear socks in the process.
In a short space of time, she’s injected a new confidence into the team. She’s changed the expectations for this team. Qualification is no longer a case of ‘if’ but ‘when.’ The 12,000-plus fans didn’t just turn up to watch Wales play, they anticipated history. And that’s precisely what they saw.
This wasn’t the prettiest of games. Nor was it Wales’s best performance of the campaign. At times Wales made it look difficult, but ultimately that didn’t matter. A mistake at the back saw them hand the first chance of the game to the visitors. Rachel Rowe’s loose pass found the path of Mateja Zver who drove into space before firing a shot into the palms of Laura O’Sullivan. Twenty minutes later the Slovenia captain went close again when she lifted the ball onto the roof of the net from the edge of the box. Two early warning shots were fired from Slovenia, an indication that this might not be as smooth sailing as Wales will have wanted it to be.
A new star
But the hosts had their share of the chances too. Carrie Jones – whose stock continues to rise every time she pulls on a Wales shirt – was at the centre of everything Wales did well in attack. This was another eye-catching performance from a 19-year-old who never seems to be overawed by the big occasions. We’ve seen it so often during this campaign. From going toe-to-toe with Wendie Renard to getting her Wales tally underway with a crucial goal in Greece, Jones always steps up in the big moments. Her performances epitomise the shift from defensive football to a more attacking style under Grainger.
At times against Slovenia, she looked as though she was playing in the park with her friends rather than a crucial international with playoff ramifications. The ball stuck to her foot like chewing gum on a pair of jeans. No matter how hard a defender tried, they couldn’t separate her from the ball.
Praise from the greatest
Teammate Helen Ward has seen Jones grow from a player who made her debut as a 15-year-old into a crucial part of the team and isn’t surprised by how effortless she can make football look.
“She’s like that every single day. She comes across as chilled, but she’s got a bit about her. She’ll be told to reign it in once or twice during her career, but she’s got the world at her feet.
“Carrie is a born footballer, at times it’s so effortless for her, the ball is stuck to her foot and it’s like it’s been there her whole life. For a kid from mid-Wales, she’s doing well for herself, and she will be inspiring the next generation after herself.”
This was a real night of celebration. Not only was there a record-breaking crowd and a history-making result, but two players who are so deeply embedded in the fabric of this team also reached milestone caps. Angharad James became the youngest player to reach 100 caps, doing so at the age of 28. Rhiannon Roberts hit the halfway point of becoming a centurion, winning her 50th cap. This Wales squad is now packed with experienced players who have felt those heartbreaks before.
It was clear that those players who have suffered heartbreak before have learned from their previous disappointments. As the clock ticked towards 90 and Wales edged closer to the playoffs, their mentality shifted. They knew a point would be enough, so rather than take risks, they preserved the point. It was another sign of how this team has grown over the campaign.
And they did this without Jess Fishlock, their most capped and most successful player.
The OL Reign midfielder was forced to watch on from the bench, out with an injury. There is an undeniable tinge of sadness on an otherwise perfect night that Fishlock couldn’t play an on-field role in this moment. A player who has seen almost every side of football win a Wales shirt. From hand-me-downs from the men’s team cut to size to women’s specific shirts. From the lows of 57th ranked in the world to the high of 29th. Ask Ward and she’ll tell you that watching a game from the bench alongside Fishlock can be a nervous exercise. Not because the pair don’t have full faith in their teammates, but because of Fishlock’s running commentary, the commentary of a player who sees the game different to most.
It’s no secret that this is a very tightly knit squad. We hear about it every campaign. The post-match celebrations showed exactly that. The ‘starters’, ‘finishers’ and ‘supporters’ as they call them, all celebrated in one giant mass of bodies.
“We are naturally a very together group,” Ward said after the game when asked about how quickly the bench ran onto the pitch to revel in the team’s success. “We have been ever since I have been a part of the squad. Every new player that comes into the squad fits into that.”
Now Wales await to discover who they face in the playoffs. Whomever their opponent transpires to be after the draw on September 9, they should have little to fear. With a squad full of talent as together as theirs, Grainger’s side know they can tangle with the big teams. Taking France to the limit both home and away, beating Scotland in Pinatar and falling to Belgium on penalties prove that. Whilst they may have penned a piece of history, there is still plenty more history to be written by this Wales side.