At 7:46pm on Friday 31st August, one minute into the biggest game in his managerial career, Phil Neville nervously bites his lip. Clad in a waistcoat, like some sort of quasi-Gareth Southgate tribute, he paced his technical area with an anxiety that gave away to a fraught impassiveness when his England charges finally broke the deadlock on 57 minutes.
He had stressed in the build-up that this game, despite the potential outcomes, would not “define me or my players”, and that his “personal future doesn’t rest on it”. But as much as Wales’ underdog achievements have dominated the pre-match narrative, this was a moment of catharsis for him, too. Neville, after all, never made an England World Cup squad as a player, and the summer of 2000 saw burning effigies of David Beckham give way to attacks on him and his family after the penalty he gave away against Romania. There were doubts about his credentials before taking the job that would have been raised again had England had to go via the playoffs. Instead, the gentle tinkering of his first seven months of his St. George’s Park tenure has been roundly vindicated. The Phil Neville era is not stalling before it has even begun, and England’s ridiculous World Cup qualifying record remains intact: unbeaten in 57, this was their 48th win. They have now qualified automatically for four World Cups on the bounce. Given qualification has always been a formality for England – a case of when, not if – their relief at full-time was startling, palpable in a campaign that ran right down to the wire.
His opposite number in the dugout, Wales boss Jayne Ludlow, laughed. One minute into the biggest game in her country’s history, she was grinning, relishing the moment. It is difficult to know how to receive it. It is the perfect symbol for the values that took this Wales team to within one match of their first ever World Cup; yet it was also, given the stakes, strikingly incongruous – modest, even. She smiled at full-time, as she shook hands with a victorious Neville, but it likely hid the tears racing down bruised forward Natasha Harding’s moistened cheeks.
As a player, 2007 was Ludlow’s finest season in football. Then 28, she was captain of the Arsenal Ladies team that won the quadruple: the Premier League, the FA Women’s Cup, the League Cup and the forerunner to the Champions League, the UEFA Women’s Cup. Ludlow gave the team talk prior to the Gunners’ second leg of their European final against Swedish side Umea.
“I’ll never forget her pre-match speech,” England winger Karen Carney said at the time. “It was the best I’ve ever heard. She said that, internationally, she would never go to the tournaments that the England girls would. This was her World Cup Final – and she was desperate to win it.”
It would be an understatement, then, to say Ludlow never envisaged this moment. Rodney Parade was a fittingly unassuming venue for a Wales side that have defied all expectations. Hewn between the east bank of the River Usk and a sleepy city centre housing estate, only two stands are covered and there is still terracing. Gaze westward from the east stand and you can see the sun sinking below Newport city centre.
It is easy to forget that this was the ground that played host to the standout story of last season’s FA Cup: the Newport County side that reached the fourth round after beating Leeds United here and taking Spurs to a replay. A fire had ravaged the training ground prior to the Leeds game and boss Michael Flynn spent the night before in hospital with his baby son: it is a stage primed for its hosts to defy the odds.
England began below their best and the fare was more like a washing machine on spin cycle than the kaleidoscope spinning and shuffling Neville had targeted at his midweek press conference, a rip-roaring, attritional battle of ungainly hand-to-hand combat. Wales hurtled into challenges like Wile E. Kayote slamming into a cliff face, and the 5,053 crammed inside the ground probably had grounds to sue for whiplash as the ball changed ends at rapid-fire pace.
Wales set out to make the England wingers suffer. The groundsmen had brought the bylines in by several inches, marking out the smallest legal pitch permissible in international football. Nikita Parris and Jill Scott were sucked into a veritable Wales spider’s web but left back Alex Greenwood still managed to burst forward and strike the bar. Parris buried the follow-up and Neville exploded with predictable relief, racing down the touchline like Porto-era Jose Mourinho, fizzing like a Coke can infused with Mentos tablets. But the flag was up – incorrectly – and Neville peeled back, and Wales had their stay of execution.
For a Wales side that in the first half marked 11 hours without conceding a goal in World Cup qualifying – a record only the Netherlands can rival – there were some death-defying moments. Steph Houghton fired a free-kick inches over and Hayley Ladd scrambled the ball off the line after Scott had nutmegged skipper Sophie Ingle. Nonetheless, Wales responded, and the moment Kayleigh Green tumbled in the area as Karen Bardsley collected the ball prompted penalty calls that added gasoline to the simmering Wales atmosphere. Wales were gritty, robust, clogging the channels and swarming the ball: Fran Kirby’s hunt for space felt as testing as trying to bustle through an electronics shop on Black Friday.
Despite weathering the early England storm, there was a feeling of inevitability about the moment, 57 minutes in, the Wales dam burst. England had emerged from the break with renewed guile. Jordan Nobbs’ arcing cross flew into Jodie Taylor’s vicinity, and with the help of Fran Kirby Toni Duggan was on hand to knock it home.
For Wales, as the tears glistened down Natasha Harding’s face, and Jill Scott absent-mindedly dinked a header over Laura O’Sullivan, and Nikita Parris tumbled into the header that sealed it, it was hard to know how to feel. Perhaps Harding thought back to the game, in 2014, that meant England sealed their qualification to the 2015 World Cup. Wales were beaten 4-0, Harding at fault for the third goal.
Perhaps, though, she didn’t. This is a Wales team now ranked 29th in the world – their highest-ever ranking. In 2015, FA Wales established a new ‘Female Player Pathway’: similar to the English DNA, it aims “to ensure consistency in philosophy of play and training style across the age groups”. In the same year, they launched the ‘Elite Education Programme’ to give “youth and senior players the opportunity to complete formal qualifications alongside their training”. Ludlow was appointed “in the ambitious project of developing the elite female game here in Wales”.
In one week in June 2017, Cardiff hosted two Champions League finals. The Women’s Champions League Final was held at the Cardiff City Stadium. 22,433 people watched Lyon beat PSG on penalties, and the FA’s aim to “leave a lasting legacy” saw all surplus revenue pumped in full into football related projects. As a partial result, Wales now boasts 6,546 registered female players, 64 registered senior women’s teams, 115 licensed female coaches and 48,557 female players aged between three and eleven.
Perhaps Ludlow summed it up best in her programme notes: “For us, we’re very much in a different place to England with regard to our development programmes. We have a lot more growth to happen. But we’re a small nation, and the thing that small nations bring is that collective. We step on that pitch as one. From my previous days as a player, I know how hard it is to create that in a club or an international environment. We’ve managed to create an environment here now.”
In the end, the game of their lives was not a competition. It looks an increasingly tall ask for Wales, still in with a slim chance of making the playoffs, to navigate to the 2019 Women’s World Cup finals in France. Perhaps no one will ever know how much of a catalyst to women’s football three points here could have provided, but nonetheless the programme opened with a quote from erstwhile Wales men’s boss Chris Coleman. It read: “Don’t be afraid to have dreams”.
Under the blue Newport skies, as they roared out the opening refrain of their national anthem, they did what they have done every day since the 0-0 draw in the reverse fixture at St. Mary’s that took them one game from a guaranteed ticket to France.
In that moment, they dreamt.
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Katie Whyatt. Katie’s latest articles