In the final article before tonight’s showdown between Wales and England for an automatic place in the World Cup finals, The Mixed Zone’s Katie Whyatt examines the belief and growing expectation with the Principality
Wales are so undaunted by the prospect of playing the biggest game in their history that they spent their last media commitment before tonight’s winner-takes-all encounter with England talking about The Great British Bake-Off. As forward Natasha Harding explains: “If you’re not bonkers, and you’re a bit sane or normal, I don’t think you’re truly Welsh.” That is the conclusion she has come to as she reflects on the success of a Wales side potentially one game from their first appearance in the World Cup finals. Only Phil Neville’s England stand in their way. The Mixed Zone spent a day in his company earlier this week, witnessing first-hand the quiet intensity burning in a manager fusing his own quiet humour with the lessons from a decade of life under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Perhaps the reality of the challenge ahead – this is, after all, a Wales side who defied all expectations when they held England to a point at St Mary’s Stadium in April – is slowly sinking in for Neville. This is the biggest game of his managerial career so far, and talk of the pressure dominated his press conference.
He is aware that Wales are stubborn and hard to beat: eight qualifiers in, they have yet to concede a goal. A few hours in the company of Helen Ward, Wales’ all-time leading goalscorer, and Harding, reveals the secrets behind that success: unfailing team spirit, a cocktail of personalities, a pioneering manager – and chocolate brownies and ice cream.
“We’re in a position that’s pretty unfamiliar to us as an international group of players: by the time the last game of a qualifying campaign has come round, we’ve never been in contention to win the group,” says Ward. “We’re under no illusions that the one game we’ve got left is arguably the toughest of them all. The pressure’s all on England – they’re expected to qualify. You see things written here and there about how great England are going to be next summer, and you kind of think, hang on – we’ve still got a game to play. Even if those outside aren’t quite as sure how we’re going to do, we’ve got a lot of belief within our camp.”
It is an achievement made all the more remarkable given only 40 per cent of this Wales squad are full-time professional footballers. Ward plays in the third tier of women’s football with Watford, working behind the scenes at the club to support children Emily, three, and Charlie, 11 months. Loreen Dykes has switched to supply teaching to juggle her career and football, while goalkeeper Laura O’Sullivan, who faced 22 shots against England and kept out every one, works in an office full-time and trains in the evening.
“Seven ‘til nine, seven ‘til ten, every night, nearly,” explains Caerphilly-born Harding. “Wales still aren’t in a position to fund us as professional football players. When we drew away, that was massive for us. It was a point where we’d been able to compete with one of the best teams in the world, which England are, with little resources and part-time players. To be in a position where we potentially could qualify is massive. It just shows that hard work is down to individuals and down to a team. If you have that team spirit, then you can almost do the impossible.”
England are second in the world, Wales 29th. As if to emphasise the point, England sealed qualification for the 2015 World Cup in Canada, after beating Wales 4-0 in Cardiff.
“We were awful,” recalls Harding. “I remember that game very, very clearly. I remember personally, it was a corner, and I was marking Laura Bassett, and she got away from me and scored a goal. I’ll never forgive myself for that. Ever. We deserved it – we were naïve to go into a game and try and compete with them, whereas now I think we’re at a stage where we have a game-plan for every different team we play. We’re adaptable to whatever Jayne wants us to do and we’re pretty resilient in front of goal. Hopefully that won’t happen ever again when I’m still playing for Wales.”
Jayne is Jayne Ludlow, the Wales manager. It will be a fairy-tale if Wales beat England. The headline on a WalesOnline interview with Ludlow summed it up: ‘Ludlow uncovered: The woman behind the team on the brink of changing everything’. There is no Gareth Southgate-style search for redemption for Ludlow, no hankering to banish the spectre of Euro 96; but the 39-year-old is Wales through and through.
She won her first cap aged 17 and made her name in a women’s football landscape far removed from the relative comforts of the WSL. As Jess Fishlock, Wales’ most capped player, puts it: “When Jayne was as successful as she was, she had it a lot harder than we did. She knows what it takes.” Ludlow balanced studying for a physiotherapy degree at King’s with playing for Millwall Lionesses and Southampton Saints. But it was at Arsenal Ladies where, over 13 years, she became a star, and where she is still the club’s all-time leading goalscorer. She captained her country until her international retirement in 2012, when she was described as “the most successful player that Wales has ever had” by former Wales manager Jarmo Matikainen.
“Her obvious pride and passion and patriotism towards the Welsh badge – that’s there in abundance,” smiles Ward. “Everyone’s always known that about Jayne, from when she was playing to now.”
Within a year, Ludlow was managing Reading in WSL 2. In October 2014, almost two years to the day she announced she was hanging up her boots, she was appointed Wales manager, and signed a four-year contract extension earlier this month.
“She takes banter really well, because we do batter her,” laughs Harding. “We batter her, the things we sometimes say to her. We have court fines, and hold a team court, and she has to do certain fines and certain forfeits, too. But she knows what it means to win trophies.”
Ludlow lifted 26 pieces of silverware in a 13-year spell. “Unbelievable goal tally, unbelievable winning mentality,” Harding continues. “For us, this campaign was about bringing that out of her and getting results. It wasn’t about playing pretty football, even though that is easier on the eye. She knows what we want as players, in terms of keeping us happy, even with our food selection: we have chocolate brownies after dinner, because Jayne says chocolate makes everyone happy. Who doesn’t love a chocolate brownie and custard or ice cream?”
Ward adds: “I think it’s her attention to detail. She comes up with things, and we’re sort of sitting there in the team meetings thinking, ‘Where is this going? How is this going to work?’ It’s trying to do something different and throw off opposition, whether it’s a set-piece, the shapes we take when we’re in possession and out of possession. It’s just the little details that nobody else thinks of, but when you put it into practice you realise how effective it is.”
Ludlow’s side managed to shift all 7,850 tickets for the England clash at Newport County’s Rodney Parade within 24 hours, and the attendance will be the highest for a Wales home match.
“It’s unbelievable,” says Ward. “We’ve got a real good backing. The Red Wall, as they’re called – I think they sort of jumped on it after the men did so well in Euro 2016. The feeling around football in Wales has been really good. The guys didn’t have so good a[2018 World Cup campaign, so a lot of the supporters came over to our side. We’ve generated a lot of support with each game.
“Everybody is relishing being the underdog. We all come together. The hashtag #TogetherStronger is something we really thrive on. It’s genuine with us – we really do have each other’s backs. If someone’s playing and you’re on the bench, you’re willing them to do well. Jayne’s brought out the best in us and really put some sort of steely determination in us not to be beaten.”
The journey really gathered pace after Wales’ 3-0 demolition of Russia. “As well as winning the game, we entertained the crowd,” explains Ward. “Everybody was keen to get tickets. On the way home from that game, I had people saying to me, ‘When are the tickets out? How can we get them?’ It was really exciting, and it was fantastic to see that all the talk was real and people did want to jump on it.”
Still, there is a gritty realism to this Wales side that underpins the dreaming. They never imagined, even in their wildest dreams, they would be one game away from automatic qualification. “To be honest, we were looking at the play-offs as our targets since day one,” says Harding. “We’re not naïve enough to think we were gonna win the group! We haven’t really spoken about, ‘If we beat England, we’ll get to the World Cup, or if we get a point against England, we might get to the play-offs.’ We’ve just taken each and every game as it comes, and our next game just happens to be against England.”
Whatever happens tonight, Wales have already made history. They are underdogs, but there is all to play for. “We always say the point against England was a turning point for us,” Harding says. “To play against them, to hold our own – OK, we defended for the majority of the game – but to compete against a team with unbelievable players, and it being England at the same time, adds that extra bit of reward. In terms of the Wales-England rivalry, we’re all even at the minute. We haven’t got one up on each other just yet, and that’s why I think, come Friday night, there will be that added bit of pressure.”
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Katie Whyatt. Katie’s latest articles