WORLD CUP QUALIFIER | Meeting The Women In Red

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Wales Women 3 – 0 Russia Women

Spytty Park

I’ve been on a hype since seeing my first women’s football match last month. The blog post from that game at Birmingham City Ladies reached audience numbers I never expected and it opened my eyes to the world of women’s football: its players, its clubs and its fans. I’ve learnt so much in the space of a month and I’m brimming with excitement to learn more.

Of the learning experiences I’ve had so far, my biggest lesson has involved the Welsh national team. After meeting Dragons defender Hayley Ladd in Birmingham, I pin-pointed Wales’ World Cup qualifiers against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Russia as my next venture into the ladies’ game. These were fixtures I didn’t even know were scheduled when I spoke to Ladd. I’d wished her luck against England (to be played at the end of August) because I’d originally earmarked that game as my first women’s match to attend.

Needless to say, I’m glad I took the plunge earlier. In an off-season that’s seen one new signing in six weeks at Wrexham and my bank account unable to make a trip to Russia for the men’s World Cup, I’ve been clinging on to the Wales Women for my football fix. I’ve looked through player stats, World Cup qualifying tables, opposition fixtures… honestly speaking, it’s bordered on obsession (one new signing in six weeks, you gotta let me off on this!).

A documentary I watched on the team was recommended to me by a Birmingham City Ladies fan on Twitter. It was called The Women In Red and it captured the build-up to Wales’ last qualifier away at England – which eventually ended goalless. It gave me a good feel for player personalities and provided plenty of information on the current campaign.

My girlfriend, Saffron, watched it too. She’s also been captured by the rock ‘n’ roll vibes of Jess Fishlock, the laughs instilled by Natasha Harding and the remarkable story of Laura O’Sullivan, who has an office job away from football but hasn’t conceded a goal between the sticks for Wales in this campaign.

Saff and I watched the Bosnia match together at home. I’d just got out of work and thus that stopped us from being in Swansea for the occasion. But we had tickets for the next qualifier in Newport already secured and a 1-0 win courtesy of Kayleigh Green’s strike set up the match at Spytty Park with Wales needing two more wins to guarantee a place at next year’s World Cup in France. I couldn’t wait to get down there.

Highlights

Just like Toulouse

I can’t really start my highlights anywhere else other than the result. What a result it was and what a performance. Wales put three goals past Russia in the second half to record their biggest win of the campaign while also keeping their seventh consecutive clean sheet. Amazing stuff, particularly as Russia absolutely dominated first-half possession.

Every attack was coming through the Russian left. Elvira Ziyanistova, Elena Morozova and Nelli Korovkina were constantly combining to cause panic in the Welsh defence. In response, the home side tried to slow the game down; Harding instructed the ballgirls to bounce the ball back to the players rather than throw it straight at them. It was a strange plan – especially at home – and it didn’t stop the Russian onslaught.

However, despite all of the away side’s energy and possession, they failed to really carve Wales open. There were a couple of moments where Russia were given the chance to turn in the box but their lack of cutting edge – combined with Wales’ relentless will to tackle, chase and track back – meant the score remained goalless at the break.

A stadium that felt a little irked by the first half showing was then invited to start a Welsh party when Green grabbed the opener early in the second half. The angle of her strike was so tight that I actually thought she’d hit the side netting. But I went along with the celebrations when I saw the team bombard the in-form forward.

Rachel Rowe, who worked really hard to supply a dangerous ball in the build-up, gestured to the crowd as she joined her teammates. It was a great start but things weren’t quite done yet. Russia were a tougher team than Bosnia and holding out for another 1-0 win seemed dangerous. Thankfully, though, the best was yet to come.

Green’s scored her second goal with an outstanding finish that featured some stunning build-up play. I can’t think of a better team goal I’ve seen all season. Fishlock won the ball back on half-way with an immensely timed tackle before Angharad James swept up and passed to Rowe. She then found Green who produced a lovely one-two with Helen Ward before smartly lobbing the on-rushing Elvina Todua in the Russian goal. The ball went from half-way to the back of the net in about 10 seconds. It really was stunning.

The crowd was in full voice from then on and had barely got their celebrations in full swing when Green played Harding in on goal. She hit her shot at Todua but the Russian could only spill her drive straight back to Harding, who made no mistake with her second effort.

The last 20 minutes were a celebration. Green had a couple of chances to score a hat-trick before coming off late on with cramp. Meanwhile the backline continued working hard to preserve their clean sheet, captain Sophie Ingle epitomised the effort with some big challenges during the final minutes. It just added to the legacy and furore that this campaign has created.

Some of those around us compared it to Toulouse, where the men’s team beat Russia 3-0 at Euro 2016 (Neil Taylor actually scored a goal similar to Harding’s that night). Wales finished above England in the Group that day and this result takes them one point above the Lionesses in World Cup qualifying with the final showdown to come in August.

Meeting Fishlock (and Ladd again)

There were some amazing celebrations when the final whistle went. Zombie Nation’s Kernkraft 400 provided the soundtrack before Harding took control, cutting off the tunes and starting the Icelandic Viking clap with the 1,200 in attendance. The ladies then took time out with their family and friends while also meeting fans.

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Before going to Newport, I’d originally dreamt of getting Fishlock’s autograph on my Wales shirt. She’s such a legend, breaking the caps record as the only centurion despite playing abroad for much of her career. Plus she’s recently been given an MBE for services to football and the LGBT community. It would have been pretty cool.

However, when I spotted Ladd, I decided to have a chat with her and see if she would sign my shirt. Meeting her in Birmingham gave me the inspiration to learn more about her fellow Welsh Women. It seemed fitting.

Ladd was equally as nice to meet a second time around. She remembered Saff and I from Birmingham and, even though we were both full of cold, listened to all of our comments (which included my long analysis of the first half). Plus she signed my shirt! And urged me to wear it for the crunch England match instead of a Three Lions jersey. Trust me, there’s no danger of the latter happening!

A little later on, Saff and I also got a photo with Fishlock. She was being bombarded with fans, as you’d expect, so we couldn’t stop by for a chat unfortunately. But she was a class act and stopped for every fan.

Disappointments

The venue

On the night before the game, news emerged that Spytty Park had sold out. Which sounds good but it caused a bit of confusion.

Many thought that its billed capacity of 5,000 had been met but in actual fact, there was only going to be one stand open which limited the attendance to 1,200. That was half the number of people who attended the last qualifier in Swansea and it definitely seemed like people would be missing out.

It made me question whether the right venue was chosen. Saff and I actually had a look around Rodney Parade – Newport County’s home ground up the road – before the game between Wales and Russia. Work was being done around the ground when we got there which meant we could have a little look inside.

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Them improvement works, and possibly similar ones at other big grounds, were perhaps the reason why Spytty Park was chosen. As much as I don’t like Rodney Parade (this was my second look around the ground in the space of 10 months and I’m still not enamoured by it), I can imagine it would have attracted a fair few more than Spytty did.

Plus it doesn’t have a running track going round it, which was maybe the big draw for the Exiles when they moved from Spytty to Rodney five years ago. Everything from the view to the atmosphere is hindered by a track, in my eyes, and I think some of the tension in the first half against Russia was lost because of the distance between the fans and players.

Being sat amongst the vocal section of Wales fans meant it wasn’t too much of a disappointment in the end but I can imagine the FAW will avoid using Spytty again in the future. Especially now the women’s game is becoming so popular across the country.

Overall

It was an absolute pleasure to see Wales Women put in their best result of the World Cup qualifying campaign. Every player put in an immense shift to secure three vital points and I’m sure, for every one who attended, it will be remembered as a classic night in Welsh football history.

Manager Jayne Ludlow has instilled the same winning mentality she embossed as a player and its changing the landscape of women’s football in Wales. That’s already a superb achievement. I just really hope it isn’t the peak for them players as they fully deserve to be in France to create life-changing memories, just like the men did two years ago.

For now, though, they can take a well-earned break and prepare for the last match in a couple of months knowing that more fans like Saff and myself will be cheering them on. I’m on another hype for that one already.

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