A year after their dreams of reaching the World Cup were ended by a 3-0 defeat to England, Wales’ women’s team returned to Newport to take on another home nation. Northern Ireland failed to make it to the World Cup too and, like Wales, were aiming to reach their first major tournament in women’s football by qualifying for the 2021 European Championships.

Wales went into the contest with confidence having already secured a 6-0 qualifying victory in the Faroe Islands a few days before. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland were beaten by the same scoreline in their opening game against group favourites, and last summer’s World Cup quarter-finalists, Norway.

I headed to Rodney Parade to see if Wales could maintain their feel-good factor and momentum against a side ranked 27 places below them in the world rankings.

The Highs

(Finally) Ticking Off Rodney Parade

This international marked my first time watching a game at Newport County’s home ground but, bizarrely, I’ve visited Rodney Parade every year since my blog started.

My first glimpse of the stadium came after watching Wrexham play a midweek match in Maidenhead. My friend and I spent the night crossing the country to get back home to Shropshire and stopped off in Newport for a few hours.

It was a decent night. We saw some cool bridges and had a nice riverside walk. But I wasn’t impressed with Rodney Parade, describing it then as lacking warmth and charm.

To be fair, we were there at 2am and had only been around the outside of the ground, so I reserved full judgement until I re-visited Newport a few months later. Wales’ women were playing at Spytty Park but I managed to sneak in to Rodney Parade while they were doing some work on the ground.

Again, I wasn’t impressed. The Bisley Stand looked smart but the mismatching sections of the ground made the place look like a kid’s jigsaw puzzle that had been assembled with the wrong pieces. I did think it was a more suitable footballing venue than Spytty Park, though, as it held more seats and wasn’t let down by a race track running round it.

And, thankfully, the FAW agreed, as the majority of Wales’ home qualifiers in this campaign appear to be at Rodney Parade.

So after finally making it to a game on my third visit, I might be there more often in the future. I only hope I have a better matchday experience next time, as a mental health problem plagued me throughout my time in South Wales.

The Lows

My anxiety

Often when I’m travelling to grounds by myself, I have a few nerves before setting off. I push through and get the train regardless. Things normally start getting better once I arrive at my groundhopping destination but this day was different.

I didn’t feel relaxed getting off the train. Even though Newport is a city I knew fairly well, I felt worried. Finding food, checking out the fan zone and even getting out the station were tasks which frightened me.

I bought some water plus a box of rare, strawberry-flavoured jaffa cakes to see if either of them would ease my nerves and found a quiet, green space in the city centre called Chapel Park. There was rubbish all over the path but I thought I could gather my thoughts on one of the benches. Then I spotted a pitched up tent and a couple of guys who were shooting up nearby.

Needless to say, my anxiety didn’t cease and I was ready to head straight back to the station and go home. Instead, I walked to the stadium, hoping that I’d calm down once I was around the more comfortable surroundings of a football pitch.

A broken display

To be fair, I did start to relax in the stadium. I ate some of what my mom would call ‘proper food’ and looked forward to seeing Wales in action again.

I was wearing the home shirt that Hayley Ladd signed for me at Spytty Park last year and was pleased to see her in the starting line-up. Natasha Harding – fresh from scoring a hat-trick in the Faroe Islands – was another player I was eager to see live again, along with Rhiannon Roberts, Angharad James and captain Sophie Ingle.

Star player, Jess Fishlock, was missing through injury but I spotted her on the other side of the pitch doing the TV coverage. There was also plenty of new names to learn about in the line-up and I was getting pretty excited!

Things didn’t start well, though. Not only did the scoreboard break a few minutes into the game but Wales were a goal down soon after. Simone Magill – a world record holder for scoring the fastest women’s international goal after just 11 seconds – headed home from close range on 11 minutes after some very poor defending from Wales.

There were a lot of errors on and off the pitch. We capitalised on a poor clearance to equalise – James’ shot deflecting in off Emma Jones – while technicians attempted to fix the scoreboard at half-time by turning the entire screen into a giant computer monitor, complete with desktop icons.

When they eventually fixed it in the second half, Wales took the lead straight after. Kayleigh Green headed in Roberts’ excellent cross and it looked like that would be enough to win the game, even with Northern Ireland hitting the bar late on.

However, on her 100th cap, Ashley Hutton scored the third point-blank header of the game in the last minute of injury-time. Wales number one Laura O’Sullivan was at fault as she dropped the ball straight into Hutton’s path – but it’s hard to be overly critical of the Cardiff City Ladies player, as she was immense in keeping seven clean sheets over the previous qualifying campaign.

There was barely any time to kick the ball after the re-start and Northern Ireland’s players celebrated hard, as did the strong contingent of away supporters in the stand around me, while the home fans and players were left stunned.

The Verdict

Northern Ireland deserved their point but Wales should have seen the game out. They’ll need to perform a lot better if they’re to qualify from the group but hopefully this setback will make them even more determined.

The draw was tough to take, although, I’m not sure any score would have stopped my anxiety returning at full-time. I was planning on asking a steward to hold up my High Stress Therapy flag so I could take a photo but I didn’t have the courage. I also pondered over chatting to Ladd about the game or congratulating her on her summer move to Manchester United but I bottled that too.

I felt like crying as I walked back to the station. The day had been very exhausting. I still felt anxious on the train and when I got home. It wasn’t until I awoke the following day that I felt calm again.

Looking back now, though, I’m glad I went to the match. I’m very passionate about supporting women’s football and Wales are, currently, the only women’s side that I care deeply for. Even though I still don’t rate Rodney Parade and its mismatching stands, I’d re-visit to back Wales again. I just hope I feel better next time.

Wales 2
Northern Ireland 2

Euro 2021 Qualifier

Ground rating: 3/10

Thanks for reading. To keep updated on the latest hops, stories and photos from the mental health stadium tour, follow the blog on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

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