Jayne Ludlow has admitted she has never felt as agitated on a touchline after a defeat that has put a big question mark over Wales’ ability to qualify for the Women’s European Championships in 2021.
Tuesday evening’s 2-2 draw with Northern Ireland at Rodney Parade may be just two points dropped in a campaign that is only two matches old, but it was the manner of the performance that concerned the manager.
Ludlow spent the last 20 minutes screaming instructions to her players before her worst fears were realised when the visitors snatched an equaliser in the third minute of stoppage time.
It may have taken an uncharacteristic howler from Wales goalkeeper Laura O’Sullivan to allow Ashley Hutton to score, but Ludlow was more alarmed by the overall level of form shown by her team – or rather, the lack of it.
“We’ve come away from this one feeling like we’ve let ourselves down,” was the former Arsenal player’s blunt assessment of her players at the same venue where, exactly a year ago, they made a cultural as much as a sporting breakthrough by almost reaching the finals of the World Cup.
“I haven’t spoken as much in a football match, which highlights that things weren’t right,” she added of her very vocal touchline frustrations.
“We weren’t getting the information on at times. The result you could see was coming. We haven’t performed well in a lot of areas. It’s bit of a shock the way the girls have been in camp. It feels like a loss right now.
“There were lots of chances for them and that’s something we’re not very pleased with. When you look at the last campaign, how well we’ve defended, how well we’ve worked as a group, that was disappointing more than anything else.
“But, having said that, we’ve been away for a week and we’ve seen glimpses of what we can do. But it’s a wake-up call that every time we have to play at our best and tonight we weren’t.”
The draw actually leaves Wales top of Group C after two games, with four points – a point more than top seeds Norway.
But the Norwegians have a game in hand and the reality is that October’s clash with Belarus now starts to look like a game much could hinge on in terms of qualification.
Ludlow added: “There are still a lot of games to play, so it’s early right now. We’re not getting carried away but we are going to reflect and adjust because things weren’t good enough.
“We’re a newly-ranked second team in the group, and for the last 20 years we’ve been the third.
“We’ve managed to make that step up. Internally, we knew how hard it was going to be retain that second – externally, maybe it was a little bit different. People are getting excited and that’s good. But we have to keep grounded and know how hard that’s going to be.”
It was ironic that the crucial moment of the game should be an awful error by O’Sullivan, who flapped at – and then dropped – a long, free-kick pumped into her six-yard box.
If it had not been for O’Sullivan’s brilliance at Southampton against England in the last campaign – where she kept a clean sheet – then Wales would not have taken their last campaign to the final game.
This time, she was part of a general malaise as Wales fell behind in the first-half to a goal from Simone Magill, levelled through a deflected goal that came off Emma Jones, and then took a rather undeserved lead through Kayleigh Green.
At that point, with 20 minutes remaining, it appeared Wales would go on to do a professional job, defensively, of the sort that typified their defensive soundness in the previous campaign.
Instead, after a couple of lucky escapes including a shot that smacked against O’Sullivan’s bar, Northern Ireland’s perseverance paid off – not bad for a team that had begun their own campaign with a 6-0 defeat against a Welsh side who had won by the same scoreline in the Faroe Island.
Ludlow added: “Take nothing away from Northern Ireland – they came here to do a job and got a point. But we have to be better.
“We go again in Belarus in three or four weeks’ time and we must make sure we step on the pitch and up our levels.”