By Graham Thomas
Jayne Ludlow believes Wales can take what should rightfully already be theirs on Friday night – the scalp of England.
There may be far more at stake than an ancient rivalry, with World Cup qualification on the line, but the woman who has transformed both the results and the reputation of the national side is also eager for some just deserts.
Back in April, Wales drew 0-0 with England in Southampton – a game notable for a gritty, backs-to-the-wall defensive display by Ludlow’s team, particularly goalkeeper Laura O’Sullivan, but also for a goal-line decision that went against the visitors.
Early in the match, Natasha Harding’s effort from a corner was scrambled clear but replays later suggested the ball may have crossed the line.
There was no goal-line technology, however, and certainly no VAR and Ludlow – who can keep a steely look in her eye, even when she smiles – insists: “It was a pity that VAR was not available for that game, because we actually scored a goal and we won.
“Do we need to do anything different? Maybe, the officials need to be in a different point on the field, so that they could have seen that. That’s not me being hard on officials, because it’s an extremely hard job. But the reality is that we didn’t get the points we probably deserved.
“Did we have much possession? No. But we are about winning games and that’s the only stat that we focus on. Should we have come away with the three points? Yeah. I think anyone who watched that clip would agree.
“We were not lucky. We were very well prepared and they didn’t manage to break our defence down. We have to make sure we do that again on Friday.”
It has been stated this week that Wales can earn a place at the World Cup finals for the first time since 1958 – a conflating of the men’s and women’s game that is less useful than it is confusing.
The women’s national team began playing in the 1970s, long after John Charles and the rest were taking on a 17-year-old Pele in Sweden.
In the 40 years since, Wales women’s team have never made a tournament finals, just as the men’s side had not reached one until the cycle of failure was ended by Chris Coleman two years ago.
In many ways if Ludlow’s team beat England at Newport County’s Rodney Parade on Friday night – leaving their opponents to worry about play-offs and claiming the one automatic spot themselves – it will be a bigger achievement than Coleman’s.
Unlike England manager Phil Neville’s team, most of the Welsh players still combine other jobs with football and there would need to be much negotiating with employers before the finals in France next summer.
“It is a massive game, but it’s also just the culmination of what has been a journey and growth for us as a national team,” says Ludlow, who took over as Wales manager four years ago.
“We have enjoyed every single game in this competition and we’ve learned from our mistakes along the way. We have areas to develop and we still have new targets to set.
“The fact that we have the possibility to achieve something we have never done before makes this game bigger, but when you break it all down, it’s just another football game of 90 minutes.
“We have to do the same things we’ve done all the way through this campaign. The players have roles which have changed, but they have the ability to change quickly.
“The Wales-England rivalry doesn’t really mean a lot to me. It could be any other of the top 10 world ranked nation we are playing against.
“They are one of the best teams in the world and we have to give them the respect they deserve. But we have concentrated on them as individuals and as a team – rather than as England – and that hopefully means we can compete with them.”
When Neville was appointed to his job in January, there were many who questioned why a man with no previous experience in women’s football should have been chosen ahead of other candidates.
Ludlow gave diplomatic answers when asked about the choice, but there was enough between the lines to suggest she felt it was a backward step, a standpoint which may have been influenced by two decades spent a player in the women’s game before she took over from a man, Jarmo Matikainen.
For the most part, Ludlow speaks the language of the modern, progressive football manager, in a fluency heavily laced with words like “environment”, “development” and “processes”.
Little is given away that might be used by opponents, but as to whether Neville has actually made much of an impact with England, and whether or not the opponents are any different, Ludlow says: “In some way they are different under him, in other ways they are not.
“They will always have a next generation coming through and pushing for places, regardless of who the manager is.
“They might be a little disappointed that they haven’t already qualified by now. But I don’t really focus on them. I respect them and what they’ve done for the women’s game – and my playing career was over the Bridge – but we want to compete with them.”
All of Ludlow’s players – even the vastly experienced Jess Fishlock, who has won 110 caps – has said this match is the biggest they have ever played in.
At 39, it is also the most significant game of Ludlow’s management career, although with a new contract recently agreed, it appears she will be going nowhere even if Wales lost and then failed to qualify via the play-offs.
But seven unbeaten matches, without a single goal conceded, have provided a justifiable confidence that her team and their manager can raise their levels once again for the final time of asking in what has already been a memorable qualification campaign.
“It will be great for the fans, and the fact that we are now able to compete with England shows how far we have come.
“We have certain targets that we have to hit, individually and collectively. We put a high focus on certain elements that we think are relevant to results.
“We can’t afford to make mistakes, but I’m confident that we won’t make mistakes.
“We will need to be better on Friday, better than we have been so far.
“But I am confident we can be better, because in every game we have played we have been better than we were in the previous game.
“No-one expected us to beat Russia, the second-ranked team, 3-0 but we did. That was because our performances have improved with every game. We are looking forward to what should be the most challenging, but also the happiest 90 minutes of our players’ lives.
“We want to take ourselves to the next level of the women’s game. That’s why I do this job and why we’re all here.
“The reality is that we have drawn against a top level team, but we haven’t beaten one. The next challenge for us is to beat those teams.”
And should Wales win, securing their place at the World Cup finals, what would that mean to their manager?
“It would mean I would have to set new goals. I can’t get excited now because we haven’t got there yet. Perhaps I’ll get excited on the night.
“But I’m proud to say we’ve had a hell of a journey and we have come so far as a group. I’m ultra-confident we can develop further.”