Wales have secured a play-off spot for Euro 2020 qualification thanks to Friday night’s victory for Sweden over Romania in Group F. But Ryan Giggs and Jayne Ludlow are both chasing more for their teams as Graham Thomas reports.
Ryan Giggs and Jayne Ludlow both believe their respective Wales teams can make it to the finals of their European Championships.
The two managers are currently attempting to navigate their way through remaining qualification matches with their national teams and both claim reasons for optimism.
Should Giggs’ Wales men’s side clinch a place at their tournament finals in 2020, and then Ludlow’s women’s team follow suit for their showpiece a year later, it would represent a unique double.
Only once since 1958 has any senior Wales football team successfully come through qualification to take their place in the finals of a major competition – when Chris Coleman’s men memorably marched all the way to the semi-finals of Euro 2016.
Wales women have never been passed the qualification stage, although it was Ludlow who took them on their nearest attempt when the country was pipped by rivals England for this summer’s World Cup
Three years on from the heady days of Bordeaux, Toulouse and Lille – from Hal Robson-Kanu’s goal against the Belgians and memories of the joyous “red wall” – Giggs’ team have a wonderful opportunity with two matches left to play in their qualification group.
Wales must win in Azerbaijan on Saturday and at home to Hungary three days later to keep alive hopes of automatic qualification for next summer’s European Championship finals.
Winning both games would guarantee Wales a top-two spot unless Slovakia – who are away to Group E leaders Croatia on November 16 – also take six points from their final two matches.
Ludlow’s women earned a gritty recent 0-0 draw in Belfast against Northern Ireland, which leaves them still in with a shout of overtaking group leaders and hot favourites Norway.
Should both reach their destination, the spin-offs for Welsh football and sport in general would be huge, with an upsurge in prize money, sponsorship and TV revenue swelling the coffers of the Football Association of Wales – allowing them to further invest in development and the grass roots.
“The expectation has grown as we have gone through the campaign,” says Giggs, who succeeded Coleman but was unable to take Wales to the World Cup finals in Russia.
“But we’ve drawn in Azerbaijan in the past, Croatia have just drawn out there, too. So, you can’t take anything for granted. And you can’t in this group – full stop. I believe that if we perform well, we will win these two games, but I’m just focusing on Azerbaijan.
“You have to turn up on the night but we are in good form. I feel we’ve got momentum and I feel with the performances over the last three games that on a different night – especially against Slovakia – we could have got all three points.
“The team is in good shape at the moment and I am confident. If we do qualify then it would be huge for everyone in Welsh football. It transforms things, as we saw three years ago and the ripple effect extends outwards.”
For Wales women, the requirement looks tougher – particularly as only the top team in the group gains automatic qualification – but is by no means impossible.
To get to the 2021 finals in England, without the need of a back door route, Wales need to overhaul a four-point deficit on Group C leaders Norway, a team good enough to reach the quarter-finals of last year’s Women’s World Cup in France.
It’s a tall order, but with four matches remaining – two of which are against the Norwegians – then Ludlow’s side have an opportunity to upset the odds.
The draw against Northern Ireland may not have been the outcome they were seeking, but Ludlow is insistent her team is moving in the right direction.
“We look at that performance and say ‘we are progressing.’ The result might not say that right now, but the level of performance was much better than we have produced in the last few months,” she explained.
“We competed well, we dug-in at times but we also played some great football. We have two games against Norway. We look forward to the challenge come April and further into the New Year. We won’t concede, definitely not.
“If this team actually qualified for the finals, they would deserve something fantastic. Not just for the achievement itself, but from where they have come from – a long way behind other teams.
“The positive is we are creating the chances. I am really proud of them and it has been a really good campaign so far.”
Should both Wales teams be successful it would mean a notable hat-trick of Welsh participation in major sporting tournament finals across three years.
The Rugby World Cup of this year, would be followed by football’s Euros of 2020 in the men’s game, with the women’s version to come in 2021 – further securing Wales’ reputation as a nation that punches above its weight.