Sophie Ingle believes mighty Chelsea and little Vale Wanderers have been crucial influences in her route to becoming a Welsh centurion.
Ingle will win her 100th cap in Oslo tonight when Wales attempt to put a dent in Norway’s leadership of their Euro qualifying group.
It is a fittingly significant match for a notable personal milestone. Only Jess Fishlock and Loren Dykes have reached three figures among Wales’ footballers – women or men.
Chris Gunter has reached 96, but Ingle will reach the three-figure mark before him at the Ullevaal Stadium, with only a brief look back at how she got there and the thanks that need to be paid before she concentrates on the job in hand.
The Wales skipper and centre-back credits her start in football with her local club and her years at Women’s Super League champions Chelsea as shaping the player and captain she is today.
“I played in the boys team at Vale Wanderers from the age of six until the age of 12, because there was no girls’ team,” says Ingle.
“Then, when I was 12, my manager started a girls’ team to meet the demand and I stayed for another couple of years. So, those formative years with that grass roots club were crucial for me.
“I would go along two or three times a week, alongside playing for my school team. My brother, who was two years older, also played, so my mum would be back and fore to the club quite a few times on a Saturday morning.
“What I really loved about it was just being part of a team. To have organised football was amazing and being with boys probably pushed me harder and made me the player I’ve become today, I’m sure of that.
“It was a gradual build until I went semi-professional with Chelsea, that was the case for a lot of girls my age, whereas now the girls can be in good environments at a much younger age.
“When I first joined Chelsea was the time I first believed I could make this my career and improve every day.
“Playing at Chelsea has also improved my self-belief and that, in turn, makes you a better leader out on the field.”
Ingle celebrated her first WSL title earlier this summer when the season was brought to a premature end due to the coronavirus pandemic.
— BBC Sport Wales (@BBCSportWales) September 22, 2020
Based on a points-per-game ratio, Ingle’s Blues were able to pip rivals Manchester City to the crown even though the achievement felt “bitter-sweet”, she says, because of the inability of the WSL to resume.
But the summer break gave Ingle time to reflect on her success and the 29-year-old from Barry admits: “I definitely never even considered that I would ever reach 100 caps when I made my debut.
“It was out in Azerbaijan over a decade ago, so it’s been a long process. But as soon as I had that first cap I just wanted more and more.
“Getting that 100th cap will be special, but I will be nothing but professional on the day, and it will be all about getting those points on the board. I’ll worry about the celebrations after that.”
The Norwegians top the group with four wins from four, but Wales are still unbeaten even though there is a four point gap between the leaders and Ingle’s team who have drawn twice.
It means, realistically, Wales must win tonight to have a chance of overhauling their opponents for top spot, although a draw would still leave the door open to Norway slipping up.
Anything else and Wales will be looking at consolidating their runners-up spot which would mean a fight with other group runners-up for automatic qualification for the finals – based on their record – or play-offs.
Edrych ‘mlaen i Norwy v Cymru 🇳🇴🏴
-Sophie Ingle i ennill ei 100fed cap
-Jess fishlock yn dychwelyd
Gêm ragbrofol Euro 2021, nos Fercher am 5. ⚽ pic.twitter.com/l1GE652KC1
— ⚽ Sgorio (@sgorio) September 21, 2020
Under manager Martin Sjögren, Norway reached the last four of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, with Barcelona striker Caroline Graham Hansen the one to watch with 10 goals already in the current campaign.
Ingle adds: “Against Norway we have to get something, whether that’s a draw or a win.
“They’re a tough, tough side and we know it’s going to be hard for us, but we also know that we can get a result.
“I’ve got mixed emotions over the campaign so far, we could have done better, but we’re still unbeaten, and that’s the main thing.”
Manager Jayne Ludlow can call on a fit and firing again Fishlock this time and insists Wales can still catch the group leaders as a first goal, or cement their position in second place.
“We are still in with a chance,” says Ludlow, “and we are still very much in the hunt for an opportunity at a play-off position.
Huge congratulations @sophieingle01 for your 100th 🏴 cap today. Absolute Rolls Royce of a player and an even better person.
Llongyfarchidau Soph 👏🏼 joia, a phob lwc heddiw! pic.twitter.com/pN573BTqnb
— Gwennan Harries (@gwennanharries) September 22, 2020
“But we have four games where we are probably going to need to reach higher performance levels than we have ever done before.
“Do I think we can do that? Yes. It will just be crossing our fingers that we are all fit and healthy come game night.”
If Wales manage a huge upset, then expect Ingle to have been a commanding presence at the back – calm, controlled and authoritative and with an ability to make crucial tackles and interceptions.
Ingle has brought that influence to the team on so many occasions before and Ludlow adds: “First and foremost she’s our leader and she’s our captain.
“She’s part of an experienced group of leaders that we have who work very well together.
“But there’s so much more potential with her. Every time she steps onto the pitch with Wales we hope that we can help her increase her levels even higher.
“If she does that, she has a massive part to play in getting the results we need over the next few months.”