Jayne Ludlow is preparing her Wales team for a vital upcoming Euro qualifier against Northern Ireland. Like the previous World Cup campaign, it’s a momentum-builder that is gathering energy and changing the perception of women’s sport in Wales. But she still sees limits on the opportunities for girls in all sports – football, hockey, netball – and tells Graham Thomas how more needs to be done.
When Jayne Ludlow recalls her own sporting childhood in the Rhondda, one of her more formative memories is of a door closing when she was 11.
That was when the current manager of the Wales women’s football team left Dunraven Primary School and moved up to Treorchy Comprehensive.
“Football for girls wasn’t considered the ‘done thing’ at the Comp back then and there was simply no opportunity,” says Ludlow, matter-of-factly, as someone who had played football through her primary years with the full backing and blessing of the primary school’s staff.
This would have been 1990, long before women’s football was shown on TV, before women’s World Cup tournaments – in both football and netball – were televised, as they both were this year, and when Megan Rapinoe was still five years old, rather than a pink-haired sporting icon despised by the current US President.
But back to the Rhondda and 1990. Young Jayne had been tearing it up, playing alongside the boys at primary school in the sport that obsessed her.
Then, she went to big school and discovered small-mindedness was the first lesson of the day.
“I was lucky in that I had a very supportive family and a dad who loved the game and was happy to kick a ball around with me whenever I wanted to,” she says.
“Apart from that I had a very enlightened headmaster at Dunraven primary school who didn’t see gender as an issue. I was involved in the Rhondda Schools seven-a-side tournament at the end of the year and was the only female involved.
“The headmaster was happy to allow me to play and did not put a block on it. But I know that some kids of my generation didn’t have that opportunity.
“Then, when I went to my comprehensive school (Treorchy Comp), I couldn’t play. It was not considered the done thing and they just didn’t provide the opportunities.”
Back then, denied her football fix, Ludlow began to focus elsewhere. The woman who led Wales to within one game of qualifying for their first World Cup finals – and is masterminding the current bid to make the European Championship finals – turned to other sports.
Those included netball, basketball and athletics and she was good enough as a triple jumper to become the British record holder at Under 17.
“I didn’t play football for a few years and moved into track and field. I represented GB under 20s when I was 15. When I was 16, I was doing very well in athletics, but I had this burning ambition to go back to football. People thought I was nuts.
“But I enjoyed the team camaraderie. I got in touch with Tongwynlais Ladies and went there. I said goodbye to athletics, dropped out of it, and threw myself into football.”
That single-mindedness is why she recognises the fighting spirit and determination of present day Rhondda women involved in sport as well as their resourcefulness.
Rhondda Netball has become the biggest female sports participation initiative in Wales, with an average 760 girls and women each week taking part in club and coaching sessions.
The ethos is based on a focused commitment to succeed which looks familiar to the UK’s most decorated female footballer of her day.
“We in women’s football are no different to those coaches and family members who are involved in Rhondda Netball,” says Ludlow, a multiple honours winner at Arsenal.
“When I hear people say it’s all about people organising for themselves, yes it is, but also those comments frustrate me as well. In this day and age, why is female sport – football, netball, hockey, whatever – still not being looked after properly?
“Those women involved in Rhondda Netball are probably people I know personally, who are organising those things for their kids.
“But it’s a frustration, too, because across the board I’d like to see female sport given much more support. Even if the kids don’t win gold medals in the future, you’re developing a nation of stronger, more confident females who can go into leadership positions in all walks of life.
“I am responsible for our national teams and the development programme in Welsh football. We are starting something.
“But do I feel for those people who are involved in the netball? Yes. Because even though we are employed to do our job, we do another six jobs, too.
“We don’t have the money to employ other people to do them. But they are hugely important to our main roles, so we have to do them.
“It’s a bit depressing, but you have to take everything in context. What would it cost to change that? Where is the money going to come from?
“We need to know if those pots of money are out there and are they just being used in the wrong way?
These days, Treorchy Comprehensive – through progressive head teacher Rhys Angell Jones – is an enthusiastic backer of Rhondda Netball and provides much-needed facilities for around 200 girls and women in the Upper Rhondda.
But there is more progress to be made in women’s football and Ludlow would like to see more co-operation across the board between schools and Welsh sports’ governing bodies.
“When I went back to Treorchy Comp about six months ago, there was not a lot happening with girls’ football even though there is enthusiasm there for putting things in place.
“A lot of it, I think, is due to lack of knowledge about how they get help and what the provision might be from us as an association. Maybe that needs to be looked at.”
Ludlow says the opportunities for girls to take up sport is improving, but the pace of change is still too slow for a woman in a hurry.
“Having been in the post in Wales for five years, we are in a very different environment now to back then. We now have conversations about the women’s and girls’ game – day in and day out.
“When I first came in, that definitely wasn’t happening. That’s due to everyone making sure the culture has changed regarding how they view gender.
“But, in all sports for women, there is still so much more to be done.”