“It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s been a really positive whirlwind.”
This was how Gemma Grainger described the three weeks since she was revealed as the new Welsh Women’s National Team Manager. It is hardly an understatement as the new coach attempts to hit the ground running, getting used to new surroundings, building relationships with a new set of players and even learning a new national anthem.
It is a set of challenges that doesn’t seem to faze Grainger. Taking over from Jayne Ludlow’s six-year stint at the helm, she is fully aware of the foundations that have been built, the progress made, and the players that she has at her disposal. In fact, it is those players who provide her with the most excitement as she prepares for her first two games in charge: “This group of players and their passion and their desire to represent their country is one of the most exciting things about them as a group because it’s such an amazing foundation to work from as a coaching team and as a staff team.”
Wales have come so close in recent qualifying campaigns for the 2019 World Cup and 2022 European Championships. Ultimately, however, they have fallen short despite evidential progress. With new campaigns coming thick and fast due to the calendar shift as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, World Cup qualifying now starts in September. It leaves very little planning time before a new cycle begins, with opportunities to view younger players and try out different tactics tight.
It places huge importance on this month’s camp as a starting point for setting standards and working out a way to play that will take them to the next level. As Grainger says, their defensive record is outstanding: “The commitment of the players, that’s one of the things that probably excites me the most in terms of when you watch the team out of possession, their determination, their work rate is another level.” But their in-possession play and goalscoring needs work if they are to have a chance of reaching the World Cup in 2023.
With her 11 years’ experience amongst the age groups at the English Football Association, Grainger is well equipped. With the 26 players she’s picked for this camp, she has a range of experienced and younger players, some of whom are on the fringes of their clubs and have not played international youth football for over a year. In order for Wales’ progress to continue, the bedding in of these younger players, such as Bethan Roberts and Ceri Holland, into the squad is vital: “It’s a huge passion of mine in terms of giving them [the younger players] the right opportunities at the right time. So, for all of the talented young players, planning out the opportunities that we can give them is going to be key.”
First up are the challenges of Canada and Denmark. Wales historically have not faced this calibre of opposition in friendly camps, occasions that are crucial to their development going forward. Both sides are hard to break down at the back, while posing a significant attacking threat. It will be a definite test of their mettle and where they are currently at.
The anticipation in the Welsh squad is high. A big six months of preparation await the next challenge as Grainger attempts to make a fun, inspiring, high performance environment in which they can succeed: “If players don’t enjoy being on camp, it’s a problem…Players should leave camp and be thinking, “Wow, I can’t wait to go back”. They should leave inspired. And that’s what I want to create for us in the April camp. I want to create that feeling of let’s be inspired, let’s be excited, because we’ve got such an incredible couple of months coming ahead.”
The development of the Welsh game has come so far but reaching the next level again is always a challenge. Huge opportunities await this current crop of players as they look to go one step further than they have ever gone before. That hard process starts tonight in Cardiff as a new era begins.