A historic moment awaits Wales this international camp as they play their 200th international fixture against Slovenia on Friday evening.
A clear identity flows from the current Welsh squad. There is a huge sense of responsibility to honour those who have gone before as well as pave the way for those who are still to come. The current excitement around the national team shows that that mentality is filtering down.
The next challenge will be to qualify for their first major tournament. Gemma Grainger’s side come into this fortnight looking to maintain their 100% start in qualification for the 2023 FIFA World Cup. They travel to Lendava tonight before returning to Cardiff to host Estonia on Tuesday. The first is the tougher challenge – Slovenia took France all the way last month – but on paper, Wales should have the quality to be successful.
We talked to manager Gemma Grainger at the squad announcement to find out her thoughts about this camp, her pride at being in the job and the importance of recognising the trailblazers that led them to this point.
On being able to pick a full-strength squad
I’m really pleased. That’s been our priority to make sure that we’ve got players available because we know that we’ve got a great foundation if we have that. Hannah Cain is in the squad again and has recovered from the foot injury that kept her out of the September camp. So, we’re looking forward to welcoming Hannah into the team. Bethan Roberts and Maria Francis Jones are with our U19s team, which is still part of that longer-term plan. So, it’s really nice to be able to have the senior camp, and the 19s and 17s are also at the same time as us. From a whole pathway approach, it’s a really exciting couple of weeks coming up.
On the qualities Hannah Cain will bring to the side
I’ve known Hannah since she was 14 years old; so I’ve known her a long time. I think she’s got some incredible strengths as a player, both on and off the pitch. One of the things that we wanted to do was to increase the player depth of this squad, and bring players in who want to represent their country but also can really contribute to us being a nation that is successful in qualifying for tournaments; not just once, but repeatedly. Hannah’s got those qualities. She’s had experience at international level. From an in-possesion point of view, she’s very quick and very direct so we’re hoping that some of those qualities can really come out. We talk about how everyone plays a role in the team, and Hannah is going to come in and add to that.
Reflections on the wins against Kazakhstan and Estonia
We feel really happy about September. The Kazakhstan game was a real opportunity for the girls to express themselves and to show the style of play that we want to implement from an in-possession point of view. We know the foundations of this team – they work hard defensively and are really hard to beat. But that development of the in-possession style of play, it was a real good opportunity for the girls to show that against Kazakhstan. I actually thought against Estonia, from a performance point of view, we had over 700 passes in that game and we created 25 chances. Now, of course, we want to finish more of those chances…but we’re talking about a team who are on the ball for 80% of the time. So, the result didn’t really reflect the performance for me. But having watched the game back a number of times, we’re really looking forward to building on that in-possession play. It’s going to take time. A lot of the girls were quite frustrated after the Estonia game. That’s the feeling that we want from the players because it shows that we want to be better and that’s the mentality that we’re breeding you know within the team.
On Wales’ 200th international fixture
I’m incredibly proud, and the staff and players are…the theme for this camp is “For Them”. We want to connect to the trailblazers, the people who have put us in the position that we are today, and the respect that we have for them. It’s such a big part of who we are. I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time in the last couple of weeks with some of the previous players and listening to their stories and the power that they hold. They will be very much part of this camp and that 200th game in Slovenia; and then we will come back and celebrate with them on the Tuesday in the Estonia game at Cardiff.
On playing Slovenia
We played Canada, Denmark and Scotland in the friendlies because we want to play higher-ranked opposition, so that our mentality is to qualify and compete at a World Cup. So, Slovenia is the next step in that. I relish these opportunities. I can’t wait to play teams like this because they give us an opportunity to show where we are on our journey. It’s very much about us; yes, we’re playing in Slovenia, they’ve got some incredible strengths. There’s never an easy game in international football and I always say that. It doesn’t matter who you play; there’s never an easy game. But in terms of where we’re at and the Slovenia game, we’ll be measuring against our standards and that’s always our mentality. And that’s why we’ll continue to play higher-ranked nations when we can so that they set us up for these games.
On the importance of the domestic league
The most important thing is that players have a safe environment to play in and we’re constantly trying to raise the standards of all environments. Will all of our players play in the domestic league? No. But what we do need to do is provide opportunities for players to play at the most appropriate place for them. The domestic league is where a lot of our players will start to play the grassroots game. Growing that is such an important part of our campaign and our responsibility because that’s where our players will start. For us to have that league being developed, having the standards in the league being constantly raised, is only a real positive for us in terms of the platform that it gives our players to then go and play at the level that’s most appropriate to them.
Reflections on six months as manager
Six months has flown by. I’m really proud and really privileged to work in the association that I’m in and also with the players. For me, the players and the staff have had the biggest impact on me. The the passion and the pride that they have…I mean, the anthem – and a lot of people talked to me about the anthem before I started – and you can’t quite put it into words, but it was such a proud moment [against Kazakhstan]. And the fans in the stadium at Cardiff made such a huge impact on the team. We’ve created our philosophy around why we’re here. On the last camp, the camp theme was around “For Her” – so we want to create an environment to inspire the next generation. But this camp is “For Them” and the people who’ve come before us. So, we’ve got a real clear purpose as a team. We’re all on the same page in terms of what we want to do here. We know we want to qualify and compete for a World Cup. But at the same time, we have such a great responsibility in terms of respecting what’s come before us, but then also inspiring and creating change for the next generation. And for me to be able to be a role model in that as a coach and then to help the players to be role models and all members of staff, yeah it’s been a real privilege.