Gemma Grainger marks the two-year anniversary of her appointment as Cymru manager with two friendly international fixtures against Northern Ireland and Portugal with the focus very much on the return to competitive action in September and qualifying for EURO 2025.
“I think we’re right on track”Gemma Grainger
“We wanted to build on the foundations that existed and I think we’ve done that. We’ve got better defensively and from an attacking perspective, we don’t necessarily dominate possession, but we want to be a team that’s effective in possession and a high-pressing, counter-pressing team. From an in-possession perspective, this team are still developing, and I’m excited because every time we train I see something new from our players.”
Northern Ireland are the visitors to the Cardiff City Stadium on Thursday, 6 April (7.15pm) before the squad head to Guimaraes to take on Portugal on Tuesday, 11 April. Under manager Kenny Shiels, Northern Ireland reached their first major tournament last summer when they competed at the EURO finals. “I’m expecting them to be an improved team,” said Grainger. “They’ve had the experience of the European Championships and they will have developed just as we have. It’s going to be a great challenge for us and it will be a great test. We can see the passion they have and the ability they have to get the results that took them to the European Championships.”
Grainger has named a strong squad which includes centurions Jess Fishlock, Angharad James and captain Sophie Ingle, but there is also a first call-up for 20-year Ellen Jones who has impressed on-loan at Coventry United this season. A former England U17 player, Grainger is excited about what she can add to the squad. “I’ve known Ellen for a number of years having previously coached her,” she explained. “I know what type of player she is and it’s great to have her in the squad. We’ve had conversations and she came into the development camp last June which gave us the opportunity to see her, and late last year she told me that she was ready to move over and she was really committed to that.”
There are also confirmed additions to the backroom staff with Jon Grey taking up a full-time role as assistant manager while Lee Skyrme will join the coaching team. Grey has left his position with Swansea City where he was U21 Head Coach and Academy Manager to become the first full-time assistant manager of the Cymru women’s national team. “We want to qualify for these European Championships and we can’t leave no stone unturned,” Grainger added. “Increasing my team was a key part of that. We want to build an identity around this team and Jon certainly fits into that. We wanted to increase the quality of what we deliver to our players and increase the resource that we have.”
Cymru returned to action in February at the Pinatar Cup. A victory over the Philippines and draws against Iceland and Scotland meant that Grainger’s side finished the competition undefeated, but the tournament also marked the end of an era as all-time leading goalscorer Helen Ward announced her retirement from international football. Meanwhile striker Kayleigh Green, who scored from the penalty spot in the 1-0 win over the Philippines, will miss this double-header through injury.
“Pinatar was an opportunity to play against teams that we knew were going to challenge us and we wanted to build on the momentum of the last campaign,” said Grainger. “The performances that we put out, especially the Iceland game, showed a real shift in mentality and belief. My expectation is that when we play Northern Ireland and Portugal we will go on the pitch and believe that we can deliver at the level we have set for ourselves. I’m looking for consistent performances and performances that build on those from Pinatar.”
Cymru will compete in the inaugural UEFA Women’s Nations League when the competition begins in September with the draw taking place in May. “They’re belief is growing and for us as a team it’s about knowing where our strengths are and implementing them,” Grainger added. “We go out there now with a mentality and an expectation to compete. We want to continue that growth and turn our performances into results, and results that matter to us. These two matches are a test for us to see where we’re at. Our focus is very much on qualifying for EURO 2025, and when we hit the Nations League draw in May, we’ll know part of our route to doing that.”
Grainger’s side welcome Northern Ireland on Thursday 6 April, with a 7:15pm kick-off at the Cardiff City Stadium. Tickets are still available to purchase at faw.cymru/tickets.