Republic of Ireland v Cymru – A fixture that shaped a brighter women’s future

A fixture between Cymru and the Republic of Ireland in 1974

Cymru head to Dublin on Tuesday, 27 February for a friendly international match against the Republic of Ireland. The match will be significant for Jon Grey as he takes charge of the side for the first time since Gemma Grainger’s departure, but it will also bring back plenty of memories for the respective teams of 1973 in a fixture now embedded in women’s football folklore.

It was back in May 1973 that Cymru and Ireland went head-to-head at Stebonheath, Llanelli in what was the first-ever women’s international for both countries. Despite not even training together before the match and having to pay all of their own travel expenses, Ireland won the match 3-2 through a hat-trick from 19-year old Paulo Gorham, with Gaynor Blackwell and Gloria O’Connell scoring the consolation goals for the Cymru side.

An impressive crowd of 3,500 was reported to be in attendance, and those who played now find themselves cult heroes of the history of the women’s game in the respective eyes of both nations. This was the match that marked the very start of women’s international football for both the Republic of Ireland and Cymru.

The match took place not long after the ban on women’s football had been lifted in the early 1970’s, and over the course of that particular decade various different coaches took charge of a makeshift Cymru side unconnected to the Football Association of Wales for a series of friendly matches.

For this opening match a men’s kit was borrowed from Swansea City, while torrential rain made for a difficult playing surface and added to the weight of the heavy shirts for a Cymru team mainly comprising of teenage girls. For the following fixtures that were played as and when opposition could be found, the side would play in a more traditional looking Cymru kit, but with the three feathers of the Welsh Rugby Union rather than the dragon of the FAW adorning the chest.

The introduction of the Irish national team was a consequence of the formation and early success of the Women’s League of Ireland which kicked-off just a couple of months earlier. Hat-trick hero Gorham was a player with Dundalk at the time, while Nora McHugh from Galway was named as the captain for the inaugural international fixture, with referee Len Howells from Port Talbot taking charge of this historic match.

The Cymru side would spend the next 20-years playing as an independent team until they came under the umbrella of the FAW in 1993, thanks mainly to the determination of players Michele Adams, Karen Jones and Laura McAllister, and crucially the support of Alun Evans, the FAW General Secretary at the time.

The Republic of Ireland followed a similar path as the match in 1973 coincided with the formation of the Women’s Football Association of Ireland, and they would not become affiliated to the Football Association of Ireland until 1991.

However, their status did enable them to play competitive internationals ahead of Cymru and they entered UEFA qualifying for the 1984 Women’s EURO, finishing third in their group alongside England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The side would make history last year when they qualified for their first major tournament to compete at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in New Zealand and Australia.

The first Cymru international under the control of the FAW would take place in September 1993 when Iceland claimed a 1-0 victory at Afan Lido. Len Howells had officiated the very first international match against Ireland in 1973, and it was fitting that his son Alan would take charge of this first official international match two decades later.

Iceland enjoyed the better of the opening exchanges in front of a large crowd, with goalkeeper Susan Young twice denying Asta Gunnlaugsdottir before Adams cleared off the line from Margret Olafsdottir. Coached by Logi Olafsson, Iceland scored the only goal of the game after 67 minutes when Jonina Viglundsdottir beat Young, but Cymru could have taken something from the game with Vanessa O’Brien and substitute Ann-Marie Daniels both coming close before the final whistle.

Despite the defeat, a new era for the women’s game had began. The first competitive match took place a couple of weeks later in Cwmbran as the side lost 3-2 against Switzerland in their opening 1995 UEFA Women’s EURO qualifier. The side would lose all six games in that campaign as home and away defeats to Germany and Croatia, as well as in the return match against Switzerland, followed to emphasise the size of the challenge ahead for this new team.

Even then, the conditions that the team played under were unrecognisable from today’s Cymru side, but without the trailblazing players of 1973 and 1993 there would be no foundations for the current Cymru and Ireland squads to flourish and compete at the highest level of the professional women’s game.

Both the FAI and the FAW have recently celebrated the achievements of these trailblazers. Last December, Cymru players from 1973 to 1993 were invited to the Cardiff City Stadium as guests for the UEFA Women’s Nations League match against Iceland, and completed a lap of honour at half-time for the fans to show their appreciation.

Meanwhile, the FAI held an event in May last year to honour the squad who played in that inaugural fixture in 1973 on the anniversary of the match, together with some of the key personnel who played an important role in the creation of the women’s game in Ireland. The former players were then also invited to watch the final match before the side headed off to the World Cup finals last summer.

Shamrock Rovers’ Tallaght Stadium will host a very different match between Ireland and Cymru to the one that was played at Llanelli back in 1973, but for the players who were part of those original two teams, it is a fixture that will bring back happy memories, despite the obvious struggles, of a very different era in the history of women’s game.

Back then, few could have predicted the rise of the women’s game across the world and the investment that has been made, but their contribution is one they should be extremely proud of.

Cymru 2-3 Republic of Ireland – Stebonheath, Llanelli. 13 May 1973.

Cymru squad: Sherryl Evans, Sandra Hunt, Valerie Bevan, Michele Adams, Jackie Purchase, Tina Cosatori, Kay Merrill, Gaynor Blackwell, Gloria O’Connell, Gillian Byron, Sandra Bretag, Pat Griffiths, Sue Johnson, Shelley Winters, Marlene Mayer-Hughes, Mai Griffith, Julie Yale.

Republic of Ireland squad: Anne Griffith, Nora McHugh, Geraldine Molloy, Sally Bownes, Mary O’Callaghan, Mary Gavin, Carol Carr, Linda Gorman, Margaret O’Connell, Catherine Rafferty, Paula Gorham, Teresa Holland, Eleanor Carroll, Geraldine Grace.

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