Gemma Grainger spent almost three years as Cymru manager following her appointment in March 2021, and her tenure will be defined by progress on and off the field as attendance records were broken and qualification for the finals of a major tournament moved significantly closer.
The journey began back then with two opening friendlies as a defeat to Canada was followed by an encouraging 1-1 draw against Denmark. However, more notable than the results were the tactical changes implemented by Grainger that saw captain Sophie Ingle moved from defence and into her preferred midfield position, highlighting a switch to a more positive approach that would become the blueprint for the upcoming qualifiers.
Kazakhstan were comprehensively defeated 6-0 as the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifying campaign kicked-off in September 2021. A victory over Estonia and a point in Slovenia followed before a then-record crowd of 5,455 turned out for the visit of Estonia at the Cardiff City Stadium, and the side treated the fantastic support to an excellent display in a 4-0 win. The target for Grainger at that point was to finish her first year in the job on a high as they went into the November double-header.
A 5-0 win over Greece in Llanelli was quickly followed by the visit to group favourites France. The toughest test of Grainger’s tenure to date, Cymru frustrated their high-profile opponents for long periods, and even though France went ahead just before half-time Jess Fishlock rattled the crossbar in the final exchanges before France added a second on the counter-attack. The disappointment of the defeat emphasised just how much Cymru had grown during the previous year.
A strong start to the qualifying campaign did not stop Grainger from planning for the future, and a number of players were regularly promoted through the intermediate teams to gain senior experience. The addition of this youthful energy brought a different dynamic to the squad and presented new options and competition for places. France would win the return match 2-1 in April 2022, but the side responded with a comfortable 3-0 win over Kazakhstan and a 1-0 win over Greece to put Cymru within one point of a play-off place.
A huge crowd of 12,471 backed the side in September for the 0-0 draw against Slovenia at the Cardiff City Stadium that confirmed their place in the play-offs for the very first time, and more drama was to follow as another record attendance of 15,200 returned to the capital a month later to see Fishlock score the only goal in a 1-0 extra-time win over Bosnia and Herzegovina. Sadly, the World Cup dream would end as Switzerland won the next match 2-1 with the winning goal scored in the final minute of extra-time.
Despite the setback of missing out on a place at the World Cup through play-off heartbreak, the incredible support and manner of the performances to come so close was enough for Grainger to extend her contract at the start of 2023. Cymru would compete in the inaugural UEFA Women’s Nations League before turning their attention to the 2025 UEFA Women’s EURO, and 2023 would see Grainger’s side challenge themselves against the elite of the women’s game.
There was a new addition to the coaching staff as Jon Grey joined the team as Grainger made changes off the field, while all-time leading goalscorer Helen Ward announced her retirement. There were other changes as Olivia Clark established herself ahead of Laura O’Sullivan in goal, while the progress of the side attracted the attention of the world champions as the United States invited Cymru to California last June for a friendly as they prepared to defend their title.
A formidable challenge for any national team, Grainger would be without the suspended Ingle and injured pairing of Fishlock and Rachel Rowe. Captained by Angharad James, Cymru pushed their high-profile opponents all the way until substitute Trinity Rodman scored twice in the final 15 minutes to win the match. Grainger would then head to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand for a closer look at their upcoming Nations League opponents as part of the FIFA Technical Study Group.
The Nations League campaign began for Cymru in Reykjavik but a solitary goal from Glodis Viggosdottir early in the match would prove to be the difference in a 1-0 win for Iceland. However, the challenge of Denmark would prove to be too difficult a test in Cardiff as the visitors claimed a 5-1 win a few days later, despite Fishlock scoring a superb goal. The scoreline would be repeated the following month in Germany before Fishlock could only score another consolation in a 2-1 defeat to Denmark.
Relegation from League A was confirmed as Iceland claimed a 2-1 win in Cardiff at the end of the year, but 2023 would end on a high for Cymru as Germany were held to a 0-0 draw in Swansea. It was one of the best results in the history of the Cymru women’s team, but it was the performance and the number of chances that Grainger’s side created on the night against such a strong side that was the real measure of success.
That result and performance was the culmination of a long-term plan that began with Grainger’s initial decision to change the tactical direction of the team following her arrival. Competition within the squad has reached an unprecedented level and there is genuine belief that the dream of qualifying for a first major tournament can now become a reality. The aim was always to qualify for the next EURO finals, and that should not change now for a group of players who have targeted that ambition throughout the last three years.