It has been a significant year for Cymru and the journey under manager Gemma Grainger as the side tested themselves against the elite of the European game and ended 2023 with one of the greatest results in Cymru women’s football history.
The year began on a positive note as Grainger agreed a two-year contract extension to lead the side through to the 2025 UEFA Women’s EURO and 2027 FIFA Women’s World Cup. “I’m still passionate about our long-term plan and what we have to do here so it was a very easy decision,” said Grainger back in January. “We’re ambitious, I’m ambitious, and we want to make sure that this team can fulfil their potential and qualify for that first major tournament.”
The announcement was supported by confirmation that an equal pay deal had been agreed between the men’s and women’s national teams, and attentions soon switched to matters on the field as the squad headed to Spain to compete at the Pinatar Cup in February. “The Pinatar Cup is a competition that we are familiar with and we had a great experience at the competition last year,” explained Grainger. “I’m excited about the squad that we’ve selected as we have a lot of our players available for selection which is always a great thing for us.”
Kayleigh Green scored the only goal from the penalty spot as the Philippines were defeated 1-0 in the opening match of the competition before the team played out a 0-0 draw against Iceland. In the final match against Scotland, Cymru went behind through an early goal but responded with Ceri Holland on target just before half-time to end the tournament undefeated.
However, it would mark the end of an era as all-time leading Cymru goalscorer Helen Ward announced her retirement after scoring 44 goals in 105 appearances for her country, and later in the year she would be inducted into the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame. Centurion Natasha Harding would also confirm her retirement in September.
There were new additions to the coaching staff ahead of two international challenge matches against Northern Ireland and Portugal as Jon Grey and Lee Skyrme joined the team, and almost 7,000 fans came out at the Cardiff City Stadium to support the side in a convincing 4-1 win over Northern Ireland through goals from Jess Fishlock, Angharad James, Hannah Cain and Rachel Rowe.
Guimarães was the setting for the second match and Rowe was again on target as Cymru gained a creditable 1-1 draw against Portugal, but captain Sophie Ingle was shown a second yellow card late in the game which would rule her out of the high-profile friendly against the United States in California.
May marked the 50th anniversary of the very first and unofficial Cymru international as the Republic of Ireland claimed a 3-2 win at Stebonheath Park, Llanelli. It was a timely reminder of just how far the women’s team has progressed, as in June, Cymru would play their first-ever match outside of Europe and against then-world champions the United States.
A formidable challenge for any nation, Cymru would be without the suspended Ingle and injured duo Fishlock and Rowe, and captained by James the side pushed their illustrious opponents all the way until substitute Trinity Rodman scored twice in the final 15 minutes.
It was notable that Olivia Clark would start the match in goal ahead of Laura O’Sullivan as Clark would retain her place throughout the upcoming UEFA Women’s Nations League campaign, with Cymru drawn in League A3 alongside Germany, Denmark and Iceland for the inaugural edition of UEFA’s newest competition. Meanwhile, Grainger would head to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand for a closer look at their upcoming opponents as part of the FIFA Technical Study Group.
“I was fortunate to watch games involving Germany and Denmark which was really important for me,” said Grainger. “Across the tournament I got to really look at the highest-level of the game and understand the latest tactical developments and trends. For me as a coach it was an invaluable experience. We’ve also seen some excellent young players coming through as a result of the investment that’s taking place.”
Ahead of the new campaign, the FAW teamed up with Cardiff-based design agency Andco Studio to implement a new creative branding specifically for the women’s team based upon the ‘For us. For them. For her’ slogan. “Welsh women’s football is on a journey of transformational change,” explained FAW Marketing Manager Julie Parienti. “This bold brand positions the Cymru national team as proudly Welsh and bursting with personality, traits that will certainly be on show during our upcoming Nations League matches and across our journey as the road to EURO 2025 begins.”
The UEFA Women’s Nations League campaign began for Cymru in Reykjavik but a solitary goal from Glodis Viggosdottir early in the match would seal a 1-0 win for Iceland. “We’re frustrated,” said captain Ingle after the match. “We had a lot of the ball, they had one corner and scored from it. I thought we dominated the game. We’ve got belief and I think we can take the positives from the game and put that into Denmark.”
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 early in the 2nd half. The scoreline would be repeated the following month as an equalising strike from Holland proved to be nothing but a consolation as Germany scored three late goals in Sinsheim. Fishlock was again on target a few days later in Viborg against Denmark, but the Danes completed the double over Cymru in a 2-1 win.
“We’re two and a half years into something here,” said Grainger ahead of the final two home games of the campaign against Iceland and Germany. “We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves, but what we have to do is keep taking steps forward. The Iceland game gives us a chance to do that. One of the things we talked about when we played Denmark the second time around was that we have to get better every time we play teams. And if we are better, I think we put ourselves in a great position to win the game.”
Relegation from League A was confirmed as Iceland claimed a 2-1 win on a freezing night in Cardiff, with Elise Hughes scoring her first senior international goal in injury-time. Cymru then returned to Swansea for their final match of 2023 to close off the campaign against Germany. Grainger made three changes to her starting line-up as Hughes, Charlie Estcourt and Josie Green all came into the side, and they responded with a superb performance to end the year on a high by holding their opponents to a 0-0 draw, and on another day could have won the match with the chances created.
“It’s a great result for us but more importantly a really good performance,” said Fishlock to BBC Sport Wales after the match. “We’ve talked all through the Nations League that it’s a process, it’s a journey, and that we’re learning how to be better at this level. It may have taken us a little bit longer than we thought, but we’re at the end now. Germany came here needing to win, but we shut them down, and that’s our progress. I couldn’t be any prouder of the girls in this group and now we’re going to push on for the European qualifiers.”
The draw for the 2025 UEFA Women’s EURO qualifiers will take place early next year and the positive result against Germany will set a standard for that next campaign, with Grainger having already targeted a place for Cymru at the finals which will take place in Switzerland. This long-term vision has already seen a number of new faces progress through the pathway system into the senior squad, and the blend of youth and experience at Grainger’s disposal will provide the foundation for 2024 when qualification for a first major tournament could be delivered.