Wilkinson ready to deliver ahead of EURO qualifying

A new Cymru era kicks-off in Wrexham this week as new head coach Rhian Wilkinson takes charge of the side for the first time in the opening UEFA Women’s EURO 2025 qualifier against Croatia on Friday, 5 April (7.15pm) before they head to Kosovo on Tuesday, 9 April.

In a change to the usual qualifying format, Cymru have been drawn in League B4 alongside Croatia, Ukraine and Kosovo for the initial league phase which runs between April and July, with the top three teams in the group progressing to the play-offs later this year. “When you look at how the draw was set up, we are the highest-ranked, and whenever you’re highest-ranked there’s an expectation to win the group,” explained Wilkinson when announcing her squad last week. “It is our expectation, and if we deliver to the level I know we can, it’s going to be a very successful group.

“The first step for me is to get to know my players. I’ve watched a lot of their games, I’m getting to know them as people and then the tactics have to be a combination of what works best for the team and then who we’re playing. I don’t know my team well enough yet to say we’re working on these kind of tactical changes. Definitely, there will be some adjustments made, but that will be something that we grow into as we get to know each other and we go through this qualifying campaign together.”

Wilkinson made 183 appearances for Canada during her illustrious playing career before guiding Portland Thorns to the NWSL Championship as coach in 2022. Named as the successor to the departing Gemma Grainger in February when she was appointed as the head coach of Norway, Wilkinson will has maintained continuity by retaining the services of coach Jon Grey and confirming that Sophie Ingle will remain as captain. However, Wilkinson has included five youngsters in her 26-player selection who will be meeting up with the senior squad for the first time.

“I follow a lot of the young ones in their club careers and I reach out to them so that they know they’re being seen,” she added. “This senior group of players will not qualify for the Euro’s without this youth movement. We need our young players to show up, to feel like this Welsh senior team is their team as well. We need them to step on the field with a confidence to be able to deliver. So my message to them is ask the questions you need to ask, show up, be brave and I’ll have their back, as I will to any player that is on camp. Hopefully, they will feel comfortable as quickly as possible.”

At the other end of the scale, Jess Fishlock will become the first player in Cymru history to reach 150 caps if she features in both games. “I don’t think you can touch what she is in Wales because she is iconic,” said Wilkinson. “This is what I hope all of our young girls in Wales want to try to become. She’s definitely well respected and recognised as one of the best players to have played in the league [NWSL]. She’s a special player.” Fishlock made her Cymru debut as a teenager against Switzerland in 2006 and became the first-ever centurion in April 2017.

Record attendances for a women’s international were set in Cardiff during the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifying campaign, culminating in over 15,000 fans watching the play-off semi-final victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina in October 2022. However, Cymru failed to make it to the finals, and were subsequently relegated from the inaugural edition of the UEFA Women’s Nations League last year. This new era will now start in different surroundings at the STōK Cae Ras, and Wilkinson is keen to take her team around the country.

“We’ve got to get people to these games so that they see our women and our women feel their support outside of Cardiff,” she added. “So I’m really looking forward to hearing that kind of energy and noise in somewhere other than Cardiff as well. The FAW prides itself on being a family. I live in south Wales now so I’m in the office pretty regularly getting to know everyone. It’s been a smooth transition. Getting to know people is the first step, but living here and being part of the community and this Welsh football culture has been important to me.”

Like Cymru, Croatia and Kosovo have never qualified for the finals of a major women’s tournament, while Ukraine’s one and only appearance at WEURO was back in 2009 when they were eliminated at the group stage. Croatia did reach the Nations League play-offs, but were convincingly defeated by Grainger’s Norway over two legs, while Kosovo are relatively new to the women’s international scene and only played their first match in March 2017.

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