The Cymru WU17 return to competitive action this month as Nia Davies’ side take their first steps on the road to Sweden for the 2024 finals that will take place next May. Cymru are in Group B4 for Round 1 of the qualifying campaign and will face host nation Albania, Faroe Islands and Kazakhstan between 24-30 November.
The target for Davies and her squad will be to repeat their achievements of last year by gaining promotion to Group A and moving a step closer to the finals in Round 2. Although the side were relegated back to Group B last March, their experience of the tournament offers optimism for the future, and that is supported by the work that is happening back home to ensure that our intermediate teams are given the best possible chance of making an impression on the continent.
“I’ve got a good relationship with WU19 manager Nic Anderson,” explained Davies to FAW.cymru. “We speak on a weekly basis, not just on players, but on regular things within the FAW and it’s really easy to move players up and down as a result. With the senior squad, even though there’s a bit of a gap between them and the U17’s, Gemma (Grainger) involves us in selection meetings and wants to know what players to look out for because they could end up being in a senior club environment at this age if they’re good enough.
“We’re in dialogue at least once a month from the seniors down. The pathway has definitely opened-up over the last few years to be a lot more transparent, and there is a lot more collaboration between coaches. If there’s a problem, Gemma is always on hand to help out, so it’s really good in that sense, and it can be very informal sometimes.” One major step forward has been the introduction of the FAW Girls Academy in the North and South of the country which provides a lot more contact time with players in a professional environment.
“This is only the third season of the Academy so it’s still in it’s infancy really,” Davies added. “This year we’re going into a day release programme with girls aged between U14 and U17, so one day a week they come out of their school education and we provide it from within the Academy for that day, so across the four age groups they get four contact days a week and they get a game on top of that as well. So it works like a professional club in a sense. Hopefully, it gives that opportunity to players in Wales who might not be able to access a professional club, so that’s a really good thing.
“The other good thing is that we play against boys every week. At the start people were wary of it and we’re the only nation from an Academy perspective to do it, but it makes us much more physical. There’s still work to be done, but it’s hard to move the programme on quickly in such a short space of time. We’re thinking now about exit strategies and how we get these girls into professional clubs when they finish their education. We don’t just think of them as players, we think of how we can help develop the person and what’s best for them at the right time. We’re excited about the Academy system and we’ll see in the next few years how it develops players on the international stage.”
While reaching the finals remains the target at the start of each qualifying campaign, the emphasis is very much on development and progression while ensuring the players have the best possible individual care. “They all want to do different things,” Davies added. “We have girls signing for professional clubs who have never left home before, so it’s a big thing. So we have to work closely with clubs, many of which aren’t aware of what we are doing in our Academy system and the talent we have in Wales.
“It can be difficult as even in the Academy we have girls travelling long distances across Wales three times a week, so we have to try and manage that and look after the person and their families too, as they have to commit so much to bring their daughters to games and training, so it’s really important that we look at the whole picture and not just think of them as players. It’s a tough ask for some of them but they really want it, it’s their passion and their commitment is unreal to be fair.”