|Venue: Leckwith Stadium, Cardiff Date: Fri, 9 April Kick-off: 18:00 BST|
|Coverage: Available to watch on BBC Sport website, iPlayer and Cymru Fyw, with full commentary on Radio Wales.|
New Wales manager Gemma Grainger takes charge of her side for the first time this week with Canada, ranked 10th in the world, representing a tough test for an aspiring nation.
Wales’ women have never qualified for a major tournament, which is the simple remit Grainger has been given as she looks to take Wales to new heights.
Her appointment has been greeted warmly and Wales’ talent pool is as strong as it has ever been after a period of sustained improvement, but qualifying for a major final remains a high hurdle.
Grainger, 38, joins the Football Association of Wales (FAW) and the Wales women’s set-up at a time where there has been continuous growth and increased success on the field at all age levels, but much of that success is credited to her predecessor.
Put simply, Grainger is replacing a Welsh footballing legend in Jayne Ludlow, one of Wales’ greatest women’s players and their longest tenured manager.
The reaction to news of Ludlow’s departure ‘by mutual consent’ in January was generally one of shock, with the decision understood to have been primarily led by FAW chief executive Jonathan Ford, who is no longer in his position.
Wales’ most capped player Jess Fishlock said the squad were “sad, surprised and emotional” about Ludlow leaving, with the former Arsenal captain the only person to preside over more than 50 Wales women’s international matches.
Wales twice came close to reaching a play-off for a first major finals under Ludlow, finishing second to England in World Cup qualifying in 2018, a campaign which saw Wales go 687 minutes without conceding a goal.
Wales were also edged out by Northern Ireland in European Championship qualifying in 2020, losing out on a head-to-head record after two draws with Kenny Shiels’ team.
Grainger says she is aware of the big shoes she is filling.
“Jayne laid some fantastic foundations and now it is up to us to move things on even further,” she said.
“I am a passionate football supporter and an ambassador for women’s football, I want to make the nation proud of the team.
“The players having been welcoming, which is really nice. They are passionate and they are really excited about what the next chapter looks like.”
‘A really good coach’
Grainger, who has worked across the England development teams for 11 years, was picked as the best out of more than 60 applicants for the role.
A Uefa pro licence holder since 2016, Grainger has tournament experience having worked at the 2014 Women’s Under-20s World Cup, the 2016 Women’s Under-17 World Cup as well as two Under-19 Euro finals and an Under-17 Euro finals.
One of the people she worked closely with at the Football Association was former England under-17s manager and World Cup winner Steve Cooper. Now the boss of Swansea City, Cooper has no doubt Grainger will prove to be a shrewd appointment.
“I have a lot of positive things to say about Gemma, I think everyone will benefit from her appointment,” he told BBC Sport Wales.
“She is a really good coach, a really good leader and she has a really good idea of the game and how it should be played.
“I think it will be a really good match, congratulations to her. I wish her well and I am sure she will stick to her principles and what she believes in.
“Hopefully the women’s team will enjoy some good success going forward.”
Wales’ players already appear extremely receptive to the methods of their new manager, with Wales’ most capped player Jessica Fishlock describing her training methods as “phenomenal”.
A nation playing catch-up
The FAW’s promotion of the women’s game is excellent, with their PR team doing all they can to push it, but Wales are playing catch-up in regards to how the women’s game is treated overall.
“It has been a slow process to get us where we need to be, but we are getting there,” Fishlock admitted this week.
Grainger, Wales’ third full-time manager, will be the first Wales boss to have sole charge of the senior side, rather than also overseeing the age-grade teams, but that’s just one change in what has been a slow process.
BBC Sport Wales has been asking the FAW about the issue of appearance money for six months, since the news that England men’s and women’s senior players are paid the same emerged last September. No answer has been forthcoming.
Wales’ women’s games are constantly shifted from venue to venue, despite many players going on record as saying they would like a permanent home – some also say they like the variety – while there have been issues previously with the team having to share training facilities with youth players in the lead-up to qualification games.
Former boss Ludlow says the FAW are playing catch-up, but that changes are happening.
“We had one group of staff, for many, many years, looking after all the age groups,” she told BBC Sport Wales
“We were very much a satellite group of staff brought in six, seven years ago to look after the women’s environment and people can think what they like about that.
“The fact we weren’t within the FAW or the FAW Trust in any shape or form to develop and learn and be part of that environment says a lot about the thought process towards the women’s game.
“It was challenging for my staff and I. There was overlap, times when we’d be on a senior camp preparing for an under-19s camp that started two days afterwards and that was our reality.
“But one of the reasons that obviously change has happened recently is because that thought process has changed… and there are some drastic changes happening in our women’s environment, youth and senior right now.”
More generally, and entirely out of FAW control, many of Wales’ players have been unable to train or play this season and last, due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Within FAW control is the more general issue of the impression that it has been a chaotic time behind the scenes at the organisation with chief executive Ford leaving after being subjected to a vote of no confidence.
None of that, however, will bother Grainger after 14 years at the FA.
“After all that time at the Football Association, I am used to people leaving jobs and things going on behind the scenes, none of that will be new to me,” she told BBC Sport Wales.
“The ambitions of the FAW are something I am so passionate about.”
Senior players supportive
Wales will learn their fate for World Cup qualifying later this month, with hopes of a major final appearance carried by a group of players who are regulars in the top divisions of the women’s game, but some of whom are also potentially looking at a last hurrah in terms of trying to get to a major finals.
Wales’ record scorer Helen Ward and most capped player Fishlock are both 34, key forwards Kayleigh Green and Natasha Harding are 33 and 32 respectively, while defender Rhiannon Roberts is 30 and captain Sophie Ingle turns 30 in September. Loren Dykes, one of Wales’ centurions and a defensive mainstay under Ludlow, has retired.
Grainger has already promised to look to widen the player pool, with English-born Ceri Holland the latest addition to the squad, qualifying through her mother’s side of the family and receiving rave reviews at Liverpool.
While Ingle and Roberts should have several more campaigns in them, the likes of Ward and Fishlock have both spoken openly in the past about retirement.
Vice-captain Harding admits it is now or never in terms of major final qualification for several players.
“I would love to say I’ll play for six, seven, eight more years, but I am realistic,” she said.
“If Gemma can squeeze every ounce out of us… I think we will do well and it is now or never. I want to get to a major tournament and will do whatever I can to get there.”
Wales’ window to earn qualification with their current crop might be diminishing, but the players are enthralled by their new boss and that makes Fishlock think about playing on for longer.
“I have no doubt Gemma will get the absolute best out of every person in this group and that is super exciting,” Fishlock told BBC Sport Wales.
“How she has been and carried herself with our group is nothing short of phenomenal, she has already been a breath of fresh air and refreshing. She’s so personable and easy to talk to.
“Gemma knows what she wants. She seems like she knows how to get there and she needs us to believe that we can get there too.
“Where I am at now, I feel like I could go on for a long time. I would throw my entire career in the bin to go to a major tournament with my country. It is why I am still here.”
Wales midfielder Angharad James, who is set for a May switch away from Reading to the US after signing with North Carolina Courage, agrees that the players have built an instant rapport with their new manager.
“She’s so positive, she has inspired us in the first few days and after the first meeting, I think everyone walked out feeling inspired and itching to get out onto the pitch and as a manager that’s the influence you want to have on your players,” she said.
“The intensity of training is very high. We are seeing her style of play and philosophy coming through and it’s a very exciting time to be playing in a Wales shirt.”