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'We have enjoyed the ride, it's been lots of ups and downs but it's a journey' Wales' women footballers are on the verge of making history... they're just one win away from qualifying for next year's World Cup in France. As the team prepares to take on England on Friday, Katie Sands chats with coach Jayne Ludlow and key players about the amazing journey so far...

OW would it feel to take Wales to its first football World Cup for 60 years? HIf the room Jayne Ludlow was being interviewed in was full, she would still be the first to point out the focus is on one game at a time and the dream isn't a reality - not yet, at least.

Welsh football is on the brink of something truly remarkable and is just one win away from a first World Cup since 1958.

Tantalisingly close to automatic progression to the World Cup in France next year, Wales women's final hurdle comes when they host England on Friday in what is the last fixture of Wales' qualifying campaign.

Three points from making it into the history books for ending 60 years of World Cup hurt, it's hard to believe the final obstacle is just days away.

"It's an awkward one to talk about because it's not reality", Wales women's boss Ludlow says when asked how it would feel to achieve that dream of securing a place at the showpiece tournament.

"We've enjoyed the ride, it's been lots of ups and downs but it's a journey, as we say, that we're on right now.

"Our process was always about playing the next game that's in front of you. It happens to be the last game in our qualification group stage.

"There's obviously a lot of profile on it because we have an opportunity to achieve something we've never done in the past.

"We've done far better than we ever have done in the past, so within the group everybody takes confidence from that.

"But also because of the type of group we have, we're all very driven to achieve more.

"So we look at this as a fantastic opportunity to hopefully do that."

The journeys that Ludlow's players have gone on to reach this point are varied.

The manager herself had a far from smooth journey into football, one that saw her regularly make the 20-mile journey from the Rhondda to play after she was eventually prevented from joining in with boys - with a temporary switch to athletics thrown in the mix too.

"It was an interesting route I took to get to where I ended up.

"It was the only thing I wanted to do when I was a kid, play sport.

"My dad was a football coach and I'd always be kicking a ball around half time in his games, and playing with the boys.

"I think one of the biggest influences on me was my head teacher in primary school, because even back in the '80s it didn't matter to him that I was a female - I was a good footballer, so I was allowed to participate in the boys' events.

"When I was in primary school I was playing for Treherbert Boys Club. The rules had to be changed to allow me to do that.

"The woman who looked after the boys club pushed and pushed and she had her way, thankfully.

"For a couple of years, I competed for the boys. I was only allowed to play until 12, so it was below that age.

"I had a problem when I went to comprehensive school, because that stopped. You know, girls didn't play football, in that sense, so I went to athletics, ended up coming back to football in the longer term, but it was probably about four or five years that I went a completely different route with sport.

"It was all I wanted to do. I just liked competing. Probably different to most of my friends at the time, different interests socially, I was probably a bit of an odd one out, to be fair."

On the time she spent more focused on athletics, Ludlow, 39, said: "You'd hear something about a female footballer in some capacity every now and again and there'd be a bit of me going 'I'd like to still be able to do that'.

"I think it was just a case of my mum searching, getting in touch with the Football Association of Wales (FAW), and just going 'look, what female teams are around?' "I think I was 15, and went down to Tongwynlais [which later became Barry Town], it was a senior team at the time. You look back now and you go 'how did all that work?' "The only other team that had much of a profile then was CardiffCity, so I would have ended up in one or the other."

Soon Ludlow made the journey to Arsenal and became a club icon, lifting 26 trophies across a 13-year spell.

"Back when I had my first Wales cap, we weren't achieving anything as a national team but I just loved it.

"It was hard work, because we were getting beaten quite heavily back then, but at the end of the day you're representing your country and it's the highest level you can play at."

But despite her passion for the game from a young age, Ludlow admits she found herself on plenty of occasions believing it wasn't possible to make it full-time.

"I'd go and watch national men's games, I remember I was down in the Arms Park, I might have been early comprehensive school.

"You sit there and you're in the Arms Park and you go, 'do you know, it would be a dream to step out on this pitch and play with the Welsh shirt on'.

"You look through the programme, there's nothing about female football in there at all, there's nothing in your environment, anything that's on the TV that tells you 'you could actually be a full-time pro and actually represent your country from a football perspective'.

"Nobody talking about it, nobody actually knowing there were any teams back then.

"I didn't actually, as a younger player, go 'that's what I want' because it was actually never going to be reality - probably.

"It's very different now, with the younger ones, because they have role models, they have people to look up to. It's there, it's in front of them.

"[To] all my male friends growing up, I was just a friend who played football. But that was within my little environment. As soon as I went external to that, 'woah, what is she playing?' "If that happens to my youngsters now, then I'll be really disappointed. I think things have changed drastically."

Since taking charge of Wales Women in 2014 - after succeeding Finnish coach Jarmo Matikainen - Ludlow has seen women's football in Wales reach a point where it has not been more prominent. But it goes without saying, there is still a long way to go.

She is at the helm of an environment which is developing, nurturing and providing room for Wales Women's players to grow, improve - and one which is establishing a pathway from grassroots to elite.

A squad with no egos, the players relish being on international duty and are committed to raising the profile of the game, inspiring youngsters and engaging the wider public.

Of course, any sporting clash between Wales and England is enough to whet the appetites of any sporting fan, so the greater publicity around the match is welcomed.

You ask players or management how they're feeling, and many will say they feel relaxed.

It is the second time the two neighbouring nations will meet this campaign, with Wales having held the Lionesses to a 0-0 draw in their own backyard back in April.

Prior to that game, Ludlow said it would almost be amateur versus pro, with around 40% of the squad being full-time professional footballers.

Others have day jobs and fit in representing their country around that.

This time round, with a sell-out crowd at Newport's Rodney Parade and the confidence from an unbeaten run and not one goal yet conceded, ambitions are high.

And, while England have the luxury of a game in hand, an away trip for the Lionesses to Kazakhstan after the Wales game would be immaterial if they emerge from the trip to Newport with a loss as they would then be unable to catch up with Wales.

I ask if there was a point during the campaign when the dream suddenly became more achievable.

"So for us as a smaller nation we were still doing very well in the sense from what you'd expect from the budget we have with regards to the female side, and the amount of players we have, etc...

"We were probably performing beyond what people were expecting anyway.

"They're very driven to achieve something for themselves and for others, very much a working team ethic.

"So knowing that going into the first game, we were always optimistic of getting results, but obviously you never know until you're actually competing and stepping on that pitch and fighting for points. It's an interesting one to look back on.

"We're comfortable with what we're doing, we know our jobs, all of us, "For me, if I look back at the start of this project three and a half years ago, it was so different.

"I had no idea what I was actually taking on, I was very naive in that sense. Three and a half years later, I love doing what I do.

"It's been really challenging over quite a few years to change things to get things to a level that you know players need. Right now, we're enjoying the journey.

"I'll be like any parent or family member watching, obviously hoping that our players step on the pitch and do the business."

CONTINUED ON PAGES 6&7 CONTINUED FROM PAGES 4&5 One eye on the short-term challenge and the other on the broader picture, it is hoped the interest in the squad, and women's football in general, doesn't stop growing.

"Hopefully if it does happen now or in the future, I hope that it's never a one-offand it's a case of there's a feeling within Wales, within the female community in Wales, that they want to be top level footballers, and be pros in the future, and if they do that our national team will keep growing."

Less than a week from now, they will know their result - but there's plenty to do before then.

"We get a lot of our work done early in the camp, the last few days are very relaxed, and it's a case of making sure people are resting and enjoying themselves and looking forward to the challenge that's ahead. To each individual, that looks completely different.

"We trust them all to do what they need to do, some of them will catch up with family, some of them will want to hide away from everyone, some of them will want to be a bit livelier and be a bit more social.

"For us as a group of staff, it's an interesting one because the anticipation of that night before and the game, we've done all our work by then practically, with regards to getting players to understand what they need to know.

"For us, it is very similar to players. It's about relaxing, making sure we have a clear head come kick-offtime so we can make decisions on the spot if we need to.

"The day before is probably our lightest training session, it's more a case of enjoying, having some fun. But we do have some down time, just get yourself as an individual into the right frame of mind, and as a group of staffwe're different.

"For me, I'd happily take my daughter for a swim, switch offa little bit, spend a few hours doing things like that with the family.

"There's other members of staffwho will sit there studying.

"This, whatever 'this' is right now - this group, this entity - it's based around trust, and it's based around people being who they are: individuals, and us respecting that. So a lot of what we do is based around that. The prep into games is that, basically.

"I enjoy it. Probably when people see me just before the game or during the game, I probably look very intense, I'd say, and it's just because I'm focused.

"At the end of the day, we've lived this game in our heads as coaches hundreds of times before this game comes around.

"So, from minute one to minute 90, there's processes going on on the pitch that we're checking. So, for me when I'm standing on the side of the pitch there's something I'm checking all the time. Whether it's right or wrong.

"If it's wrong, we have to solve it. If it's right, great. But then there's something else.

"There are so many different elements to the national team performing well.

"For the last few months now, and up until the end of that 90 minutes, I've got to notice everything.

"I enjoy game time now more so than I ever have done, but that's more a process because I am still a young coach, I'm learning and I think we've hit something over the last 12 months that's working. I don't accept mediocre."

One player who would echo Ludlow's anticipation for the game is captain Sophie Ingle, who has been involved in the Wales set-up since 2009, and is linking up with Wales after pre-season with new club Chelsea Ladies after signing from Liverpool earlier this year.

The 26-year-old was raised in Barry, and - like her manager - played for a boys' team up until the age of 12.

After a move to the London area, pre-season with a new club and new teammates, Sophie says everyone is eagerly anticipating the fixture.

On the sell-out crowd, she said: "I think that's why we've obviously picked a good stadium, we can fill the seats and get a good crowd behind us. It's great for us and Welsh football in general, it'll be our biggest capacity. Obviously we want to put on a good performance for them."

The message to the fans is: "Be as loud as possible".

Yet, while any Wales v England sporting contest will draw plenty of interest, the players are keeping a cool head.

"It's just another game. Yes, they are only a few hours away from us, but they are a top team.

"Whether it's England across the border or someone far away, I don't think that really matters, we still want to get the result," Ingle added.

It's not lost on the squad how vital they are in driving interest in women's football in Wales. And despite progress in recent years with participation levels, interest and engagement, there will always be plenty more to strive for.

Ex-players would be forgiven for wondering how their careers would have panned out, or how different their lives could have been, had they been playing today in a more established professional set-up.

But not Ludlow. She said she wouldn't change how she got into football.

"I think if you change something then something else changes from that.

"At the end of the day I ended up in a place that I absolutely loved, won everything I could win as a player from a club perspective, enjoyed my time immensely, I have some great friends from that environment.

"The only thing we didn't have was the multimillion pound contract. Everything else, we had. "We were pro footballers, for want of another word, back then. It was a good time of my life, I enjoyed every minute of it.

"When people say 'I wish I was younger so I was living this now', I don't actually feel that.

"I look back and I'm a happy retired player, because I know I got everything I could from the abilities I had, and I pushed myself as far as I could, and I achieved what I wanted, so I'm very happy.

"Some players I'm sure who finish are still a little bit frustrated they can't play anymore.

"That's not me, I'm quite happy to watch these days."

Asked if there was ever a feeling of being "hard done by", or an unfairness, over the disparity between the treatment of men's and women's football, Ludlow says not.

"I was never that person, I'm not that person now.

"I'm just thankful of everything that does happen, and all the growth that happens, I focus on that and I'm happy that's happening.

"I was never somebody who was jealous of somebody else getting it or anything like that, or frustrated in any way.

"At the end of the day, I was living my life and enjoying my career.

"Unfortunately, you look back now, and you go 'well if it was reported on, would the generation I'm now working with be bigger in the sense of our pool of players, would their talent be a bit stronger?' "Things might change in that sense, I'm just grateful it's happening now.

"We have a responsibility as a national team to make sure that we help it happen in any way we can."

Comparisons with the men's game are, rightly or wrongly, inevitable.

Asked if she thinks there will ever be parity, she added: "I'm not sure a level playing field, as long as the game keeps growing from a women's perspective, the interest in the game keeps growing, I'm sure there will be far more opportunities than there are right now for females to become professional players.

"It has developed hugely in the last 10 years, but it still has a hell of a lot of a way to go - reality-wise.

"If you're ever trying to compare to the top level of the male game, you'll probably never get to that point.

"The standard of the game is increasing because there are some professional environments now, some of those environments are helping our national team players.

"The challenge for us is to make sure that we get more Welsh players in those environments in the future.

"There are so many elements that come into that from a female sport, I don't even think it's football, it's female sport, you could ask any other person involved in female sport, they'll probably say 'it'll never be the same as the male equivalent'.

"A lot of it is due to media interest and perceptions, we're in the 21st century but sometimes it feels like we're still in the 18th or something.

"That's the reality for female sport, but things are improving.

"I sit here, and I'm actually pleased to be part of those improvements.

"There's things beyond us as well that's happened within the FAW over the last few years with regards to the female game, girls' participation, etc.

"A few other things that have changed. There's obviously the media perspective on the female game. The England team doing well in the past has helped that.

"For us, it was an interesting one when we got drawn against them this year - obviously publicity with regards to this game is huge, and great, because they are actually one of the best teams around.

"For us to feed offthat and hopefully compete and challenge them, it can only benefit the growth of the game, hopefully."

But does the most powerful woman in Welsh football see a point in time where all Wales women players are in full-time professional environments? "That's a tough one. There are so many different things that come into it.

"Part of the reason I ended up where I did was because I had a support system that allowed me to do it, and provided everything I needed. That's a challenge for some families, for lots of different reasons.

"It might not be that they don't want to do it, it's just they actually can't.

"In lots of ways, we try and supplement things in that sense. But the reality is, that kid with talent doesn't necessarily mean that kid becomes a superstar in a pro environment.

"So many things have to go their way, and they have to be prepared to work hard.

"I think the environment that we're trying to create will ensure that anybody here with us will understand that early, so that we're going to try and give them the best opportunity to be a future Jess [Fishlock] or a future Sophie [Ingle], to be a full time pro and enjoy the game."

"For us, unfortunately, we don't have a domestic competition that is top level female football.

"I don't think that'll ever be a reality.

"To bring professional football within Wales in more than one club, the cost of that etc when you look at our environment, it's not something that is realistic.

"But it doesn't mean we can't have top level players growing up in Wales and developing to that level.

"The more the female game can be accessible, then I think opinions will change."

Speaking of those role models, the Wales squad are fully aware of the roles they play both on and offthe field in raising the profile, visibility and awareness of the women's game.

One of those is goalkeeper Laura O'Sullivan. The keeper emerged as a hero after a stellar shift in keeping the Lionesses at bay back in April in Southampton, and is rightly now getting the credit she has long deserved.

O'Sullivan's in-form displays have come after she got into football relatively late - just seven years ago.

When she joined up with CardiffCity Ladies aged 19, she initially wanted to be an outfield player, but in 2015, she committed to goalkeeping and got into the Wales squad a year later.

Now the 27-year-old player, with Cyncoed Ladies, juggles representing her country with her day job, which sees her work as a quality administrator for training provider t2 Apprenticeships.

O'Sullivan said: "The vibe is really good. None of us have really been in this position, having one game to go and it could potentially be going to a World Cup.

"I've got a full week off, my work are very supportive about it.

"There's quite a few of them coming, actually. A few of them couldn't get tickets!

"It's a home game, you know the crowd will get you going. They bring such great atmosphere, that can motivate you so much more.

CONTINUED ON PAGE 8 CONTINUED FROM PAGES 6&7 "It's grown a lot, it's great to see it's actually being noticed now, everyone wants to get involved and come and watch, and that's what we need.

"We need that crowd behind us. It's one of the biggest matches we will have. Everyone just wants to get on the pitch. This is what dreams are made of."

Sat down in a classroom at the ultra-modern University of South Wales' sports park in Treforest, Ludlow mirrors the appreciation in a greater awareness.

"One of the things we're doing with the team we have right now - the senior group - we're trying to get their voices out there, we're trying to get information out there for people to understand who they are.

"The more people who are realising that, they're so supportive of what we're doing.

"They realise these girls are 100% committed to this programme to try and achieve success for the nation, and they're actually really nice people.

"They love each other, they have the same goal and they're working really hard to achieve it. But they're very different, they've all got different things they enjoy.

"They are down-to-earth people, they are very much like anybody else who lives in Wales in a sense of what their lives are like, they're normal people.

"The male game, in comparison, is probably not that way anymore. I think a lot of people would read stories about our male equivalents - Gareth Bale or any of the boys - and go 'I'd love that life but actually the reality is I'm probably not going to get it'. We aren't multi-millionaires, we don't have those lives.

"I'm sure there are lots of things that happen in our environment that are exactly the same in the male environment, we're a team, there are certain things we have to do to make sure everyone in the environment has that thought process.

"With regards to what they do in their down time, maybe a little bit different!

"They're boys who loving playing football, the female national team are girls who love playing football.

"From a staffperspective, we love challenging players and developing people. I'm sure my male equivalent would say the same."

On her own role, she adds: "I think it's very different probably to what people imagine in the sense of if they compare me to my male counterpart Ryan [Giggs] and his responsibilities and his role.

"For us, it's different. There's a lot of different parts of what we do.

"It is a case, anybody can be us - if you want to. That's kind of what we're trying to portray.

"In lots of different ways, this is potentially the start of big changes. That's how I look at it.

"I recently caught up with somebody who's been involved in the women's game for a long time in Wales.

"They were so thankful, in the sense of saying, at the end of the day, what we've done as a group is we've suddenly made people in Wales realise we have a female team. Because for however long, nobody knows about it.

"It's not important enough to report on, it's not interesting enough in lots of ways, people used to assume. But those people who made those decisions were probably men, unfortunately.

"So this reaches far further than just players and coaches, it's people in the roles that do have the capacity to promote and publicise things. Actually, are they females? "Are they people who are interested in developing females in all different aspects? "So there's lots of gender equality issues that impact us, and we impact them, I guess.

"Society is definitely changing thankfully, for females."

Is it moving fast enough? "Oh God, it's never changing fast enough. Everything could be done quicker. I say that within our jobs!

"There are always restrictions to things, but I'd love to do things quicker.

"At the end of the day, you live once. You have a certain amount of time that you're here, there's so many things you could be doing.

"It would be great if things could happen quicker, in lots of different ways."

While progress can perhaps never be fast enough, Wales record-breaker Jess Fishlock believes it's happening now at the right time.

Fishlock was the first player - male or female - to reach 100 caps playing football for Wales, and now plays her club football with Seattle Reign FC.

"It's happened now because it's the right time for it to happen.

"This has been something that's been in the works for the last five to eight years. We're at that point now, and I think that's why we're doing so well. As much as you want to say it should have happened 10 years ago, everything comes at the right time and for the right reasons.

"Naturally I wish I was born into that type of world, [but] I'm a part of the world that's growing and we're making change and that's equally as brilliant."

Flying over from the States to link up with the squad, Fishlock said: "It's a little bit surreal sometimes.

"There's no question that this is the biggest profile women's football has ever had.

"The best team, I think, that we have ever had from a standpoint of that everyone is at the right age right now.

"We know it's England, but we're not in fear right now. We don't have any fear of playing this game. I think that's huge for us."

On the prospect of making history with Wales on Friday, Fishlock says: "I let myself wonder every now and again and then I have to bring myself straight back down and have a little bit of a reality check.

"When you're this close, one game left, you do let yourself dream a little bit. That's testament to us as a group, I do believe that it's something that can be achieved.

"Women's football right now is just getting stronger and stronger.

"It's so nice right now to have so many people interested, so many people are more appreciative of what's going on.

"We do really appreciate it but the worst thing that can happen for us is that it happens and then it goes away. Help us then get to the Euros.

"We appreciate it, we love it, it's fantastic. I hope that it doesn't stop, the growth."

| Wales play England on Friday, kick off7.45pm STARS OF THE FUTURE: PAGES 12-15

It was the only thing I wanted to do when I was a kid, play sportI enjoy game time now more so than I ever have done... I'm learning and I think we've hit something over the last 12 months that's workingWomen's football right now is just getting stronger and stronger

CAPTION(S):

<B Women's coach Jayne Ludlow and, right, Wales star Jess Fishlock

<B Welsh goalie Laura O'Sullivan

<B Midfield star Jess Fishlock

Kayleigh Green celebrates a goal earlier in the campaign

Wales Captain Sophie Ingle
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 25, 2018
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