Women’s game investment shows slow but sure progress

Caerphilly Castle Ladies 0-1 Swansea City Ladies
FAW Women’s Challenge Cup Semi-Final – 20th February 2011 – by Mark Pitman

Port Talbot Town’s GenQuip Stadium was the chosen venue for this FAW Women’s Challenge Cup Semi-Final match between Caerphilly Castle Ladies and their Swansea City counterparts. A small crowd was boosted by the attendance of a number of FAW councillors but it was obvious as the two teams came out onto the field that for all the efforts of the Association to promote the women’s game, the general public remain unconvinced of it’s quality as less than forty people and two dogs strategically spaced themselves around the 1,000-seater Welsh Premier League ground.

The women’s game in Wales has been the subject of a major overhaul in recent seasons with the introduction of a Women’s Premier League that offers club the opportunity to qualify for the UEFA Women’s Champions League, as well as the high-profile appointment of Finnish guru Jarmo Matikainen to revolutionise the women’s game in Wales as head coach of the senior team and the Associations women’s youth teams. A recent defeat to Scotland slightly dented the progress made at International level, but today there were domestic matters to take of, and a place in the Women’s Challenge Cup Final the prize for the winners.

Swansea City showed from the start that they had the technically better players than Caerphilly and enjoyed the majority of the early possession as their opponents relied on their physical advantage to break up play in midfield. An early chance for Laura-May Walkley, who had played for the renowned Arsenal women’s team a couple of seasons before, went narrowly wide and it was Walkley’s link-up play with Jodie Passmore and Ria Hughes that caused Caerphilly a number of problems.

Caerphilly defender Nao Yamanda had the unenviable task of dealing with the talented Walkley, but had to relay on help from her teammates as Swansea City enjoyed the better of the match. A nasty head injury for Swansea defender Lisa Anderson forced the youngster to leave the field before returning bandaged up in the first of a number of incidents for physio Sam Treharne to deal with over the 90 minutes. Vickie Stratton offered a half-chance for Caerphilly midway through the half but it was Walkley who came closest to open the scoring when she was first denied by Caerphilly goalkeeper Rebecca Mason before twice being denied by the flag of the assistant referee.

Watching the match it became clear that for every talented young female footballer in Wales, there are another three or four way short of making the grade. The FAW have made strides to address this issue and only this week made a positive move in appointing Gwennan Harries, one of the country’s most talented female players, as the Ambassador for Women’s football in Wales. With the men’s national team currently at one of their lowest ever points and sitting 116th in the FIFA World rankings, the FAW have targeted the emergence of popularity in the women’s game as an opportunity to make a head-start on their rivals and develop a domestic league and national team strong enough to compete against the best.

After a goalless opening half the two sides returned to the field for the second period and with Swansea City now attacking the clubhouse end, they continued where they had left off from the first half and opened the scoring just three minutes after the re-start. Midfielder Rebecca Rowe controlled the ball on the edge of the area before placing a fine shot over Mason in the Caerphilly goal to hand her side the lead. The goal was a relief for Swansea City after dominating the opening half of the game and the confidence of the goal brought renewed quality to their game as they forced a series of corners while remaining largely untroubled.

While Caerphilly had the physical height and size advantage, Swansea continued to try and pass their way out of trouble with captain Natalie Ashford a big influence for the side in midfield. An employee at Swansea prison during the week, Ashford enjoyed her freedom in the middle of the park and unlocked the Caerphilly defence on numerous occasions in the second half. Walkley remained the biggest concern for Caerphilly however, and as the side began to play with more confidence, she also raised her game and forced the opposition to double-up and often treble-up on her as she weaved her way past the defence.

Both sides made changes as the game entered its last quarter and despite Caerphilly causing a scare with a series of corners in injury-time, they rarely looked like scoring and the towering figure of Gemma Border in the Swansea City goal had no more to do than collect a few aimless balls forward on her way to keeping a clean sheet. The final whistle eventually brought the contest to a close as the frozen few that remained in the stands made their way inside to catch up on the latest action from the FA Cup on the clubhouse TV. Squeals of excitement echoed around the ground as the Swansea City players celebrated their victory and they can now look forward to a cup final against Caernarfon Town, while Caerphilly can reflect on a committed performance and take positives from the fact that they pushed their superior opponents so close on the day.

Three of the victorious Swansea City players, Gemma Border, Sarah Adams and Laura-May Walkley, have been named by the national team to travel to Portugal for the forthcoming Algarve Cup tournament. The competition will offer a much tougher test than Caerphilly, but it is another example of the commitment and investment that is being made to encourage women’s football in Wales, and the foundations being laid are a positive sign for the future.

The FAW have invested heavily in the women’s game over the last few seasons, and while there is a long way to go, this is not a short-term project with a quick-fix solution. Women’s football has the potential to develop and succeed in Wales, despite the varying degrees of quality on show at The GenQuip Stadium in this high-profile domestic match, but if sufficient coaching and encouragement can be made at a young age then the opportunities will be there for girls looking to take part in what has been a predominantly mans game for so long. In the short-term however, the FAW must now look to promote the upcoming Women’s Challenge Cup Final as much as possible, and attract a lot more public interest in the Associations work of developing the women’s game in Wales.

Mark Pitman
Visit www.markpitman1.com for links to all blogs, news stories, features, reports and opinion as the big Welsh football news stories break. You can also follow Mark Pitman at www.facebook.com/1markpitman and www.twitter.com/markpitman1

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