The popularity of the women’s game has soared in the last few years, especially on home soil, with England’s national team winning the Euros in 2022. This success does not happen overnight and has been years in the making. Wales, however, are yet to appear on the big stages.
While it might seem that both teams have been around for roughly the same time, this could not be further from the truth. Around 1970, UEFA recommended that national associations should look to incorporate a women’s national team alongside the men. England acted quickly and became an official team in 1972. The team was assembled by Eric Worthington who was tasked with the idea by the Women’s Football Association. The WFA had originally been formed in 1969. They continued to oversee England’s women until 1993 when it was absorbed by the FA.
England would play their first official match in November 1972 against Scotland. It would be exactly 100 years after the men’s team first played theirs. Meanwhile, things were a bit different in Wales.
While often assumed that the ban on women’s football was lifted in 1971, this is only true for England. In a weird twist, Wales lifted their ban a year before, in 1970. Bizarrely when the ban on women’s football was first announced, Wales took a softer approach. Although by the 1930s they had enforced a stricter stance than England. Scotland and Ireland also have different variations, with the latter not even having a ban.
Assembling a women’s team
As Wales lifted the ban before England, it would be easy to assume they would have got to work on an official team soon after, but more than 20 years would go by before this would happen.
That is not to say that they did not have a team, it was just not recognised by the Welsh Football Association (FAW). During the early 70s, Irish man John Rooney pushed for a national team. He had established a women’s team at his factory and felt that due to the growing popularity of the women’s game, a national team was needed. Thus one was put together.
Their first game was held on 13 May 1973, coincidently against the Republic of Ireland. Played in South Wales at Stebonheath Park, the home of Llanelli A.F.C, with a reported attendance of 3,500. The game ended in a disappointing 3-2 defeat.
The Welsh setup could only be described as amateur at best. There was non-existing coaching, and international games were usually only played once a year. Former Wales goalkeeper Karen Jones recalls not receiving any coaching until she was 25, ten years after first playing!
The setup including, organising trials, sourcing kits, and arranging fixtures, along with securing pitches, were all sourced ‘in-house’. The kits that were used to play against Ireland were borrowed from the men’s Swansea team.
In 1974 Wales would face England. This time the kit that was sourced was red with long sleeves and a white collar. The emblem featured the three feathers on it and sounds suspiciously similar to the Welsh rugby kit, rather than the men’s football kit. While the men’s kit was not the most fetching at the time, the men did at least play with the iconic dragon on the badge. The game itself would be a disastrous display with Wales losing 5-0.
Despite not being recognised by the FAW, the Welsh team was invited to Italy in 1978 to play in a tournament known as the Abruzzo Cup. Wales lost all their games, and the whole experience was quoted as a “learning Curve”.
The Welsh team would unsurprisingly fold twice over two decades, once in the 80s and again at the start of the 90s. Try as they might they just could not get the FAW to involve themselves. Not surprising when they could barely get the FAW to support the women’s game at club level. Former Wales international Michele Adams, recalls that the Cardiff Ladies who had formed in 1975, would ‘occasionally be thrown something by the FAW’.
A chance meeting
Things started to change when a tenacious Welsh footballer decided enough was enough. While it was not for the lack of trying to get the FAW to support the Welsh team, it had become such an impossible task that some of the older players and coaches had become understandably deflated and somewhat irked by the constant setbacks, that they probably thought it would all be in vain.
This individual was Laura McAllister. McAllister had been a sports-mad kid, and while being good at several other sports, it was football that she would excel in. She had been playing with Millwall Lionesses while studying at the London School of Economics. Upon her return to Wales and wanting to continue playing, McAllister was put in contact with Cardiff Ladies whom she would play for the next 12 years. The Cardiff team was being run by former players, Michele Adams and Karen Jones.
Impressed by how well Cardiff was run, and the work that had been put into this team. McAllister felt they had to be in with a shot to establish an official Welsh team and wrote to the FAW in 1992. She had penned a simple but straight-to-the-point letter asking if they could have a meeting. The main point was that the ‘Welsh team was being organised unofficially and they felt the FAW ought to play a role’.
Surprisingly, the meeting was granted. On a Thursday afternoon around tea time, three passionate women McAllister backed by both Adams and Jones entered the FAW headquarters.
Back then the headquarters was a grand and opulent building situated on Westgate Street in Cardiff’s city centre, a stone’s throw away from Cardiff Castle. Every room had plush carpets adorned with the Welsh emblem. Considering the men’s team was not exactly a roaring success themselves, it’s a wonder how the FAW occupied such a building.
Astonishingly and coupled with the power of persuasion, the meeting turned out to be a success. Over the next few weeks, the wheels were put in motion. Alun Evans, the general sectary of the FAW and perhaps the most powerful man at the helm, seemed impressed by the Cardiff Ladies’ setup. He was interested to see how well this translated on the pitch, and soon after attended a match with his family. He then quickly attended another, this time accompanied by Des Shanklin, FAW treasurer. It was later suggested that if Evans liked something, then he would usually get his way, and by now he was thoroughly interested in the women’s game.
Evans had been the General Secretary of the FAW since 1982, so why it had taken ten years for the FAW to involve themselves with the Women’s team is anyone’s guess. Although I doubt it would have escaped Evans’s attention that many national teams now had an official women’s team. England by this point had qualified for the Women’s Euros twice and had also played in the mundialito (the little world cup) several times during the 80s, winning it twice. So it’s likely that women’s football would have been on Evans’s radar by now and with three determined women asking for support for an official team, it wouldn’t have looked good if he had turned the opportunity down in 1992.
In a few short weeks, everything changed. The FAW set up trials, and games were organised. The objective was to see if a women’s team was worth the involvement. All this from one chance meeting.
Officially a Team
Tasked with setting up an official team was Lyn Jones, who would be the manager. Jones was no stranger to managing a women’s team as he was the Cardiff Inter Ladies manager (Cardiff had two women’s teams back then). Accompanying him as his coaching staff was Frank Hagerty and goalkeeping coach George Wood.
Trials were soon organised. They would take place in Cardiff, Caldecott, and Liverpool to select 16 players. A national tournament would then be held with the selected 16 and played as a 5-a-side tournament in Glasgow.
Evans liked what he saw, and that was that. The Wales women had got themselves an official team. To boot, Evans even put Wales forward for the 1995 euro qualifies.
As to be expected, not everything went smoothly. Some players who had been part of the previous setup were overlooked in favour of younger talent, and eligibility rules meant that some were ineligible to play.
Wales’s first friendly would be against Iceland, played in Port Talbot. Wales narrowly succumbed to defeat, losing 1-0. Their first competitive fixture was against Switzerland, played in Cwmbran in a juicy affair, but once again, they succumbed to defeat, losing 3-2.
Only one training session took place before the qualifiers began. The Uefa European qualifiers saw Wales placed in a group with Germany, Croatia, and Switzerland. Wales finished bottom. Conceding 36 goals without picking up a single point. There were hefty defeats, including an absolute thrashing by the Germans who put 12 past Wales. Although bitterly disappointing, the flip side was that Wales was just glad to be there in the first place.
Ups and downs
Although now recognised by the FAW and thoroughly supported by Evans, there was still a lack of investment and support. This was paralleled with the men’s team as they had not been properly supported either. Many of the men’s team have since come forward, stating that being called up for Wales, especially during the 90s, meant they just went on a bit of ‘lads’ holiday for a few days.
While the women’s team has yet to qualify for their first major tournament they have recently come close, going out through a knock-out stage. Although lack of investment has plagued the team, current players Jess Fishlock and Tash Harding have seen the most changes. speaking out on a lack of backroom staff and having to borrow kits in their earlier days playing for Wales. They have gone from a basic setup to a much improved one. The popularity of the Women’s game has soared, coupled with the Wales men’s team now qualifying twice for the Euro’s and the 2022 World Cup, which to has pushed up investment in both sets of teams.
Meanwhile, McAllister, Adams, and Jones are all still involved in the women’s game. All have roles at Cardiff City Ladies, McAllister is vice president, Adams is the current Chair, and Jones is the Club Sectary. It was a result of these three women, who bravely lobbied the FAW, breaking down doors, so the players of today could continue to push forward.