Wales’s hopes of reaching the Women’s World Cup and a first major tournament will boil down to the playoffs. A goalless draw at home to Slovenia on a record-breaking night in Cardiff was sufficient to secure their place as runners-up in Group I and a spot in Friday’s draw in Switzerland.
The Wales manager, Gemma Grainger, was here in June when the men’s team secured a place at the World Cup via a playoff final victory over Ukraine and now her side will have a chance to replicate their journey. “To see the young girls interacting with our players and how we’re inspiring 12,000 people, it’s incredible,” Grainger said. “I didn’t really let myself think about this moment but I’m so proud. It is important we celebrate because this team has just made history.”
Regardless of how things unfolded it was going to be a groundbreaking evening, with Wales playing before a record crowd of 12,741, more than double the previous record set against Estonia last October. For comparison, at the start of this campaign they attracted 1,745 in Llanelli. Before kick-off Natasha Harding, Helen Ward and Angharad James were presented with commemorative caps after reaching a century of appearances for their country. At 28 James is the youngest of the nine Welsh footballers, including Gareth Bale, to reach the landmark.
Goodwill was not in short supply. Ian Rush and Neville Southall sent messages of support and Robert Page, the men’s manager, and Joe Allen, the Wales midfielder, were among those in the stands. Wales initially struggled to stamp their authority and Slovenia had the first sighting of goal, with their captain, Mateja Zver, forcing Laura O’Sullivan into a save after intercepting Rachel Rowe’s crossfield pass. Zver looked to the skies on the half-hour after almost picking out the top corner with a shot from just outside the box following a neat one-two with Lara Prasnikar.
Wales’s best openings stemmed from Ceri Holland and Carrie Jones. Holland seized on the ball as Kristina Erman swiped at thin air and surged forward, picking out Kayleigh Green, who nudged the ball infield to Sophie Ingle. The Wales captain spread play wide with a wonderful first-time pass and Jones forced a stop from the Slovenia’s goalkeeper, Zala Mersnik. Holland later kick-started another move that culminated in Ingle side-footing wide from inside the box.
Jones had a penalty appeal waved away after Dominika Conc made a clumsy challenge inside the box and the exuberant Wales teenager carried a threat throughout, as did Zver. On 73 minutes the Slovenia captain sent a curling effort narrowly wide of a post. Earlier Mersnik kept out a swerving shot by Jones and from the resulting corner the unmarked Gemma Evans saw a header repelled by the Slovenia goalkeeper. Grainger crashed to the floor in disbelief but in the end Wales did not need the breathing space a winner would have yielded.