It proved to be another case of being so near yet so far for Jayne Ludlow's Cymru as EURO qualification ended in disappointment as the side once again missed out on a place at the finals of a major tournament.
However, despite the frustration of finishing behind Northern Ireland in the runners-up position in Group C, there were plenty of signs of progress that the side can now take into the next qualifying campaign. With the senior members of the squad committing themselves to their country and the next generation gaining valuable senior experience, there are many reasons to be optimistic for the future when reflecting back on 2020.
A familiar face and a positive result
The year began for Cymru with a friendly against Estonia in Wrexham in early March. Over 2,000 fans turned out at the Racecourse to witness a comfortable 2-0 victory through goals from Megan Wynne and Nadia Lawrence. Estonia manager Jarmo Matikainen was Ludlow's predecessor in the Cymru job, and his return was warmly received in recognition of how he moved the women's game forward in Wales during his tenure.
EURO 2021 postponed for a year
Although Cymru went into the year at the midway point in UEFA Women's EURO 2021 qualifying, April confirmed that, as a result of the pandemic, the tournament scheduled to take place in England would be postponed until the summer of 2022. The decision followed on from the announcement that the men's EURO finals would be postponed by one year. The pandemic also meant that the women's U17 and U19 teams wouldn't play any fixtures during the course of 2020.
FAWTV: Watch the Cymru team in action during 2020
Defeat in Oslo
A goal in the opening half from Guro Reiten proved to be the difference between Cymru and group leaders Norway in a closely contested fixture in Oslo in September. There were clear signs of progress as Jayne Ludlow's side showed an attacking intent to their play, while remaining solid and organised at the back. However, the quality in the Norwegian squad proved too much for a Cymru side that welcomed influential midfielder Jess Fishlock back after a long-term injury, and the side suffered their first defeat of the qualifying campaign.
Captain Ingle the latest Cymru centurion
Despite the defeat to Norway, captain Sophie Ingle achieved a significant appearance milestone as she played her 100th match for Cymru. Over a decade on from her international debut in 2009 against Azerbaijan, Ingle has been a key member of the side throughout this time, and remains a pivotal and versatile figure with the ability to play in either the centre of defence or midfield as and when required.
“There's no better feeling than playing for Wales,” said Ingle ahead of the match. “I definitely never even considered that I would ever reach 100 caps when I made my debut. I've definitely grown as a person since I was handed the captaincy. At the time I probably didn't believe that I could be captain, but now I have a lot more belief in myself in that I can help others in the squad. I probably didn't believe in myself back then as much as I should have. But that belief and confidence does come with age.”
October highs and lows
A 4-0 win over the Faroe Islands through goals from Helen Ward, Lily Woodham and a double from Natasha Harding in Newport was the perfect preparation for Cymru to take on top seeds Norway at the Cardiff City Stadium a few days later. “I’ve been with the age groups for years and it’s been a dream of mine for years to make my debut,” explained Woodham who scored on her first senior appearance. “I can’t quite put it into words how much it means to me. I’m buzzing to get my debut and a goal was just a bonus really! I’m over the moon.”
However, another narrow 1-0 defeat to Norway would take qualification out of Cymru hands. Frida Maanum scored the only goal of the game much to the frustration of Ludlow and her squad, especially as the side enjoyed a long period of possession in the final third during the second half, but could not find the elusive equaliser. "It was a game of two halves really,” said Ludlow. “We did really well to keep to our game plan and one sloppy mistake is the difference. We did fight back and it's disappointing we couldn't equalise.”
The dream ends in December
With Northern Ireland claiming a slight head-to-head advantage over Cymru on away goals, all that was left for Ludlow's team in their final game was to beat Belarus in Newport and hope that the Faroe Islands spring a shock result in Belfast. Incredibly, the Faroe Islands took the lead inside the opening exchanges, but Northern Ireland recovered to claim a convincing 5-1 win. Meanwhile, Cymru made light work of Belarus as Natasha Harding, Rachel Rowe and a penalty from Jess Fishlock earned the side a 3-0 win.
“It was actually really positive,” said Ludlow to BBC Sport Wales after the match. “When we finished the game we had a chat and we're already planning ahead. We'll come together after Christmas and make sure we hopefully start in February for our next camp and look forward to the next campaign. I think when you look at the group as a whole we've won four, drawn two and lost two, and it shows we're moving closer to those higher level teams.”