ARTICLE BY TOMOS WYN JONES
PICTURE by Huw Evans picture agency
JAYNE LUDLOW is widely regarded as one of Wales’s greatest ever footballers in the women’s game.
Born in January 1979, she began her football career playing in various boys’ teams until 1991, when she was 12, meaning she wasn’t allowed to play with alongside the boys anymore. Despite being a talented athlete across many different sports, including netball and basketball, she decided to pursue a career in football.
Her first club in the women’s game was Barry Town Ladies, the nearest club to her at the time. Stints with the Millwall Lionesses and Southampton Saints led to her big breakthrough in 2000, where she was signed by giants Arsenal who were a dominant force at that time. Ludlow, who was also studying for a degree in physiotherapy, was over the moon to be playing for one of the best sides in the game.
In her first season with the Gunners, Ludlow was an instrumental figure; she scored an incredible 28 goals from midfield, contributing massively to a domestic treble (Women’s Premier League National Division, FA Women’s Cup & Women’s League Cup) for the club. Her performances at such a young age led to her receiving praise left, right and centre and she was quickly regarded as the best midfielder in the women’s game by many stars.
Ludlow would go and win her second title in the row in 2001/02, having a big impact once again on a side who simply looked unstoppable. A disappointing 2002/03 campaign for the club, who didn’t win anything, didn’t affect Ludlow, as she bounced back even stronger in the next campaign, winning the league and cup double, with the likes of Ludlow and Kirsty Pealling being key to the Gunners’ success. Ludlow’s performances were acknowledged throughout the campaign by her teammates and opposition players, as she received the FA’s 2003/04 Players’ Player of the Year Award.
After the conclusion of the 2004/05 campaign, Ludlow spent the summer on loan with American side New York Magic, for whom she made 5 appearances. She then returned to Arsenal and won her 5th league title and 3rd FA Women’s Cup during the 2005/06 campaign, where once again she would be the game changer in the middle of the park.
However, the 2006/07 was arguably her best ever season as a player. Then, Ludlow was captain of Arsenal and she was the catalyst for the club’s quadruple winning campaign, a feat that has not been matched since. She scored 24 goals in a campaign where the Gunners won the league, FA and league cups, in addition to the UEFA Women’s Cup (now rebranded UEFA Women’s Champions League). Her leadership skills were evident to be seen throughout the campaign, as she spearheaded a side to the pinnacle of the women’s game at club level. It must also be commended that she is the only captain from the Women’s English game to win a European title, paying tribute for her incredible work on the pitch.
She led her side to yet another double in 2007/08, before going one better during the 2008/09 campaign, winning the league, FA Women’s Cup and Women’s League Cup in yet another impressive season for The Gunners.
The 2009/10 campaign was a bittersweet one for Ludlow; she had led her side to a 7th successive league title; however, she was sent-off towards the back end of the campaign after an altercation with Evertonian Fara Williams. This ultimately led to her suspension in the FA Women’s Cup Final, where Arsenal lost ironically to Everton on penalties. Had she have been in the side, her leadership qualities may have been the difference against an inexperienced Everton side at the time.
Ludlow was soon approaching the back end of her career, though, still led her beloved Arsenal to consecutive WSL titles, with the quality in the women’s game improving each season.l. Injuries were now mounting up for Ludlow, with the 2013 campaign clear evidence of this. By July 2013, at the age of 34, she announced her retirement from playing, moving into a coaching role with Arsenal and Wales. All in all, she made 356 appearances for Arsenal’s Ladies, scoring a club record 211 goals. With the Gunners, she won 11 league titles, 6 FA Women’s Cup, 4 Women’s League Cup, 2 WSL Cups and a UEFA Women’s Cup, in what can be described as one of the most decorated careers in the English Women’s game.
Internationally, Ludlow made her first Wales senior cap against the Republic of Ireland in February 1996 at the age of 17. However, she struggled to make the same impact on field for her country compared with Arsenal, as she was a part of squads that continuously failed to qualify for a major tournament.
Ludlow retired from international football in 2010, but soon returned before Christmas following the appointment of Jarmo Matikainen, who became Wales’s first ever full-time head coach, convincing Ludlow to give it another go. Under the guidance of Matikainen, she made her 50th cap for her country, scoring her 18th goal in an 8-1 demolition of Bulgaria.
She made her final appearance for Wales in October 2012 in a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Scotland at Parc y Scarlets. Ludlow scored 19 goals in 61 caps for Wales, being hailed by many in her country as the best to have played for Wales’s Women side.
Soon after retiring from the game as a player, Ludlow was given her first job as a manager and director of Reading’s women side. She led Reading in their first season in the FA WSL 2, where they went on to finish in an impressive third place. This attracted many sides and countries to Ludlow and, by October 2014, she had accepted the post of Wales’s Women National Team Manager.
In her first full major tournament qualifying campaign, she led Wales to near qualificaton to the 2017 European Championship, guiding them to a third place finish in a group consisting of Scandanavian giants Norway. During the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifying campaign, Wales came close yet again to qualify for their first ever major tournament. They came second to England in what was yet another impressive campaign. As they finished in 2nd place, they were compared with all 7 2nd placed sides during the qualification group stages and eventually missed out on a play-off on the verge of goal difference. In what was a heart-breaking ending to a qualifying campaign, it was a clear step in the right direction for Ludlow and her squad, who were gaining belief in each and every campaign.
The now reschedueled 2022 European Championship qualifications were the most agonising for Ludlow and Wales however. After going unbeaten in their opening 4 qualifiers, a crucial defeat at the hands of Norway was the sucker punch for the side as they missed out on a play-off spot on the basis of scoring one less goal than 2nd place side Northern Ireland. Despite having a severly better goal difference, it came down to the number of goals scored, which at the end of the day, is the worst way to exit a competition.
By January 2021, she left her job as manager of Wales’s women National Side. Ludlow became the first Wales women manager to take charge of over 50 games, in addition to becoming the greatest manager the women’s national side has ever had.
Ludlow, who was appointed an MBE in 2020 for her services to women’s football in Wales, has now taken a role on a FIFA leadership team, despite still being interested in getting back into the game sooner rather than later. She was also inducted into the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame Roll of Honour in 2018.
She is a truly incredible role model for the women’s game in Wales, and has inspired a whole new generation to take up the sport. This could be seen with Ynys Mon’s successful Island Games campaign in which the women secured silver medals in 2019. She truly is a legend of our game!