The Dragon. A symbol of power and grandeur, even malice. The Lion. A symbol of strength, courage, and leadership. Two feared creatures of terror, going head to head with everything at stake.
But it was the Lions, or Lionesses, who roared loudest in Newport on Friday night. The Dragons managed a growl but little more as World Cup qualification was secured at the headquarters of their rivals.
Despite the noise, the adrenaline, the atmosphere, the talk, the occasion, Wales couldn’t muster the chances needed to seal its first World Cup berth. The partisan Welsh home crowd made for a brilliant occasion, but goals at the start of the second half from Toni Duggan, Jill Scott, and Nikita Parris silenced them.
The build-up deserved a better opening 45 minutes, with the entertainment largely coming in the stands rather than on the pitch.
It was as if the 5,053-strong crowd appeared by magic. Just mere hours before the encounter, Newport was serene, a wave of normality covering the coastal city.
The only sign of a football shirt was a young boy donning a Bayern Munich shirt with “Müller” on the back. Locals sold their fruits and vegetables along Friars Walk while giddy kids chased away the pigeons that have made Newport their home.
But over the footbridge across the River Usk that separates the center from Rodney Parade, it was a different story, as if one had passed into another universe.
Waves of red and white; the Welsh red, the English white — it dominated the surroundings like you rarely see in women’s football.
The prematch was almost pantomime. The cheering was deafening as the Wales players strode out onto the pitch for their potential moment of glory.
The tricks had been played, the hand had been dealt. Not only was Wales relishing in their packed-out venue, they’d narrowed the pitch by a couple of feet to make life even more difficult for England.
A smattering of boos during “God Save the Queen” aside, the home fans cheered every moment — every tackle, every pass, every interception. The biggest cheer came when Nikita Parris had a controversial goal disallowed early on.
It was a moment when you wondered if it was meant to be for Jayne Ludlow’s side. Parris ran off smashing her hand to her badge and head coach Phil Neville was on the pitch punching the air, only for the lineswoman’s late, late flag to deny England its opener.
The crowd made the most of its moment. Parris merely trudged back to the halfway line, a moment not quite as awkward as Theresa May’s dancing but not far off.
Of course, Parris would have the last laugh, but the passionate home fans enjoyed the moment, and rightly so. A chorus of “You’re just as s**t Gary Neville” aimed directly at the England head coach brought a wry smile to Neville’s face.
But on more serious matters, both teams found themselves frustrated leading up to the interval. England yet again failed to break down a stubborn, solid, and at times, superb Wales defense, while the hosts could only hustle, winning every 50/50 ball that came their way but never really troubling the returning Karen Bardsley.
In the second half it was a different story, one already laid out bare before the game restarted. You couldn’t tell for sure if England would come out at a different time, but you could sense it, a whiff in the air as the visitors emerged five minutes early to go through an intense warmup on the pitch.
It worked. Fran Kirby found Duggan, who calmly slotted it home, after Laura O’Sullivan had denied Jodie Taylor.
Once England had one, they had two. Jill Scott, a midfielder who continuously questions her own aerial ability despite the evidence placed in front of those watching, headed home Lucy Bronze’s ball she had lobbed back into the penalty area.
While England’s team huddle celebration that kicked off the qualifying campaign back in September raised all sorts of questions, this one was almost the perfect bookend as the whole team ran toward Carly Telford on the substitutes bench.
The Chelsea goalkeeper’s mum passed away during the summer break and her teammates showed solidarity with her as the game swung their way in no time.
To their credit, the home fans didn’t go quietly, even when Parris had the last word with a goal headed in from no distance at all as the hosts threatened to collapse.
Ludlow used the final 20 minutes to give opportunities to three teenagers. Elise Hughes, Peyton Vincze, and Ffion Morgan all came on, the latter for Natasha Harding who got a rousing applause from the home crowd as the tears overcame the winger in the dugout.
Jess Fishlock cut a frustrated figure as the minutes ticked away. For some, it may be their last chance. For Hughes, Vincze, and Morgan, there is a lifetime of opportunities awaiting them in the future.
For England, France beckons.