The word 'inspirational' has effectively become part of everyday football vernacular, but rarely has the term been more appropriate than in describing Wales captain Jessica Fishlock. A high-energy all-action midfielder who plays with an obvious hunger for success, even if the odds are not in her favour.
With Wales having never qualified for a major tournament and club side Bristol Academy ending last season mid-table in the English Women’s Super League, achievement is in itself a challenge for the 26-year-old. Yet Fishlock was rewarded for her consistent displays in the heart of the Bristol midfield by being named the league’s player of the year, despite her side being well behind champions Arsenal and their galaxy of stars.
Fishlock, who stands out on the pitch with her distinctive shock of blonde hair, spent the English off-season enjoying a sun-drenched stint in Australia’s W-League with Melbourne Victory. The Victory who reached their maiden final this season, lost just once during Fishlock’s seven-match cameo, yet conversely won only twice in their seven other matches.
Wales too are enjoying a period of significant growth in recent years coinciding, in part, with Fishlock assuming the national team armband. Inspiration and achievement, it seems, are very much part of Fishlock’s successful formula.
Learning to fly
Born and bred in Cardiff, but a supporter of Manchester United – enigmatic French striker Eric Cantona is her all-time favourite player – Fishlock took the opportunity to develop herself personally and professionally with a leap into the unknown five years ago. A two-year move to the Netherlands with AZ Alkmaar proved somewhat of a watershed in Fishlock’s career
“I wouldn’t be the player or person I am if I didn’t go to Holland,” Fishlock told FIFA.com. “I developed so much and I have to credit a lot to my time in Holland.
“Everything is very football orientated, and they are all about developing players as much as results. At that time in my career it was perfect for me. I improved so much.
“To go over and play for the Dutch champions was something crazy. It was probably the hardest thing that I’ve ever done both personally and football wise, but you have to do things if you want to get to where you want.”
Every female footballer puts in so much and makes so many sacrifices to do what we do, so it is great to get something back.
Half a decade on and Fishlock is clearly a star performer in the English domestic game, having spent the past two seasons with Bristol, not far over the border from her home city.
“I wouldn’t say it was a breakthrough,” says Fishlock when asked about winning the player of the year award last year. “But it was great to get recognition and acknowledgment. Every female footballer puts in so much and makes so many sacrifices to do what we do, so it is great to get something back."
And how does the English league, relaunched only two years ago, compare to its predecessor? “The Women’s Super League is streets ahead,” says Fishlock. “It is very professional, and players from abroad have helped lift the standard. It will only keep on improving.”
Putting fire into the Dragon
Wales may be yet to achieve qualification for a FIFA Women’s World Cup™ or a UEFA Women’s EURO, but their development in recent times is unmistakable. Finnish coach Jarno Matikainen took the reins in mid-2010, becoming the nation's first ever full-time professional head of women’s football. The following year Wales stated their intention to increase women’s participation by 40 per cent.
Around the same time Matikainen handed the national captain’s armband to Fishlock. “I enjoy the extra responsibility that comes with it, and it has also changed my personal life for the better,” said Fishlock. “I still don’t believe it until I put the armband on.”
Wales were pipped for a play-off berth to this year’s EURO in Sweden by Scotland, who in turn were edged out by Spain for a summer ticket to Scandinavia.
“We had a very good European campaign,” said Fishlock. “It was a shame it didn’t finish how we wanted. But as a team, as a squad and as a nation, we can be really, really proud.
“We came together and got ourselves into that situation (near qualification). In two years our national side has come on significantly since Jarno Matikainen became involved.
“The change since I joined the national team, I can’t even put into words,” says the proud Welsh skipper. “It is so different to what it was.
“I’m going to be realistic and say that World Cup qualification is nigh on impossible. It will be extremely difficult, but I firmly believe that we can qualify for the next EURO.”