Jessica Fishlock: ‘Louis van Gaal was awe-inspiring but also a little crazy’

“I’m incredibly proud but it’s not something I think about too often,” Jessica Fishlock says as she looks ahead to becoming the first Wales international to win 100 caps, a milestone the midfielder will achieve when the women’s side face Northern Ireland in a friendly in Ystrad Mynach on Wednesday evening. She is refusing to get carried away but then comes a refreshing moment of honesty. Asked how the Football Association of Wales is planning to mark the occasion, Fishlock replies: “I have no idea what the FAW will do but I hope they do something.”

And so they should. Reaching a century of international appearances is a standout achievement for any player and in Fishlock’s case is testament to her longevity, talent and desire to test herself constantly at home and abroad. She undeniably deserves recognition, having already represented her country more than any other person, male or female. More caps than Neville Southall (92), Gary Speed (85) and Craig Bellamy (78) and 33 more than the current darling of Welsh football, Gareth Bale (66).

“When I play for Wales I concentrate purely on doing the best I can for the team and that’ll be the same on Wednesday. It’ll just be another game,” says the 30-year-old. “But yes, I do recognise reaching 100 caps is an unbelievable achievement, as is being Wales most capped player. To be ahead of some of the greats we’ve had is humbling.”

The friendly on Wednesday, the first of two Wales are playing against Northern Ireland in preparation for the upcoming World Cup qualifying campaign (the second is on Friday, also at the Centre for Sporting Excellence in Ystrad Mynach), will be a particularly special occasion for Fishlock given she thought her international career had come to an end two years ago when she was dropped by the Wales manager, Jayne Ludlow. Fishlock was the team’s captain and most influential player but suddenly, with 82 caps to her name, found herself in the wilderness.

“That was the low point of my career,” says Fishlock. “At the time I didn’t understand why it had happened and I definitely wasn’t ready to be dropped. It broke me completely.

“At the end of day Jayne has done a phenomenal job for Wales and, when she came in, she felt she needed to make changes to the group. Her way of doing that was dropping me. That was her right and I grew to respect that decision.”

Getting a recall soon after was a “special moment” for Fishlock and she has not looked back since, with a history-making moment now on the horizon. It is one that will also represent the high-point of a 15-year career that began at Cardiff City Ladies and via spells in Bristol, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, Australia and the United States has made Fishlock one of the most travelled and successful players in women’s football history.

Among her achievements are back‑to‑back National Women’s Soccer League shields with her current club, Seattle Reign, in 2014 and 2015, a Champions League medal while on loan at FFC Frankfurt from Seattle in 2015, two Eredivisie titles with her first overseas club, AZ Alkmaar, in 2009 and 2010, and, most recently, back-to-back W-League titles with Melbourne City. The second of those was secured in February and made Fishlock, having again travelled to Australia during the NWSL off-season, the first player-coach to win the W-League in the competition’s nine-year history.

“I’ve travelled a lot and that was initially the case because when I started playing there was nothing for women’s football back home. I joined Cardiff, my local team, at the age of seven and made my debut at 15, during the days before professionalism and the WSL [Women’s Super League]. As a female player you still had to pay to play for a club and overall the standard was not great, something I found even after I moved to Bristol Academy [in 2011]. It got to the stage where I knew that, if I was going to achieve what I wanted to achieve from football, I had to go abroad.”

Fishlock got her chance to do so somewhat by chance. Having impressed for Wales in a match against Holland, she received an email from one of the Dutch assistant coaches, Ed Engelkes, asking if she would like to play in the new, fully professional Eredivisie Women league for Alkmaar, who Engelkes managed.

“I didn’t think twice about it. I immediately gave up my job [working for 02], packed my bags and headed to Holland,” says Fishlock. “It was the best decision I’ve ever made. Going to Alkmaar undoubtedly improved me as a player. When I arrived there, I was all hustle and bustle, someone who always wanted to get forward from midfield with no real thought process behind what I was doing. But that is not how they played in Holland; it was, and is, far more possession-based. So I had to strip back my game and start again and over time I grew to love the ball and being someone who dictates the tempo of a match.”

Fishlock’s passing accuracy and range significantly improved during her two years in Holland, something aided by a figure who in recent years became well known to her fellow Manchester United supporters. “Louis van Gaal took a couple of our training sessions,” she says. “He was head coach of the men’s team at the time and was very pro the women’s game.

“Both sessions he put on started with a basic passing routine but they lasted for ages because he was obsessed with them being perfect. He’d shout: ‘Stop, back to the beginning,’ if someone did something that was not 100% right. I’ve never seen attention to detail like it. It was awe-inspiring but also a little crazy, which tallies with the stories you hear about how he drilled the players at United.

“I spoke to him a few times and he was really nice. His knowledge of football is insanely good.”

Fishlock’s love of the game developed from being part of a “football-mad family” and playing in the park directly outside their home in Cardiff with her two older brothers, Gareth and James. “They were half-decent and playing with boys made me tougher,” Fishlock remembers before going on to reflect on the changes she has seen in women’s football since making her debut for Cardiff as a teenager and going on to become the club’s record goalscorer.

“The biggest change has probably been investment. It’s not been everywhere but in most countries where women’s football is played there are at least one or two teams who have benefited from major funding. That’s good but the downside is that it creates a big gap between rich and poor. I’d love to see investment spread through every league in every country so they’re all as competitive as they can be.

“Another pleasing development has been the medical side. As recently as a few years ago, if a girl got injured, she would be treated on the NHS. Now most clubs have full-time medical staff who can treat their players quickly and to a high level, which is crucial.”

Another crucial development has been visibility. By Fishlock’s own admission, there were no role models for her to aspire to when she was young. Now, however, and thanks to the steady rise in the profile and prominence of the women’s game, there are such figures, with Fishlock among the leading lights.

“I’ve had girls come up to me and say I’m their inspiration,” she says. “To have a positive impact on the next generation of female footballers is amazing.”

And Fishlock will get to inspire further on Wednesday having returned to Wales from Seattle, where she has lived since 2013 and describes as home. But the girl from Cardiff who grew up with posters of Eric Cantona and Paul Scholes on her wall remains very much Welsh. Dedicated to playing for her country ever since making her debut in 2006 and via ups and downs – the later including not so far being able to help Wales qualify for a major tournament – reaching a landmark which will take some beating.

“My family will be at the game on Wednesday, which is important as they are my support system – without them I wouldn’t have achieved anything. Once the whistle goes, I’ll want to do them and my country proud.”

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