The two sitting side by side, it’s difficult not to consider them as bookends: one striker embarking on the start of her career, the other closing in on the final chapter; one who has only really known women’s football in its professional, upwardly mobile guise, the other having plied a living at a call centre and Tesco, who studied to be a plumber, before becoming a professional footballer at the age of 30.

Wales’ Elise Hughes and Kayleigh Barton aren’t used to all this soppy reflection stuff. The strikers, aged 22 and 36 respectively, tend to speak in nods or thumbs up, swift signs of approval. Concision is more conducive to goal-scoring. And goal-scoring is their economy.

“I’m proper blushing now,” says Hughes.

“It’s because I don’t normally say these things,” adds Barton.

The things are this: As Wales Women embark on their Euro 2025 qualification campaign with a home clash against Croatia before travelling to Kosovo, the look and feel of the squad is as new as it is familiar. There’s the usual guard – Barton, Jess Fishlock (set to earn a record 149th and 150th caps), Sophie Ingle, Angharad James, Rhianna Robertson and Hayley Ladd – and the usual modus operandi – reaching a first-ever major tournament.

But at the helm is a new manager in Rhian Wilkinson, plus a bevy of uncapped youngsters.

And leading the line will most likely be Hughes.

This is new territory. Barton, who has 17 goals for Wales, has offered the team their focal point since the retirement of long-time Wales’ forward Helen Ward. And there is no denying the impact of her tenacious pressing.

But calls for Hughes to be given her chance have been fierce, particularly as Wales toiled in front of goal in last year's Nations League campaign in which they managed just four goals across six matches (one of which was Hughes').

The Crystal Palace striker led last year’s Women’s Championship goal-scoring charts and is doing so again this campaign, with promotion to the Women's Super League up for grabs, as she sits level with Sheffield United's Isobel Goodwin with 15 goals and two assists.

Elise Hughes has 15 goals in 19 matches for Crystal Palace this season
LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 24: Annabel Blanchard of Crystal Palace celebrates scoring her team's third goal with teammate Elise Hughes during the Barclays Women's Championship match between Crystal Palace and Watford at Selhurst Park on March 24, 2024 in London, England. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Barton, now playing with Palace’s promotion rivals Charlton Athletic, is profuse in her praise of Hughes. There’s her teammate’s obvious patience. It’s not easy sitting on the touchlines for six years (Hughes joined Wales’ senior set-up at a precocious 16 years old), biding one’s time as the goals pile up at club level.

“But it’s not about her just being patient. She sees what nobody else sees,” Barton says. “Her vision when she’s on the side lines, she’ll come up to me and give me information. As an older player, some might shy away from that. I love that from her. The information she gives me, the positivity, the reassurance if I’m doing something right. That’s a player that you want on your side. A proper, professional teammate.”

Kayleigh Green and Jess Fishlock will likely be embarking on their final qualification campaign with Wales
Kayleigh Green and Jess Fishlock will likely be embarking on their final qualification campaign with Wales

Hughes scored her first international senior goal for Wales in December, a glimpse of positive play in a disappointing 2-1 loss to Iceland in a Nations League campaign which ended in relegation. The moment was “a little bit emotional”, admits Green. “She deserved it. That won’t be her last.”

Even so, Hughes is quick to downplay any talk of changing of the guard. If Wales are going to qualify for a major tournament, they will do so as a squad, not a starting XI.

“It's not like I'm waiting for them to leave. I want to play with them,” Hughes says. “Obviously I was biding my time. When an opportunity arises, I always want to take it. To be coming off the bench for someone as well respected and as experienced as Kay was just as important to me as if I was starting the game.

“But I don't want to force them out to get my opportunity. So if Kay reckons she's hanging up her boots, then I'll try and make sure she stays for as long as possible.”

The exchanging of compliments and gratitude (Hughes is thankful for Barton's support; Barton is thankful for Hughes’ professionalism; Hughes is thankful for her thankfulness, the appreciation merry-go-round spins) between the pair is interspersed with fits of laughter. Barton attends Palace matches to keep an eye on Hughes, watching the 22-year-old's goal tally soar with a mixture of awe and recognition as Hughes' bid for the league's Golden Boot grows stronger and the Championship promotion race grows tighter.

But on the topic of qualification, the air turns slightly serious. Lessons have been learned, however cruel. The last-gasp World Cup qualifying play-off loss to Switzerland in the dying minutes of extra-time invariably lurks in the shadows, a source of both caution and fuel.

Rhian Wilkinson has succeeded Gemma Grainger as head coach of Wales

Also lurking is the fact that this campaign marks both the start and end of something. Wilkinson’s arrival came as a result of former manager Grainger’s hiring by the Norway FA in January, a sudden and unanticipated occurrence which threatened to derail Wales’ best shot at reaching a major tournament.

Wilkinson made calls to the players before arriving on camp, detailing her vision and the methods to manifest it in such a truncated window. Wilkinson claimed an National Women's Super League title with the Portland Thorns in her first season in charge, placing faith in youth to buttress veteran talent while espousing a style of flexible adaptability and versatility. Similar immediate success is anticipated with Wales.

Wilkinson and the squad insist there’s no room for talk of new eras, only a new campaign, a natural progression on the established foundations. Yet, Barton isn’t coy about the finality at play.

“I’m an older player so this would probably be my last campaign,” she says. “We've all wanted to qualify for a major tournament and make history for our country. But this one, it means more. To get over the line before I decide to hang up my boots –”

“She ain’t going anywhere,” Hughes interjects, her smile wide. “Look, it’s the same. Doesn’t matter if it’s your first camp or your 100th cap. We’re quite honest. We’re as motivated as ever.”

Barton nods. "We're hungry. I want to hang up my boots with a smile on my face."