PICTURE by Express.
ARTICLE BY Tomos Wyn Jones
Ashley Williams must be considered one of Wales’ greatest ever captains by now, having galvanised the squad from the darkest of times into competing against the biggest countries in Europe.
Born in Wolverhampton, Williams faced many setbacks as a youngster, being released by both West Brom and Tamworth, before being signed by non-league side Hednesford Town in 2001. Williams appeared 60 times for the Pitmen, putting in commanding performances against physical strikers who would normally possess a huge threat in the lower divisions.
The centre back’s performances there attracted the attention of clubs in the lower divisions of the football league, and in the winter of 2003, Williams would go on to sign for Stockport County. He was in and out of the side in the opening 6 months of his Hatters career, before establishing himself in the heart of their defence. Despite playing in all but two of their games during the 2004/05 season, and scoring once, it wasn’t enough to keep their League One status, as they were relegated to the 4th tier of English football. Despite this, Williams made the transition from non-league to the football league with ease, he never looked out of place, was commanding in the air and calm on the ball.
Stockport needed stability, as they had struggled since the turn of the millennium. Williams helped guide the Hatters to safety in their first season in League Two, before mounting a promotion charge in the 2006/07 campaign, where they narrowly missed out on goal difference. Williams had become a man mountain at the back and became club captain – again attracting attention from clubs in the higher divisions. During the first half of the 2007/08 campaign, Williams helped Stockport mount yet another promotion charge, with the Welshman yet again a catalyst for the club’s early season success. His performances throughout 2007 also earned him the North-West league Two player of the year award, in addition to winning the North-West player of the year award. Williams was now the hottest prospect in League Two, with Stockport unable to convince him to remain there – in March 2008, he was signed on loan by Swansea City, with the view to buy for a then club record fee of £400,000. In total, Williams appeared 175 times for the Hatters, scoring on 4 occasions.
Despite only appearing 3 times for the Swans in his initial loan, he helped the club to a 1st place finish in League One, being promoted for the first time in 24 years to the rebranded Championship. It only took until Williams’s 9th appearance for the Swans to score his first goal for the club, in a 1-1 draw against recently relegated Derby County. In what was a relatively successful first season back in the 2nd tier, Williams was ever present in the Swansea defence, appearing 51 times throughout the season, including in all 46 Championship matches. Swansea had become a stern defence to break down,with Williams at the heart of their ever-reliable defence. This was acknowledged during the 2009 FAW awards, with Williams awarded as Wales’s footballer of the year. During the 2009/10 campaign, he helped the Swans on to a 7th place finish, just a point away from the play-offs. Swansea’s defence was amongst the best in the country, only conceding 37 in 46 games, with Williams the heartbeat of the back four. His fellow peers were full of admiration, as he was named in the Championship’s PFA Team of the Year.
After two consistent seasons in the 2nd tier, the 2010/11 season felt like the campaign Swansea could challenge for promotion to the Premier League. Under the guidance of up-and-coming manager Brendan Rodgers, it looked like Swansea had struck the perfect balance in defence and attack, with Williams and Gary Monk marshalling the defence for Swansea in each game. The Welshman also scored in consecutive games for the first time in his professional career, scoring in wins against Middlesbrough and Doncaster Rovers. Swansea reached the play-offs in 2011, beating Nottingham Forest 3-1 on aggregate, before beating Reading 4-2 at Wembley in the play-off final courtesy of a Scott Sinclair hat-trick. Williams, who played all 49 games throughout the gruelling campaign, was yet again named in the PFA Team of the Year, a testament to his commanding performances at the back. He also became the first Swansea player to appear in 106 consecutive matches, paying tribute to his work ethic and determination for the Swans.
Swansea were now playing top-flight football for the first time since the 1980s, and after a rocky start, settled into the Premier League very well. His first and only Premier League goal of the 2011/12 campaign came in September, where he netted a consolation in a 4-1 defeat away to Chelsea. The Welshman was instrumental to the Swans’ first campaign in the premier League, putting in exceptional performances in wins against Arsenal and Manchester City. The Swans finished in 11th.
In his 5th full season with the club, Williams played in every league game apart from one, as he was part of a defence that only conceded 42 goals in 38 games in the top-flight. Their excellent performances in the league were evident to be seen in the final league table, as they finished comfortably in 9th place. However, Swansea’s greatest success came in the League Cup. In that they defeated the likes of Liverpool and Chelsea on their way to the final which took place in February 2013, where they faced League Two minnows Bradford City. Williams captained the Swans to arguably the greatest success in their history, leading them to a 5-0 bulldozing of the Yorkshire side. It was a testament to Swansea and Williams, who not long ago were playing in the lower divisions of English football. That victory also came in the centenary year of the club, which made their season an even bigger success.
Williams was permanently handed the captaincy at the start of the 2013/14 campaign as he led his side to yet another comfortable mid-table finish, amassing the 40-point mark for the 3rd consecutive season. He scored his first goal in two-and-a-half years in March 2014, scoring a late consolation in a 3-2 defeat against Everton. As winners of the 2013 League Cup, Swansea qualified for the UEFA Europa League, with Williams playing yet another integral role in their run to the last 32, where he played the full 90 minutes in their historic 0-0 draw against Italian giants Napoli. Williams had now established himself as a reliable top-flight defender. He played in every game apart from one in the 2014/15 campaign, where the Swans finished in their highest ever Premier League position of 8th. Williams’s best Premier League goal scoring campaign came in the 2015/16 season, where he netted winners in games against Watford and Arsenal in what was yet another consistent campaign for the Swans. He was quickly becoming one of the best players to play for Swansea City. As a result of his stellar performances over the years, a bid of £12 million was offered accepted as he moved to Everton. In total, he appeared 352 times for Swansea, scoring on 14 occasions.
Williams made his Everton debut away against the club that rejected him as a youth, West Brom, in a 2-1 victory away at the Hawthorns. He would go on to appear 36 times in the league during the 2016/17 campaign, scoring once (a late winner) in a tense 2-1 victory against Arsenal at Goodison Park in December 2016. He received the first red card of his career in a 1-1 draw against Manchester United, as he denied the ball from going in with his hands. He helped Everton to their first European finish since 2014, as they finished 7th. The following season, Williams only appeared 24 times in the league, scoring one goal in a 4-0 win against West Ham United. He made uncharacteristic mistakes during the 17/18 and was used more as a squad player following the appointment of Sam Allardyce. After two years with Everton, Williams was deemed to be surplus to requirements, and was loaned out to Stoke City for the 2018/19 campaign. He completed his Everton career with 3 goals in 73 games.
During his loan spell with the Potters, Williams struggled to regain the form we had seen from him during his Swansea days, and he was sent off twice during the Championship campaign. In what can only be described as a disappointing campaign for Stoke, Williams played 33 times for the club, scoring his sole goal against eventual champions Norwich City in a 2-2 draw. Without a club following his release by Everton, he signed a short-term contract with Bristol City, which would see him out until the end of the 19/20 campaign. His first two appearances for the Robins came against former clubs Stoke City and Swansea City respectively. He played 32 times for Bristol City, scoring a goal in games against Barnsley and Huddersfield Town. It was evident to see throughout the season that Williams had slowed down at this point and struggled at times to keep up with the pace of the game. His contract was not renewed by the Robins, and in January 2021, he officially retired from the game at the age of 36, having played a total of 731 club games, scoring 24 goals.
Internationally, Williams made his Wales debut in March 2008 in a 2-0 victory against minnows Luxembourg. In a year’s time, he captained his country for the first time, in a 3-0 win against fellow home nation country Scotland. By October 2010, he had scored his first goal for Wales, a header in a 5-1 demolition against the country he had made his debut against (Luxembourg).
After a disappointing start to the tenure of Chris Coleman, he reverted to giving Williams the Wales captaincy on a full-time basis, looking for an experienced leader in a time of unity. Williams was an integral part of Wales’s squad qualifying for the 2016 European Championship in France. He put in Man of the Match performances against Belgium and Cyprus on the way to qualifying for Wales’s first major tournament since 1958. He was a main feature in the side throughout the unforgettable campaign, battling through pain in Wales’s last 16 victory against Northern Ireland. Williams’s finest hour in Wales jersey came in the quarter-final, as he equalised for Wales in the 31st minute against Belgium. He galvanised the squad that night and helped them on to Wales’s biggest victory in their history, winning 3-1 against the Red Devils in Lille. Despite losing in the semi-final against Portugal, Williams huddled all the players together, acknowledging their success throughout the tournament. This optimized him as a leader, he had brought a footballing nation back together after years of despair. Williams appeared throughout the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, where Wales narrowly missed out on qualification on the final matchday. With a lack of games at club level, Williams appeared less and less for Wales, with his final cap coming in June 2019, in a narrow 1-0 defeat against Hungary in the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign. He received a total of 86 caps for his country, scoring twice in what can only be described as a remarkable international career.
Williams has now entered the world of punditry, where i have no doubt he will go on to share his excellent analysis of games, and review what truly has been an extraordinary career. He will undoubtedly go down in the record books as one of Wales’ greatest captains and one of Swansea City’s greatest players.