Swansea's all-seeing skipper sits down with FFT's Joe Brewin to discuss his club's exciting spell, beating Manchester United (again) and his own intriguing ascent...
Ashley Williams can’t quite recall the moment exactly, but he remembers how he felt on that day, nearly half his lifetime ago, when it ‘felt like his world was over’. Of course, the melodramatic melancholy of a 16-year-old getting told his club won’t be keeping him on is nothing new, but then few footballers clamber the slippery slope back to the top quite like he has.
It was 14 years ago that a vulnerable young stopper was forced to come to terms with reality at West Brom. “I can’t remember anything that was said but I do remember the day,” Williams tells FFT.com, reflecting on his teenage angst. “I cried a lot, and it did take a while to get the confidence back.
“I was there for four years,” he adds. “I started up front, then dropped back to central midfield and finally ended up at centre-back.”
Boy to man
Boyhood Villa fan...
(So says Wiki, anyway.) “No that’s incorrect, I was Liverpool. It probably says that because I grew up in Tamworth and everyone else there is a Villa fan.”
Some things haven’t changed, then, but Williams is 31 now and may well look back at those days with a smile. Where once was a 16-year-old wondering what lay in store with a dream at stake, now goes the Premier League captain of a Swansea side continuing to improve at an impressive rate. No one is better placed to judge the Welsh side’s rise from third-tier champions to Europe-chasing neutrals’ favourites (no one, that is, except the man currently steering them) than Williams, who joined just before League One promotion in 2008 and hasn’t left the first team since. Transitions to each rung of the football ladder have been achieved in line with his team’s seamless strides. But how?
“I’ve always just tried to be as consistent as I can; to stay on the pitch as much as I can,” Williams says. “You have to look after yourself, be healthy and train well, though. Then you just accept the challenges at each level.
“After West Brom I was at Hednesford from 16 in the youth team. We were full-time so I’d go to college and then train in the day. I met a whole new set of lads and really started to enjoy my football again.
“After about a year I stepped up with the men. That was different, with a lot of tough blokes who’d just had a full day’s work and were then coming to training. They didn’t want to be messed about by young kids, that’s for sure. That’s where I really learned my toughness, and just to get on with it.”
United they stand
Then-League One Stockport snapped him up on a free in 2003, where he stayed until Swansea came along to complete an eventual club-record £400,000 transfer in 2008. Five managers have come and gone since then at the Liberty Stadium – Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa, Brendan Rodgers, Michael Laudrup, and now Garry Monk – but Swansea’s upward trajectory hasn’t wavered.
“I think this is probably the most quality I’ve seen in a Swansea team personally,” Williams says, with his team sitting pretty in seventh after a bright opening six games. “We’ve got at least two teams that we can field, so there’s strength in depth. We’re in a strong position at the start but there’s a lot of football still to be played.”
So let’s talk about Manchester United then, one of the teams Swansea have bettered this season – a 2-1 victory from behind in South Wales following their pair of victories over the Red Devils last season. Have they really got Louis van Gaal’s lot on lockdown?
“I don’t know really, they might feel like that!” the Swans skipper chuckles. “We’ve won the last few games against them, all by the same 2-1 scoreline which is a bit weird, but when you beat one of the top clubs – especially one like Manchester United – it’s a special day and one that you don’t really forget.”
Method in the managers
On his favourite trainer…
“I’d go for Jonjo Shelvey because he scores a lot of goals. He’s got a serious long-range shot on him; he’ll basically just try it from anywhere. To be honest I like being on his team because otherwise you get hit with a lot of balls…”
Under Monk, those days have been plentiful. Swansea players will happily sing the praises of their current boss when the questions come – or former team-mate, in Williams’ case – but here’s another: do we really know how good he is yet? Or is Swansea’s success down to something more deep rooted?
“First and foremost the club have done well to appoint the right managers; ones who didn’t want to differ too much from what we’ve been doing,” Williams asserts. “The main thing is that they don’t try to change too much, which they’ve all managed while adding their own little bit each time.
“I think most of them were similar, though they all have their differences obviously. Roberto was quite attacking, Paulo was more defensive. Brendan came in and tried to find a blend of the two, which I think he achieved. Then Laudrup came in and things were a bit more free-flowing; he left us to decide how we were going to play.
“The [current] gaffer has actually added quite a lot and taken us to another level we haven’t seen before. He tried to tighten things up and find a balance. Now defensively we look sound and we’re scoring goals too. Generally, I just think Swansea is a good place to play your football; a good city to live in to concentrate on your game. I know most players who come here are happy.”
On Andre Ayew…
“He’s really tried to buy into what we’re trying to do as a team but has taken responsibility for himself. He works hard every day so I’m pleased that he’s scored a couple of goals and has had a good start. He’s pretty perfect in his English too which obviously helps. Franck Tabanou is still learning, and even Bafe [Gomis] sometimes struggles so he’s probably the best speaker of the three.”
Success is about evolution, and Swansea have been forced to learn the error of their ways. In 2013 they won their first major silverware under Laudrup in the Capital One Cup, but suffered a damaging run of just two wins from their final 11 matches which would prove the first half of a decaying period with the Dane. Williams, however, believes that time has given the Swans an important lesson since.
“We’d won the cup and were safe in the league,” the Wales international says. “At that point of that year I think everyone took their feet off the gas without really realising it. When you look back you maybe think that we took it too easy, and it’s something we now speak about when we get success: to never stop pushing.”
FFT was speaking to Williams at the launch of EA SPORTS FIFA 16, where he tested his button-bashing skills against the likes of Spurs’ Kyle Walker and Liverpool’s Nathaniel Clyne. Confidence in this arena, however, is lacking for the Swans man. “I’d probably rate myself a strong four out of 10,” he grins. “I’m normally Barcelona or Real Madrid, I don’t normally play as myself – I’d be annoyed if I was giving the ball away all the time! At Swansea, Neil Taylor is the sore loser who blames the computer as if he’s not in control of the players. He’s not the best, though. He thinks he is but Jack Cork or Kyle Naughton are in reality.”
Ashley Williams was competing in the FIFA 16 Celebrity Cup at the launch of EA SPORTS FIFA 16, out now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and all other formats.