INTERVIEW: Ashley Williams - Everton's rock

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Rock at the back: Toffees star Williams.

One week away in Dubai would have meant something entirely different for Everton’s Ashley Williams a decade ago.

In mid-February 2007, the centre-back – who had been released four years previously as an unheralded teenager by West Bromwich Albion – was on the cusp of bigger things in England’s fourth tier at Stockport County.

The opposition at that time were drawn from unfashionable towns in northern England, forgettable 1-0 wins against Mansfield Town and Accrington Stanley being earned in front of sparse crowds.

A trip to the UAE back then would have involved a holiday. But last week, the 32-year-old could be found at the state-of-the-art facilities at Nad Al Sheba Sports Complex for warm-weather training with a crack Premier League side.

In the intervening years, Williams grew into the flag-bearing captain of shock Euro 2016 semi-finalists in Wales. His redoubtable performances at Swansea City were also enough to convince legendary ex-Netherlands and Barcelona defender Ronald Koeman to sanction a £12 million (Dh54.8m) summer move upon arrival at the Toffees.

Speaking to Sport360 at the plush Meydan Hotel, the defender reflects on a journey he readily admits is hard to fathom.

“You make those steps gradually, I suppose,” Williams says. “It is crazy now, when you look back. But at the time it was just a gradual thing. You are just trying to get to the next level, the next league and then push on with Swansea. It sounds mad when you say that now.

“I always wanted to get to a higher level, whether that is to get to the Championship or get to the Premier League. With all the things I’ve managed to achieve from where I’ve come from, I couldn’t really have dreamed about it at that time.”

Williams’ superlative mentality was key to dragging him up the leagues. During 352 indomitable appearances from 2008-16, he developed into the beating heart of the Swansea side which blossomed after a return to the top flight for the first time in 28 years was secured under manager Brendan Rodgers in 2011.

The fact the Swans have conceded 52 after 25 Premier League games this term, compared to 54 across the whole of last season, speaks of the skipper’s missing influence.

As a 69-cap stalwart, Williams also binds together the 3-5-2 formation with Wales which grants Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale the freedom to wreak havoc.

Not blessed with great height, Williams imposes himself through a robust physicality and unwavering accuracy in both the tackle and possession. Inspirational leadership is another key to his standing.

“It was developed over time,” he says of his talismanic qualities. “Obviously, when you get older, it becomes more natural anyway.”

“It was something I took on at Swansea. I’d been there awhile when Garry Monk was the captain, so when he stopped playing the armband came to me. It was something I embraced and enjoyed doing.”

Williams’ form in 2016/17 has matched that of his new employers. An uncertain start raised questions, but a solid run of one defeat in the last 10 matches has lifted the Toffees into seventh. There they find themselves isolated – four points ahead of West Brom and a substantial seven points behind the runaway top six.

This Saturday sees ex-boss David Moyes return to Goodison Park with sorry Sunderland. The pragmatic Williams insists Everton must do all they can to keep up their strong form, with a drop-off from those in front of them in the European spots always a possibility.

He says: “I think we just have to keep it going, just try and handle our own business. It is a strong top six, obviously. Whether we can get into that? I don’t know. But if we keep doing what we are doing, looking after our own form and our own league position, then maybe if one of the other ones drops off, it will be classed as a good season.”

Endorsements for a centre-back don’t come much better than being chosen by Koeman. The 53-year-old – recruited after two impressive campaigns at Southampton – was a complete performer during his playing career. Unrivalled commitment to his art was allied with a deft touch which still makes him the top scoring defender in world football, on 253 goals in 763 games for club and country.

“He was one of the best centre-backs ever,” says Williams of his exalted coach. “You have an unbelievable amount of respect for him, straight off the bat. You can’t always play well. But he doesn’t accept a day off here or there, or taking a break in part of the session.”

“As a centre-back, he is like most. He wants you to defend with your life, try and play with the ball when you can and not over play. It is the usual. He doesn’t go too in depth with me, anyway. It is more of the mentality that he is trying to instill in the squad.”

Koeman’s work at Goodison Park has seen him blood youngsters Mason Holgate and Tom Davies. The former, 20, was handed his Premier League debut by the Dutchman a year after signing from Barnsley, regularly picking up appearances alongside Williams when a three-man defence is utilised.

In central midfield, 18-year-old Davies has proved a revelation. A captain for England at youth level, he has seamlessly settled into regular first-team football since January’s ascension to the XI – a driving run and delicate finish during the 4-0 routing of Manchester City the early highlight.

Williams was full of praise for the duo’s promising first Premier League steps.

He says: “They are really good, some of the best I’ve played with for their age. I think Mason has got unbelievable talent and I think he will play for England for the next however many years. I think he is the real deal.

“With ‘Davo’, we have all seen – especially in the Manchester City game when he scored – since he’s come into the team how consistent he’s been. That’s the main thing you don’t normally get from a young lad.”

A new reality has also impacted Williams internationally. The end of a 58-year wait to play in a major tournament was marked in style this summer with Wales’ deep run at the Euros.

But moving from minnows to a marked side has ensured an uncomfortable start to World Cup 2018 qualifying, where they sit outside the progression spots in third in Group D. As he has done throughout his career, Williams is embracing the test.

He says: “I think you can see when we play against teams, they are setting up differently. We have different challenges and we have to change the way we play, a little bit. Now people are seeing us as a bit of a scalp and they are giving us a lot more respect. That is a new challenge for us as a team and something we haven’t come across before. We have to manage with it and deal with it.”

Ashley Williams on…

Chris Coleman’s future

“We love the [Wales] gaffer. It is clear to see that all the player have such a good relationship with him. We wouldn’t want to lose him. But it is his own career, so he has to do whatever he has to do. We would like to see him there as long as possible.”

Will Romelu Lukaku stay?

“He is one of our top players. Everyone knows how important he is for us. I cannot really speak on Rom’s situation. As a team-mate, of course I’d love him to stay.”

Dropping Phil Jagielka

“I think that is what you need if you want to be a big club and a strong team. You need competition. Jags has had an unbelievable career, and obviously he is not playing at the minute. Myself and [Ramiro] Funes [Mori] are playing, but we know there is another quality player waiting. It is competition, but it is healthy. Jags will be talking to us and trying to do the best for the team.

It would be the same if any of us weren’t playing. With Mason Holgate as well, we are trying to help him. We want a good season, so that means we all have to help.”

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