THE BIG INTERVIEW: Ashley Williams
13th January 2016
Captain of club and country, highly regarded as one of the Barclays Premier League's leading centre-backs and the rock at the heart of Swansea City's defence...
512 professional club appearances down the line and Ashley Williams, at the age of 31, can already reflect on a glittering career that consists of promotions, European football, League Cup triumph and skippering his country to their first major international tournament since 1958.
"Even if it ended tomorrow, I would be happy with my career," beams the Swans skipper. "It's been more than I could have dreamt about when I was at Hednesford Town as a teenager. It's been a long journey but very enjoyable.
"I've been fortunate with injuries and tried to keep myself in shape and to perform consistently well. Thankfully, the journey is still going."
It's not a bad way to reflect on your past 500 appearances, especially when you consider the remarkable journey Williams has made on his climb to the summit of British football.
But despite the many highs he has enjoyed throughout his career so far, it hasn't been all plain sailing for Swansea's talismanic defender.
After all, at the tender age of 16, he was thrust onto football's so-called scrap heap, having been released by West Bromwich Albion, and by the age of 19, he was playing non-league football.
"It's disappointing and it feels like your world is over at that point in time," reflects Williams on his initial rejection. "I obviously felt like I was going to play for West Brom forever when I was a kid - or whatever team you play for at that age.
"It was gutting, but I had to just get on with it. My mum and dad helped me through it though, and I managed to claw my way back up to here."
That journey to the top began with Hednesford Town, a Staffordshire-based club that currently cuts its teeth in the National League North, whom Williams joined shortly after he was released by West Brom.
"It felt like starting all over again, but at that point it was all about enjoying my football and playing with some friends," Williams continues.
"We were full-time in the youth team, so we used to go to college and train in the daytime, which was quite good.
"I started enjoying football again. We had a good little team and won a few things, and that was when I got my love for the game back."
Williams' early setback is a stark reminder of what thousands of young and budding footballers go through at an early age. Only the very few make it in the professional game, while the vast majority fall by the wayside.
"When I was at West Brom, it felt a bit too pressurised, where everybody is trying to make the grade, and I ended up not enjoying it," he admits.
"It just turned into being all about impressing the coaches and playing well every week, rather than enjoying it with your friends, which is what it should be all about at that age."
Williams' rise through the divisions has been well documented. From waiter to Wembley was one such headline, referring to the centre-back's extraordinary journey from working at a Beefeater restaurant to leading the Swans out at Wembley for the League Cup Final in 2013.
Having started his belated ascent with Hednesford Town, Williams made his first step up the Football League ladder in 2003 when he joined Stockport County.
"I knew I was doing well with Hednesford, but it was still a bit of a surprise when I got the call from a professional team," insists the ever-modest Williams.
"The manager was Sammy McIlroy, and one of the scouts, Gil Prescott, scouted me. I went to Stockport for a week's trial, played a game and they signed me after that.
"I remember my debut was an away game against Hartlepool. I don't actually remember too much of the game, but it was a Tuesday night and we drew 2-2. My mum and dad were there, and I remember being really nervous.
"At the time, I think that game was a bigger deal than playing at Old Trafford or at the Emirates Stadium because it was my first professional game, so I didn't know what it was going to be like.
"Now that I'm older, I don't really get nervous about anything anymore. I haven't been nervous before a game for years. It's because I feel in control of it - if I play well or not, it's down to me. But that day at Hartlepool, I was really nervous."
Stockport County was where Williams' upward trajectory began to gather momentum, but it was his move to the Swans in 2008 that can now be referred to as the major turning point in his career.
"It was the pivotal moment, although I didn't know at the time that it would turn out like this," says Williams. "I knew I was going to a good club with a good manager and into a good team that was doing well at the time.
"It looked like they were going to be promoted from League One too, which meant I would be moving from League Two to the Championship, which is where I really wanted to play and see if I could hack it."
That question was answered in emphatic fashion. Not only could Williams "hack it" in the second tier of English football, but he flourished. His impressive performances on the pitch were widely recognised when he was named 'Wales Footballer of the Year' at an FAW awards dinner in November 2009 on the back of his first season in the Championship.
Williams went from strength-to-strength and was selected in the Championship PFA Team of the Year at the end of the following season, before achieving the same feat at the conclusion of Swansea's promotion-winning campaign of 2010-11.
"Getting promoted to the Premier League was probably the biggest highlight," says Williams, reflecting on his career achievements. "Winning the League Cup in 2013 was also big, as was qualifying for the Euros with Wales.
"In terms of my proudest moment, it's split between those three. I feel so fortunate to have achieved so much in my career. It's maybe not so much in comparison to other players, but when I consider where I was, I think I've done well."
And that's putting it mildly. As he briefly touched on, Williams achieved what most young footballers could only dream of in October last year, when he captained his country to their first major finals in over half a century.
"I can't wait for it," adds the 56-cap international. "It's something new because I've never even attended a tournament as a fan.
"I don't know what it's going to be like, but we worked hard enough to get there, so we're just going to enjoy it and go as far as we can.
"The good thing is that, playing in the Premier League, you have good games every week to look forward to, but that is something in the distance that I'm sure will be something none of us will forget."
But for now, Williams is not forgetting his immediate focus, which is on helping his club climb away from the lurking threat of the Premier League bottom three.
"No matter what happens at the tournament, this is the club that pays me and is my livelihood," he adds.
"We've been playing a lot better recently, but we need to continue to work hard to keep the momentum up and to pick up as many points as we can.
"Everybody is focused on getting us out of this position and putting distance between ourselves and the bottom three.
"It will be a big game against Sunderland - just like every game is for us at the moment. Both teams will be desperate to win. In our current situation, every point is important."
There's no doubt that Williams will lead by example this afternoon, showing heart and desire for the cause. It has been the case for his last 512 club appearances, and his 513th will be no different.