Euro 2016: Former waiter Ashley Williams marks 50th cap

By Dafydd PritchardBBC Wales Sport
Ashley Williams
Ashley Williams succeeded Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey as Wales captain
Euro 2016 qualifier: Israel v Wales
Venue: Sammy Ofer Stadium, Haifa Date: Saturday, 28 March Kick-off: 17:00 BST
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio Wales, Radio Cymru and the BBC Sport website

Wales' Euro 2016 qualifier in Israel represents their biggest match for more than a decade and, for captain Ashley Williams, the latest landmark in a remarkable career.

Aged 30, the Swansea City skipper is expected to win his 50th international cap in Haifa on Saturday, in a game which could be pivotal to the two sides' hopes of progressing to next summer's Euro 2016 finals in France.

He has held his own against some notable strikers - including a memorable clash with Robin van Persie - and has not looked out of place alongside the Premier League's leading defenders.

One admirer is Rio Ferdinand, a Champions League winner with Manchester United and now entering the twilight of a glittering career at Queens Park Rangers.

Rio Ferdinand (third left) captained Manchester United to the 2008 Champions League title
Rio Ferdinand (third left) captained Manchester United to the 2008 Champions League title

The former England centre-back and Williams share an agent, and have become good friends, even going on holiday with each other.

"He's a great guy and he's his own man," says Ferdinand.

"Thirty is when experience kicks in and starts telling. He plays with his head rather than just his heart.

"Fifty caps for Wales is a huge achievement, and I'm sure he wouldn't have imagined it when he was at Stockport."

Humble beginnings

As Ferdinand suggests, Williams' rise was not an orthodox one.

Released by West Brom at 16, Williams joined non-league Hednesford Town and had to work as hard off the pitch as he did on it in order to survive.

With the part-time club training only twice a week, their teenage centre-back had to find alternative ways of earning a living, and he did so by toiling at fairgrounds, petrol stations, bowling alleys and restaurants.

"I was the worst waiter ever. You would've been waiting five minutes for your drink when I was on," Williams recalls.

"So I knew that wasn't for me. My whole aim was to get into the league, where it was my full-time job."

Liverpool's Rickie Lambert (left) and Ashley Williams
Liverpool's Rickie Lambert (left) and Ashley Williams played together at Stockport before both ending up in the Premier League

Several shifts - and, crucially, several excellent performances for Hednesford - later, Williams caught the eye of Stockport manager Sammy McIlroy and earned a move to the then Division Two (League One) side in January 2003.

The grind continued, however, and it was not until March 2004 that Williams earned his first start for the club in a 2-2 draw at Hartlepool.

"That was when I really felt like a professional footballer," he says.

International recognition

After breaking into Stockport's first team, Williams became an integral figure and was soon appointed captain.

He was also spotted by Wales Under-21s manager Brian Flynn, who had asked Stockport about his Welsh roots.

Senior boss John Toshack watched the burgeoning defender in a 1-0 win at Hereford in March 2008 and, despite leaving Edgar Street at half-time, he handed Williams his Wales debut in a 2-0 win against Luxembourg later that month.

Ashley Williams (left) with John Toshack
John Toshack (right) gave Ashley Williams his first cap for Wales

"It's no surprise Ash has gone on to do what he's done," says Toshack, who also gave Williams his first taste of international captaincy against Scotland in 2009.

"That's a fantastic achievement for someone who has come through the ranks the way he has done, and it's an example for young players who maybe don't get those opportunities.

"I'm really pleased for him. If you speak to any of his managers, I'm sure you'll get the same glowing reference."

Signing for Swansea

Roberto Martinez, then in charge of Swansea, would certainly agree because, the day after Williams' debut in Luxembourg, the Spaniard signed him on loan.

After helping the Swans clinch the League One title, Williams made the move permanent for £400,000, which was then a record fee for Swansea and which now looks like one of the club's greatest bargains.

Williams' mantelpiece was soon awash with awards, as he was named Wales Footballer of the Year in 2009 and became a fixture in Championship teams of the year.

As Williams' stock rose, so too did Swansea's, and their seemingly irresistible ascent culminated in a pulsating play-off final win against Reading at Wembley in May 2011 which secured promotion to the Premier League.

Garry Monk (left) and Ashley Williams
Swansea manager Garry Monk (left) played alongside Ashley Williams for the Swans

Alongside Williams at the heart of the Swans' defence that day - and for years before then - was Garry Monk, now the club's manager.

"We've got a great relationship," says Monk.

"He's the leader on the pitch and off the pitch as well.

"We're friends off the pitch, which helps, but he knows when we're working that relationship we have [changes] and we're doing it for the right reasons."

For Williams, Monk's move from defensive partner to boss has required some adjusting.

"As the captain I need to show that he's the gaffer. It's normal now," he says, suppressing a laugh.

"But it took a while. I used to say 'Garry... Monks... er, gaffer!' I didn't know what to call him. But he's definitely the gaffer now."

Premier League pedigree

Their partnership has proved productive so far, with Swansea enjoying another season of top-half Premier League security.

Williams has been a totemic figure for the Swans in the top flight, attracting interest from a number of illustrious clubs before signing a new contract last summer.

As Williams sits back in his chair at the Liberty Stadium and casts his mind back to his days at Stockport, he finds it difficult to tally that gruelling apprenticeship at Edgeley Park with his current standing in the game.

"I could never have imagined it would pan out this way, not in my wildest dreams," he says.

"My early memories [of Stockport] are how difficult it was. I used to go to bed early, my legs aching. It was like pre-season every day for me."

Ashley Williams (left) for Wales versus Bosnia
Ashley Williams (left) has led Wales to two wins and two draws in their four Euro 2016 qualifiers to date

And turning back to the pivotal week ahead, Williams senses this is a defining moment.

"It has been everything I've ever wanted - and more - in my career," he says.

"To actually reach 50, it's such a big milestone. There have probably been better players than me who haven't got there.

"We all know how big this game [against Israel] is. None of us will be playing it down.

"With how close the group is, we're very confident to go anywhere and get a result and we're not afraid to say that anymore."

You can listen to a special Radio Wales Sport programme with Ashley Williams on BBC Radio Wales from 19:00 GMT on Wednesday, 25 March.