An era of Welsh football quietly came to an end last week as former captain Ashley Williams announced his retirement from the game at the age of 36. Williams was something of a ‘late bloomer’ in football terms, playing in the lower leagues of English football for much of the first part of his career and not making his debut for the national side until 2008 at the age of 24. He didn’t let the slow start hold him back. By the time he stepped away from the national stage in 2019, he’d made 86 appearances for his country, most of them as captain. The impression he’s made on Welsh football is enormous, but would it be fair to call him the greatest Wales captain in history?
The easiest way to rank any captain is through their achievements. That isn’t always easy to do with the Welsh national side due to the lack of top-level international honors, but there are really only two periods of history you could point to if you want to go looking for Wales’ best captain.
The first would be the 1920s through to the 1930s, during which Wales won the British Home Championship seven times. Those were glorious years, but the competition no longer exists and is lightly regarded by anyone living outside the United Kingdom. Very few people still remember it at all. Most people would instead point to Wales’ legendary run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, in which the Dragons suffered a heartbreaking loss to Portugal. It’s the closest Wales has come to international glory in living memory, and Williams was the captain of the team at the time.
Being captain wouldn’t mean anything if Williams hadn’t have led by example, but he did. Most Welsh fans will remember the official Wales song for the tournament was “Together Stronger” by the Manic Street Preachers. In the chorus of that song, lead singer James Dean Bradfield proclaimed, “with Ashley Williams we can win any fight.” That’s how fans saw Williams – a leader and a fighter. He was as solid a center back as we’ve seen in Welsh football, and he was criminally underrated at Premier League level. Perhaps some of that has to do with the fact that he entered the league with Swansea and didn’t get a ‘big move’ until much later in his career when he joined Everton. Seeing Williams in a red shirt at the heart of defense didn’t necessarily make fans confident of victory, but it at least made them confident that the team wouldn’t make any careless defensive errors. During those glorious few months in 2016, he helped us to dream that a footballing miracle might be possible.
Williams’ career could easily have gone another way. Until he moved to Swansea in 2008, at the age of 24, he was playing for Stockport County in League Two and struggling to make ends meet. Even when he joined Swansea, they were a League One club for whom Premier League football was a distant dream. Five years earlier, he was playing for Hednesford Town and supporting himself by working part time in a petrol station. Back then, Wolverhampton-born Williams thought of himself as English. He qualified for Wales through his maternal grandfather but could also have played for Jamaica through his father. He opted for Wales and never looked back. Once he decided on Wales, he committed to the country with his heart and soul.
There are a thousand possible bumps in the road that can prevent a promising young player from becoming a professional footballer. Not everyone who deserves to make it does so. Not everyone who makes it deserves to be there. Backing yourself for a career in football is like placing a big bet at an online slots website. Let’s take the Aztec Gems slots UK game as an example, because Williams did, after all, turn out to be quite the hidden gem for Wales. The chances of making more than you spend at an online slots website aren’t necessarily great. Even if you’re one of the lucky ones who walks away in profit, there are ten players who win nothing for every one win you’re able to produce. Online slots are a numbers game, and the numbers don’t necessarily favor the players. Football is even harsher. You can always move on to the next slot if the one you’re playing isn’t paying you anything. Footballers often have nowhere to turn when they’ve played their hand and lost.
The fact that Williams was ‘discovered’ by the wider footballing world at the age of 24 is almost unique. Good players are signed up so young that it almost never happens anymore. The obvious comparison to make is Leicester City legend Jamie Vardy, but Williams’ unlikely rise to prominence doesn’t get a tenth of the press coverage that Vardy’s has. It’s another factor in his appeal. He wasn’t bred for success, and he didn’t reach the highest level because he started off at a great team. Williams clawed his way up through the divisions the hard way and earned the captaincy of Wales by fighting for it. In doing so, he led the team to its best-ever finish at a major international tournament. While others will have their own opinions – all of which are valid – that’s enough to make him the best Welsh football captain of all time in our eyes.
Happily, it seems that even in retirement, football hasn’t seen the last of Ashley Williams. Injuries and age have forced him to call time on his career at the age of 36 after being released by Bristol City at the end of last season, but he’s already looking into taking coaching qualifications. There is a lack of Welsh managers at the highest level of football at the moment, just as there’s a lack of black managers in general. Williams would be breaking the mold on both fronts if he could forge a successful career as a manager. We wouldn’t bet against him doing precisely that, though – after all, it’s what he’s been doing his whole career. The legacy he leaves as a player is huge, but who’s to say the legacy he creates as a manager can’t be even bigger?