The look on his face said it all. When Wales captain Ashley Williams pulled his side level against Belgium in the quarter-final of Euro 2016, his sheer joy and disbelief at what had just happened was clear for all to see.
If captaining his country wasn't enough of an achievement already, that goal meant the 32-year-old central defender became the first Welsh player in history to score at the quarter-final stage of a major tournament.
Nobody could have begrudged the former part-time Non-League player, part-time theme park and a petrol station worker his moment as he led out his side in the semi-final against Portugal.
All this from a player who refused to be substituted in the previous match with Northern Ireland after injuring his shoulder, seeing out the remaining minutes while clearly in considerable pain and unable to move his arm.
“This man has never ever disappointed me on or off the pitch,” coach Chris Coleman told the media before that round of 16 encounter, adding, “To be captain of this team is a big honour for him, he's worn the armband with pride and passion.”
That faith was repaid with Williams' headed equaliser against Belgium, to cancel out Radja Nainggolan's stunning 13th-minute opener. It was apt that Williams ran straight to the former Fulham boss to celebrate.
While the Dragons' Euros dreams were snuffed out by eventual tournament winners Portugal at the semi-final stage, the Wolverhampton-born defender's contribution had been immeasurable at Euro 2016. The same could be said for his club side at the time, Swansea City, whom he had joined in 2008.
Those star performances in France secured a summer move to Everton for a fee thought to be in the region of £12 million. But his commanding defensive displays are incongruous with his early performances at Stockport County. After joining from Non-League side Hednesford Town in 2003, a 19-year-old Williams – on his first professional contract – was far from the finished article.
Times were turbulent at Stockport after his arrival, and his first three seasons at Edgeley Park saw two changes of manager and a change in ownership. By the time ex-player Jim Gannon took over in January 2006, County were fighting relegation from League Two. Despite establishing himself as a regular in the side during those early seasons, Williams was often uneasy on the ball and had a tendency for hasty clearances.
It was only under the tutelage of Gannon – himself a former defender – that a somewhat uncultured Williams began to resemble the classy performer that can be seen today.
Yet his rise to success was no accident. Present at every single match that his son played, Ashley’s father Errol described the work ethic that underpins everything his boy has become. “He used to sit and watch Match of the Day with me as a lad and we’d talk about the players on show,” he told the Tamworth Herald. “But he wouldn’t stay up late. As soon as it finished, he’d go to bed because he had to be up training as a youth player at West Brom on the Sunday morning.”
The importance of such unconditional backing from his family has undoubtedly facilitated his growth not only as a player, but as a leader. His dedication and temperament have become an inspiration to those around him, demonstrating to young players that a combination of hard graft and an unwillingness to give up can often bring results.
Since becoming a regular member of the Wales squad – Williams made his international debut in a friendly against Luxembourg in March 2008 – he has missed just eight games for his country, replacing Aaron Ramsey as captain in 2012.
When Everton sold John Stones to Manchester City this summer, the Toffees quickly needed to find a replacement of real quality, not just a player who possessed an impressive appearance record. While Stones undoubtedly has the potential to become a real star, last season proved that there is still work to be done before he becomes the finished article. What Everton have acquired in Williams is a central defender at the peak of his career, with the temperament and dedication to slot seamlessly into the side.
In the last three seasons, Williams made more clearances (1,000) than any other player in the Premier League and was among the top 50 players for passing success rate (85%). (Source: WhoScored.com)
The young player at Stockport who couldn’t wait to get rid of the ball when he had it at his feet is long gone. Now comfortable in possession and with the ability to distribute accurately to a team-mate, Williams is exactly the kind of accomplished defender that Ronald Koeman was looking for when he allowed Stones to leave this summer.
For Swansea, without the rock in the heart of their defence, this could prove a season of struggle in South Wales. To overcome the loss of a man who made an average of 1.2 blocks per game – the third highest in the division last term – will be one of coach Francesco Guidolin's biggest challenges. Williams’ absence cannot be measured by statistics alone, however.
His heart was most certainly on show to the world during Euro 2016: in his celebrations; his fierce determination to keep the opposition at bay; and his pride in captaining his country at a major tournament.
His summer performances made a huge impression on the public watching at home. However, the manner in which he played and conducted himself was neither a surprise to fans of Wales, nor those who have followed him at Stockport or Swansea – they knew all along just how great Ashley Williams could become.
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