There is something sad when one of football’s more heart-warming tales turns sour. Consider the case of his country’s most successful captain. Ashley Williams has become the personification of Everton’s slide, an expensive addition who is under-performing, a centre-back who is a reason for a disastrous defensive record, a player the fans have turned against.
His has been a season where almost everything has appeared to offer fresh ignominy. In the space of four days last week, he formed part of a shambolic rearguard in Everton’s heaviest ever European defeat, 5-1 to Atalanta, and then, when he may have hoped to remain among the obscurity of the unused substitutes, was soon summoned for a new low at Southampton as Saints, scorers of a mere four goals in open play all season, doubled their tally by capitalising on a manager-less side’s chaos at the back.
Even in a game when he otherwise played quite well, he contrived to gift a goal, a poor pass allowing Romelu Lukaku to set up Henrikh Mkhitaryan for Manchester United’s clinching second strike in a 4-0 defeat. Then it may have appeared an isolated error. Subsequent mistakes have lent another impression.
Williams has become the face of the worst European group campaign an English club has ever experienced. He seems to have spent Everton’s Europa League misadventure trying to get sent off and not even achieving that. He started a melee against Lyon, shoulder-barging goalkeeper Anthony Lopes, trading punches and provoking a situation where a dad with a child in one hand struck Lopes with the other. He ought to have seen red against Atalanta last Thursday, instead suffering a different form of punishment: he had to remain on the pitch as a lower-half Serie A side scored three goals in eight minutes.
Despite stiff competition – with Davy Klaassen, Sandro Ramirez and Morgan Schneiderlin to the fore – he may have been Everton’s worst player so far. In a separate, unofficial category for unwanted awards, he may rival Michael Keane and Schneiderlin for the tag of the most disappointing.
Nor has it got any better in his country’s colours. Go back to October and Williams lost the ball to Jeff Hendrick when he set up James McClean for the Republic of Ireland goal that ended Wales’ World Cup hopes.
Which was desperately unfair. Williams led Wales to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 despite a shoulder injury that rendered his participation in the quarter-final against Belgium in doubt. He not only played: he scored in an upset.
He seemed one of the great role models, a man released by West Brom at 16 and who clawed his way up to the top flight via the Southern League Premier Division, Leagues Two and One and the Championship, making his Premier League debut a couple of weeks before his 27th birthday. The former theme park worker, petrol station attendant and Beefeater waiter established a reputation, especially as Swansea, as a likeable and personable man, an antidote to the Premier League players who appear to inhabit a different world precisely because he didn’t. He had been there.
But he was more than just a backstory. He became one of the Premier League’s best defenders, wanted by both Arsenal and Liverpool. Anyone analysing where things went wrong for Swansea could be advised to start off with how they alienated their talismanic captain to the extent that he wanted to leave.
Anyone wanting early clues that Ronald Koeman did not intend to stay long at Everton may be advised to study the signing of Williams. Paying £12 million for a 32 year old was an indication of the Dutchman’s short-termism; presumably he thought he would have left Goodison Park before his recruit faded. He was doubly wrong: Koeman, far from taking a step up, was dismissed as Williams’ performances deteriorated.
He has exposed in the absence of quick legs around him, hampered by changes of system and personnel and hindered by his team-mates’ poor efforts to protect an ageing defence. Yet it is hard to escape the feeling that he is in terminal decline; indeed, he is declining quicker than the older Phil Jagielka who has leapfrogged him in the pecking order. Williams was the non-league player who came to look a high-class Premier League defender. Now, in an unfortunate circularity, he is starting to look a non-league footballer helplessly and haplessly adrift against superior strikers. Which, considering an admirable figure’s remarkable rise, is horribly cruel.