Wales put faith in Jonny 'Joniesta' Williams ahead of Scotland clash
Crystal Palace prodigy takes Barça and Bale comparisons in his stride as he prepares for Hampden
Even though he was born and raised in the Garden of England, Jonny Williams did not have much choice about who to support in Saturday's Six Nations decider at the Millennium Stadium. The pint-sized midfielder – in line to make his senior debut for Wales in Friday's World Cup qualifier at Hampden Park six months before he turns 20 – watched the match with Crystal Palace's Welsh contingent of Danny Gabbidon and Ashley Richards as they prepared for last Sunday's Championship showdown with Brighton and Hove Albion.
"It was unbelievable," says Williams. "We had a bit of banter with the physios afterwards but I don't think the rest of the team were too interested."
Nicknamed "Joniesta" by Palace fans in reference to the Barcelona and Spain midfielder who scored the winning goal in the last World Cup final, and standing just 5ft 6in tall in his socks, Williams has overcome his lack of height with intricate ball skills. He also has a deceptive turn of pace that prompted Palace manager Ian Holloway to describe him as "our David Silva".
From Tonbridge in Kent, Williams joined Palace aged eight and has developed to the extent that he has attracted interest from Manchester City after playing a starring role in Palace's bid for promotion this season. Yet, having qualified for Wales because his father, Peter, was born in Anglesey, Williams' focus this week has been on his adopted country's World Cup qualifier against Scotland on Friday.
At a time when the exploits of Swansea City and Cardiff City have helped create unprecedented interest in the round-ball game in the traditional hotbed of rugby union, he is part of an exciting new generation of Welsh players hoping to be the first team to reach the finals of a major tournament since John Charles and Co were beaten by Brazil in the quarter-finals of the 1958 World Cup.
"It's exciting times for Wales," he says as he looks towards Scotland and the following qualifier with Croatia at the Liberty Stadium on Tuesday.
"If we can get a win and a draw then you never know. Realistically, the Euros may be a better chance for us in two years' time because we have a lot of good young players, but we will keep fighting until the end."
First called up by Wales at the age of 15 by current Doncaster Rovers manager Brian Flynn, Williams' accent is more estuary than Ebbw Vale but there is no questioning his commitment to the Welsh Dragon. Former manager Gary Speed picked him for the senior squad two weeks before his 18th birthday in October 2011 and he has been an unused substitute for the last two matches under Chris Coleman.
England Under-21 manager Stuart Pearce made enquiries about luring Williams, but after the faith shown by Speed after that first call-up, Williams insists there is no way he could ever turn his back on Wales.
"I've never had any second thoughts. England never chose me when I was younger so it's always been a simple choice," he explains. "To be called up for the first time to the senior squad at that age was a brilliant experience. I was a bit nervous training with people like Craig Bellamy and Gareth Bale but the manager told me I deserved to be there and to keep doing what I'd been doing at Palace.
"Gary also spoke to my parents to let them know that I was in his plans. He was a really nice person. Now everyone wants to carry on the good work that he did. Hopefully this can be the start of something big."
With Bale in the side, anything is possible. After the Tottenham Hotspur forward came through the same junior sides as Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey and Liverpool's Joe Allen, Williams is now leading the next batch of emerging Welsh talent.
Flynn, who spent eight years as Under-21 manager before taking over from Dean Saunders at Doncaster in January, even claimed Williams is as good as Bale was at the same age. "Wow, I'll take that!" Williams laughs. "I've been fortunate to play with Gareth a few times in training and everything about him is amazing. He's got everything: technical ability, focus and a real love for the game. It's great to watch and learn from someone so good."
Williams suffered a broken leg last year and had been earmarked to play an advanced midfield role under Holloway on his return. However, he has increasingly been used in a deeper position that guarantees him more involvement and, judging by the two performances against the man-mountains of Stoke City in the FA Cup earlier this season, it's a challenge he is thriving on. "I've been used to playing against bigger people from a young age in the academy so the physical side of things hasn't been a major issue for me," he says.
"I watch the Premier League a lot and you see smaller players like Jack Wilshere cope because they have technical ability. The manager has brought my game on a lot in terms of getting on the ball and being brave. Hopefully I can add a few goals."
Following in the footsteps of Wayne Routledge, Victor Moses and Nathaniel Clyne, Wilfried Zaha became the latest Palace youth academy graduate to hit the big time after sealing his £15m move to Manchester United in January. But the memory of John Bostock, now on loan at MLS side Toronto after his big move to Tottenham failed to live up to expectations, prompted Coleman to urge Williams to resist moving to the Premier League too soon.
Williams says he wants to learn his trade and is in no frantic rush to get into the top flight. The example of Routledge, who played more than 100 Palace games and is now at Swansea, has given him encouragement. "It gives you great hope that it could be you one day," he says.
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