Williams on a mission to inspire next generation

Defender out to defy England tonight tells Phil Cadden about his philanthropic side
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The Independent Football

England meet arch-rivals Wales at Wembley tonight separated by more than 100 places in the world rankings – and the divide between the players on the field is also a wide one.

While world superstar Wayne Rooney earns a reported £250,000 a week, his direct opponent Ashley Williams receives around 5 per cent of that in his pay packet.

However, Wales' defensive rock on the international stage uses some of his Premier League wages in an entirely different way from most at that level.

As well as starring in Swansea City's backline which has kept two clean sheets in the club's opening three top-flight games (and not to forget Wales' shock Euro 2012 win over Montenegro on Friday night), the muscular centre-back also cites setting up his own charity and football camp as current pastimes.

A succession of events over the last 12 months has allowed the 27-year-old to touch the hearts of the general public in his home town of Tamworth and in Swansea, and mark him out from the usual multi-millionaire plying his trade in the top flight.

Now Williams' long-term aim is to reach out to a much wider audience by developing his burgeoning reputation as a philanthropist footballer.

Williams said: "I've always wanted to give something back to the community and to help others. Now I am in a position where I feel I have a great opportunity to help. It's nice to put football in a positive light as most people don't like to see the good side, but most of us are good lads.

"We are just the same as other people in any job. I like to help people out and make them feel good. I get a good feeling from that.

"I'd like to do charity work now while I'm still current rather than when I retire. People may think I'm a role model, but I don't see myself like that, I'm just me.

"But I hope what I'm doing connects me with more people across Wales and the rest of the UK."

Williams already has an army of support through his ability between the white lines, but that level of backing away from the game has only increased following the advent of the social networking site Twitter.

At the last check, Williams had a tally of 23,262 followers, which is slightly larger than the 20,500 capacity crowd he performs in front of on a fortnightly basis at the Liberty Stadium. But the process of giving "something back", in Williams' own words, began following a routine conversation with wife Vanessa last December.

That chat led to the creation of his own charity, "Willsworld", and soon after, a personal website, www. willsworld.org.uk – dedicated to helping those in need – was created by Swansea season-ticket holder Duncan Thomas, free of charge, to expand his venture.

"My missus and I had been interested in doing some charity work for a while," added Williams.

"It all started last year when we thought we'd help out some kids who weren't going to receive any presents at Christmas.

"We spoke to social services and the deal was we brought the presents and they brought along the kids. Afterwards, I received messages on Twitter from parents and kids saying the event had made their day.

"We then received 30 tickets to take the Bravehearts [a pan-disability football club in Swansea] to a wrestling show before raising £2,500 to allow the reverend of the club to repair his church. Every little helps."

The requests kept flooding in on a daily basis so Williams asked prospective charities to present their case through Twitter.

Williams added: "It is nice to help people, but at the start, I actually found it hard to find out who I should help. So the idea of people contacting me through Twitter with their different causes came about.

"It's my charity, and we like to set up an event every couple of months. Twitter has been good because it's a nice way of opening things up and between that and the website, some of the stories have been incredible.

"In the last couple of weeks, I've had an email off a lad whose dad died in the recent explosion in Pembroke and another one off a woman asking if I could do anything for a boy, aged seven, who had lost his mum. I said I will bring him to a game after the international break. How can you pass an opportunity like that up?"

On the field, Williams was handed the honour of leading Swansea out for the first Premier League game staged in Wales against Wigan Athletic on 20 August. He comments on how "proud" he was, but his football life has not always been that easy.

Born in Wolverhampton before spending his childhood growing up in the town of Tamworth, home of the Reliant Robin, Williams was rejected by West Bromwich Albion.

His professional career began at Hednesford Town, now in the Northern Premier League alongside the newly-formed FC United of Manchester and Chester FC, before he navigated his way through the divisions.

Stockport County, then in the Football League, laid the next foundation for Williams, who went on to claim the inaugural north-west Player of the Year award in 2007 ahead of stellar stars Steven Gerrard, Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney.

A year later, the Wales star, who qualifies through his mother, joined Swansea in a £400,000 deal and that business now looks an absolute bargain with Williams captaining Wales on four occasions during his 27-cap career to date.

Williams said: "I'd like to think I'm pretty grounded. It's probably because of where I've come from. I have played in all the leagues."

Not content with his work off the field, Williams wanted to extend himself during Swansea's play-off winning season last term by announcing the formation of his own football camp.

And in the days leading up to the goalless draw with Sunderland before the current international break, Williams, after taking part in three camps in Tamworth, held a first session in Swansea. But what forced the Midlander to make such a commitment?

"I'm from Tamworth," he explained. "A lot of people who are from the town will stay in the town. They won't do a lot and have a small-minded mentality.

"But I wanted to promote the dream. I ask people, what's their dream? They may want to be an actor or a PE teacher, but whatever you want to do, you can go and do it.

"There was one point where no one thought I'd be in the Premier League or an international. But my story shows you can do it.

"It's also great that children can go somewhere for four-and-a-half hours a day and run about in a safe environment rather than sit at home on their X-boxes.

"That's definitely a worry for today's society. When I was young, we used to go out to play football in the morning until we got called back for our dinner.

"I spoke to the current headmaster at my old high school and he told me at the time that Tamworth was the second [most] obese town in the UK.

"So we've tried to teach the children things they may not learn at school. We asked the parents to bring healthy food for the kids and the coaches do a lunch inspection.

"We had great reports back. The children went away, telling their parents, 'We don't want chips, we want pasta. And we don't want fizzy drinks, we want squash'. I'm using the fact I am a professional footballer and this is what Ashley Williams eats.

"We have had great feedback from the parents. The children just have to show enthusiasm, a good attitude and enjoy themselves.

"They are exercising and learning at the same time and the soccer camp is a place where I'd like my young boy, Raphael, to come to. I'll probably always have the soccer camps.

"I don't do this for the publicity or to change the perception of footballers as people will always think what they want to think. I do it to help others."

Williams will need his own help against Rooney and Co when he returns to the scene of his greatest triumph. The date, 30 May, 2011, is etched in Swansea folklore following the 4-2 play-off victory over Reading.

"I can't wait to go back," beamed Williams. "Wembley will bring back the memories of probably the greatest day of my career.

"Regardless of the scoreline, I'll enjoy the stage because of where I have come from. Who would have thought that I would get this chance? I worked hard to get here so I will enjoy the moment."

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