Ashley Williams reveals truth behind England v Iceland celebrations, reminisces about Belgium win & says Lukaku ‘saved’ him in early Everton days
Ashley Williams will understand how the Wales squad are feeling after their superb win over Turkey.
Wales are now on the brink of the Euro 2020 knockout stages and they’ll be hoping to emulate the unforgettable Euro 2016 run that Williams was a part of.
The former Dragons captain made 86 appearances for his country, memorably scoring the opener against Belgium in the 2016 quarter-final win. We caught up with Williams to discuss those heroics in France, almost joining Arsenal and much more…
The truth about why we celebrated England losing to Iceland
I’ll tell you the truthful answer about what happened with regards to that video of us celebrating Iceland beating England…
We had England in the groups in Euro 2016, we were going back and forward with them in press conferences, especially Gaz [Gareth Bale]. I’m trying to put fires out left, right and centre, Gaz keeps doing press conferences winding them up, they’re having a nibble back.
Then they beat us in the 98th minute, or whatever it was, and over-celebrated. Gary Neville – their coach – is running down to the corner flag to celebrate. If we’d have won in the same manner, I’m not saying we wouldn’t have done the same thing, but the back and forth goes on with them long after the game.
Half of our squad are born in England – but we’re very Welsh. No one ever doubted our commitment to Wales. We watched the game against Iceland, and there’s a little bit of previous from a couple of weeks ago, but a lot of it was just because it was Iceland.
Who didn’t love Iceland that year? Apart from England, everyone else loved them.
It was just a group of lads, away from home, probably a little bit bored watching a game, getting carried away like everyone does. We were cheering every throw-in. I don’t know how the video got out, we blame little Jonny Williams for it getting out.
The whole time it’s going on, I’m in the background thinking ‘oh my days’. Half of us are born in England, this was not going to go down well. But it was just lads having fun. I think our media team were a little bit annoyed about it, but ultimately it was meant in jest, that’s the honest answer.
Dressing room during/after Belgium victory in 2016
We were buzzing going in at half-time at 1-1 against Belgium in that quarter-final. I’d scored the equaliser after half an hour, and I remember going in and I had to go back into the medical area to treat my shoulder injury. I had a real issue with my shoulder so I had to have another injection. It was a real issue for me anyway, but when I came back into the dressing room, the atmosphere was just so serious. We were so confident.
It’s unfair to say we knew we were going to win, but the momentum really was with us and we were just thinking about what was going on in the Belgium dressing room. How must they have been feeling?
Still to this day, I think that’s the best Welsh performance I’ve ever seen.
There was a feeling of ‘we might be going home tomorrow, and we might never get this again’. So we gave it a real go, and if you look at some of those performances in the second-half, it was unbelievable stuff.
We didn’t want half-time, but we carried our momentum into the second half. Belgium weren’t looking forward to that second half at all.
There were appeals for a Belgium penalty late on in the game; Radja Nainggolan goes down after a tackle from me and I half-thought the ref was going to give a penalty. I don’t think it’s a foul – I’ve never given a foul away! It was a bit of a toss-up at best. You always panic playing international football because the referees are completely different to the Premier League. There were definitely a few seconds of panic for sure.
The Hal Robson-Kanu goal is just iconic. You look at loads of goals over the years, the Gazza one springs to mind. But people will be talking about that goal for years to come.
We didn’t sleep after that Belgium game – there were parties all night. We knew we had the semi-final in a few days, but we didn’t care about that at all. We wanted to enjoy the occasion with our friends and family. We just partied the whole night away.
How can you not? The worst thing to have done would’ve been to go to bed, and then play Portugal and lose anyway. If you’re Wales and you’ve just beaten the team ranked number one in the world in the quarter-final, in that manner, you’re going to celebrate that.
We had the culture balance right; we worked hard on the pitch and we partied hard when the time was right – we’d all grown up together.
Our tactic? Keep the ball out of the net, give it to Gaz and Aaron [Ramsey], let them do their thing…
We knew we had Gaz and Aaron up the top end of the pitch to work their magic. I was the captain of the team and we all knew our roles. Keep the ball out the net, get the ball to Gaz and Aaron and let them do their thing.
I was so pleased for Hal; he can live off that goal for the rest of his life. Sam Vokes also scored on that night, and he’s one of the nicest blokes you’ll ever meet in football. It was nice that someone else – other than Bale and Ramsey – shared the spotlight on that night. There were no egos in that team. We knew Gaz was the star player, and we were more than happy to go and let him do his thing.
I think it’s just starting to sink in with me what we achieved in that tournament. Now I’m working on this tournament and I understand how big a Euros is – obviously we played in one ourselves, but all the other ones you’re just a bit annoyed that you’re not there.
But now, I’m living it through Welsh eyes and it’s hit me how special it was. It’ll never be forgotten. Seeing Connor Roberts score last night; I sent him a text because I know how he must be feeling. It’s something he will have dreamt about since he was a little boy.
Romelu Lukaku saved me in my first few days at Everton
I never said I’m absolutely not leaving Swansea, I was told by Swansea that a bid had come in from Everton and they really wanted me. Swansea weren’t really ripping up any trees for me at that point, so I just ended up moving to Everton.
Everton is a massive football club and the deal worked out for me. But I remember on my last day at Swansea, I was packing up all of my things and it was just such a strange feeling. It’s like any job where you’ve been at a place and really enjoyed it for 10 years, you leave with a heavy heart. But you’ve got to start looking forward to a new adventure.
The funny thing about that move is that I’ve always been quite a fiery character on the pitch; the pantomime villain if you like. Everton was a team that I just did not get on with at all, so when I found out they were interested it was just bizarre. If I was ever likely to fight with players from any team, it would’ve been Everton – guaranteed.
I remember pulling up at Finch Farm for my medical and the first player I bump into is Seamus Coleman, one of my biggest enemies. He looked at me, I look at him, we both say hello, he obviously knows I’m signing. It was just frosty. We go into the changing room, I see James McCarthy, Leighton Baines, so many players I’ve had rows with over the years. I’m sat there thinking this couldn’t have gone worse.
I obviously knew what I was walking into, and I also knew that I’m a different guy off the pitch than I am on it, so they were probably the same – and they were. They’re as spikey as me on the pitch and that’s why we used to argue, but I don’t know them as people at this point. It’s just a funny thing we look back on and laugh at all the time now. We still speak to this day and we’re such good friends, but I remember just sitting there in those first few days thinking ‘what have I done’.
On paper I probably couldn’t have chosen a worse team’s dressing room to walk into, because I know they all disliked me, I kind of disliked all of them, and we’ve had so many arguments over the years. But after a few months you’re really good friends.
I knew Aaron Lennon a little bit, so I tagged on to him in those early days, but the one who saved me was Romelu Lukaku. He’d had extended leave after the Euros as well, and he’d had a knock. So when he came into the dressing room and saw me for the first time, he was like “you f*****!” Straight away he was having a laugh with me because we’d just beat Belgium in the quarter-finals. We had a bit of a bond from what had happened a few weeks before.
You’ll have to ask Arsene Wenger why my Arsenal move broke down
There were lots of times throughout my career where I nearly left Swansea – the Arsenal thing is true, that was close on a few occasions. I’m not sure why it didn’t go ahead, you’ve got to ask Arsene Wenger what happened there.
I’ll be honest, I was never desperate to leave Swansea, I was settled there. Yes, I would’ve gone to Arsenal but it never seemed to work out. I was never really disappointed though because I love Swansea. I really was happy to stay at the club for the rest of my career.
The Everton move was a strange one when it came about. I was on holiday after the Euros in 2016 and I’d heard they’d made contact. I’d been in that position on a number of occasions in my career though, seeing teams come in for me. Arsenal were close, Napoli came close to signing me as well one year. I wasn’t that interested, though. I genuinely thought I’d stay in that house, with my family forever. I thought I’d probably end up being a coach at Swansea and staying there.