The midfielder says a punishing training regime and Mark Sampson’s willingness to let his players go ‘walkabout’ are setting up England well for Euro 2017
Fara Williams takes a seat in the vast hotel lobby and contemplates a soaring ceiling, minimalist decor and the lush, rolling Staffordshire parkland on view through giant plate-glass windows.
The clever use of light, space and the local landscape create an air of tranquillity but appearances can be thoroughly deceptive. As Williams, somewhat wryly, confirms, this is a place of pain and pressure for the England women’s football team as they prepare for Euro 2017 in the Netherlands.
“We’re definitely feeling the pain,” says the veteran midfielder, whose ability to shape and control matches promises to exert a significant bearing on the Lionesses’ chances. “But, if you want to win every game, it needs to hurt. We were always fit but we’ve got ourselves stronger than ever before. We’ve definitely pushed on; we’ll be in a better place when the tournament starts.”
Fast forward three weeks and, along with the rest of Mark Sampson’s squad, Williams has exchanged that outwardly luxurious yet sometimes slightly brutal boot camp at a Hilton hotel inside St George’s Park for a new base just outside Utrecht.
Training has “tapered down” as the first game – against Scotland on Wednesday – fast approaches. After beating Germany in the third-place play-off to secure bronze at the 2015 World Cup in Canada, Sampson’s side are not only strong favourites to top a group also including Spain and Portugal but appear to be potential tournament winners.
Such vaulting expectations provoke considerable pressure but Williams views the resultant tension as a positive force. “We’re putting pressure on ourselves because we were the top European team in Canada and can compete with the best,” the 33-year-old says. “We’re all full-time professionals now and know we’re capable of beating major teams.”
Sampson is not shy about reiterating his twin beliefs that England should be the fittest team at Euro 2017 and can win it. Although Williams does not disagree, she suspects the road to the final in Enschede could be hazardous. “France, Germany and us are the favourites,” she says. “But Spain might be a dark horse and the margins between the top eight or so teams are very small; after the group stages, we’ll see exactly how small.”
Williams knows all about the often wafer-thin divides between success and failure – in life as well as football. The Londoner may possess 163 senior caps and have represented Everton, Liverpool and now Arsenal with distinction while being awarded an MBE but for six years early in her career she was homeless.
A family breakdown – subsequently repaired – left her moving from hostel to hostel and resulted in Hope Powell, Sampson’s predecessor (and still a good friend and mentor to Williams) taking time out from coaching to buy her a sleeping bag and help find accommodation at King’s Cross.
Although that chapter in her life is happily long since closed, Williams continues to work with homeless charities and has spoken with refreshing candour about how easily ostensibly secure existences can unravel.
The life of England’s most-capped player was transformed when she moved to Merseyside and met Amy Kane, a former Everton midfielder. The pair married in December 2015 but have since separated. “I’m quite a private person and I wouldn’t have come out,” Williams says. “But if you get married it becomes public and, although we’re no longer together, I’m certainly proud of marrying Amy.”
Nonetheless, Williams has sympathy for any high-profile gay British male players who may shy away from the inevitable circus that would accompany a coming out in the rather more reactionary, sometimes downright homophobic, world of the Premier League.
“Everyone’s hoping that a high-profile male player will be willing to come out and change the dynamic in their game but I don’t know if it’ll happen: it’s possible that there might not be any leading gay male players,” reflects a thoughtful, emotionally intelligent woman, refreshingly willing to challenge received wisdoms.
“Quite a few female players are happy to talk about their sexuality but other people are more private. There’s nothing right or wrong about how you want to be perceived but some players in our squad are openly out and it doesn’t change the public’s perception of us.
“We’re probably more connected to the fans than the men, though. We’re able to interact with our fans in ways that Gareth Southgate’s players can’t. We can go out of our hotels without security and interact with people but that’s much harder for them because they get so much attention.”
For the Lionesses, connectivity is very much a squad mantra. “Our game’s very open and our aim has always been to connect with fans so that they really do know a little bit about us and get to understand us as people,” Williams says. “Everyone in our squad has a different story and is honest about themselves and that can help people relate to us. The shame for the men is that they don’t get enough opportunities to show people what they’re really like.”
Such openness enhances morale. “At Canada 2015 we shared a hotel in Moncton with France but they weren’t allowed out and we were,” Williams recalls. “We enjoyed meeting the locals and getting them on our side. Downtime at tournaments and how you use it is very important.
“It’s changed under Mark. We get out and about a lot more, whereas before it was pretty organised. Mark’s put a lot of trust in us. He knows we can all look after ourselves, so he gives us freedom when we’re abroad. If you just sit in hotels you don’t enjoy it so much.”
Sampson understands that sometimes his players need to go, in Williams’s word, “walkabout”. “I’m someone who has less need to go walkabout,” she says. “But everyone’s different and in order to relax and play well some people need to go out and do their own thing. In the past, they might have been judged harshly by others in the squad but now we’re in a place where we respect each other and accept our differences. It’s a big reason why we did well in the last World Cup.”
Such individuality led to England’s then left-back, Claire Rafferty, borrowing dogs from the Canadian hotel owners to take them for morning walks. “For her to relax it was important she could dog walk,” Williams says. “That sort of thing was a key to our success.”
England’s players have warm, treasured memories of Canada and its people but Williams’s own expeditions confronted her with scores of people sleeping rough on its city streets. “So many of them die in the cold winters,” she says. “At least our rough sleepers have the NHS, although homelessness is a growing problem here, too. People are in a sad place and it’s often a downward spiral. I was lucky, I always had a roof over my head – and football.”
That latter passion has brought her fame, financial security, enduring fun and a fair share of unbridled joy and sheer nerves. “I’m a vet now and, as you get older you know every tournament could be your last,” she says. “This is a big one for England, so, yes, there’s butterflies.”Read more at theguardian.com