As the Lionesses shot off in all manner of directions across the country at the end of the international break, England’s greatest prodigy stuck around, kicking her prized heels. The manager Hope Powell asked the player what she was still doing there.
The player’s response: that there was tension in her family and that she didn’t want to go home. Powell bought the young starlet a sleeping bag, took her to King’s Cross homeless shelter, helped her secure residence at a hostel, and phoned her every day. The teenager continued to play at the elite level, while remaining homeless for six years.
This was the making of Fara Williams MBE, the most capped individual in the history of the England national football team. In fact, no man or woman even comes close to matching her tally.
All-Time Most Capped England Players:
(‘W’ denotes women’s player; ‘M’ denotes men’s player)
- Fara Williams: 172 caps, W
2. Jill Scott: 149 caps, W
3. Karen Carney: 144 caps, W
4. Alex Scott: 140 caps, W
5. Casey Stoney: 130 caps, W
6. Rachel Yankey: 129 caps, W
7. Peter Shilton: 125 caps, M
=8. Steph Houghton: 120 caps, W
=8. Wayne Rooney: 120 caps, M
10. Gillian Coultard: 119 caps, W
Williams grew up playing wall-to-wall football whenever school wasn’t on the agenda, as is the case for a great number of girls and boys in South London. Grass wasn’t an option, but tarmac and concrete were. She spent entire weekends in a group of 30 or so, playing matches at Battersea Park with bikes for goals. She admits herself that tracksuits didn’t last very long before they needed replacing. She hacked away at her older siblings’ legs until she was finally good enough to tackle them fairly.
“I wasn’t desperate to make it as a footballer; I just loved playing the game,” she recalls. “I have a family that lived for football, so [it] was normal for me to play.” Williams had never considered playing for a proper team until she stumbled across a tiny advert in a Chelsea FC men’s matchday programme promoting trials for their women’s teams. Everything her family did was Chelsea-orientated.
A bus, a train, and a wrong bus later, she arrived at her trial with half an hour of the session remaining. But the coaches saw enough from her in that time and duly signed her up. Naturally, she linked up with the U14s aged only 12. “Joining Chelsea was exciting for me as a child, being a Chelsea supporter.”
The promise Williams showed in her early years — her achievements quite unheard of, given her age — meant she was thrust into the England senior fold as a raw, rough and ready 17-year-old. “I didn’t have a clue about what being an international footballer meant. At that age, I just loved football and treated it as though I was playing with my mates.”
Pressure didn’t faze this feisty young forward. It’s still yet to.
As things stand, Williams is a senior and quite crucial player at Reading FC. Her most recent England cap came only last autumn. Aside from an astounding 172 international appearances, the veteran forward has notched 40 goals. A fifth of those came in World Cups and European Championships. Is this a coincidence? “I think athletes always try to get to their fittest and highest levels at major tournaments. Maybe this showed [in my performances].”
Talent was always there, but Williams’ self-drive — even in her darkest and most turbulent moments — seems to set her apart from the majority. Her verdict on what has allowed her such longevity at the top is clear and considered. “[I] tried to stay consistent, always tried to adapt and grow with the game, always wanted to learn and push myself, [and] never got complacent.”
But while Fara Williams the person has most assuredly shaped Fara Williams the player, other individuals have certainly offered her a platform to improve along the way, too.
“Hope Powell was key to my development and growth. She made me learn the game and was always hard on me because she realised the levels I could get to. Mark Sampson made me see the game in a different way and challenged me in different ways.”
“I didn’t have a clue what being an international footballer meant at that age.”Fara Williams, on making her England debut at 17
Despite a sizeable drop-off in form since reaching the World Cup semi-finals last summer, Phil Neville and England are still heading in an upward trajectory. Williams believes so, at least. “The Lionesses are a more feared team now — a lot stronger than [in] previous tournaments. The squad [is made up of] all full-time athletes now, which has really helped them develop.”
Whether the 36-year-old will continue to be in and around the England setup in the coming months and years is a debate for another day.
The postponement of Women’s Euro 2021 in England by a year makes a Fara Williams appearance less likely, and has seen Neville announce he will step down as manager ahead of the finals. Yet, in spite of all that uncertainty, Williams sees an England team that will be good enough to challenge for a maiden major title, on home soil. “I feel they have the group of players there that can win it…”
And — from the quintessential England legend — what must the Lionesses do as they seek an international career even half as good as Williams’? “I would say, ‘remain focused, always put your learning first, be disciplined, stay hungry, and enjoy every minute.’”
She makes it sound so easy.
Photo 1: Zimbio. Photos 2, 3, 4: Getty Images