Two of my most significant sporting memories involve Ashley Williams. The unbridled joy of that header against Belgium when all seemed to be slipping away, and the agony of that misplaced pass that let Ireland in when all seemed so hopeful.
The one constant emotion that I had during those moments was love. Love for someone who could carry a nation on his back on the way to glory and love for someone who I knew would be feeling such pain at the sadness that misplaced pass caused that same nation.
That a boy from Wolverhampton could be as Welsh as anyone on that pitch, not because of where he was born but because of the love, passion and effort he gave, is a testament to him as a man and a vision of the open nation that defines my view of Wales.
Sadly, that night in Cardiff, in October last year looks to be part of a trend rather than a one-off. The once mighty leader of his country and Swansea, desired by Arsène Wenger to plug Arsenal’s defensive holes, earned his big move to Everton only to suffer a torrid two years with the Toffees.
Now, in a bid to recover form he has moved down a league to supposed Championship contenders in the Potteries. Yet on a Wednesday night in Stoke things went from bad to worse. Sent off for the second time in his last three league starts, after a second yellow just moments after his manager, Gary Rowett had told him he needed to stay calm and make sure he stayed on the pitch. Rowett also said that Williams made a “silly, rash decision. He should be far more experienced than to do that”.
It is hard to disagree with Rowett in this instance, but does it mean we have to ask bigger questions about whether Williams is still the man to wear the captain’s armband for Wales? Very few players embody the spirit of Wales’ men’s football team more than Ash, but at this stage in his career, having turned 34 this week, can Williams still guarantee a place in the Wales starting XI? And if not, is it not right to hand the armband to someone with time to lead the next generation to glory?
This week it emerged that Paul Dummett has made himself available for Wales selection again under Ryan Giggs. Many questions remain unanswered about Dummett’s commitment to Wales having previously ruled himself out of contention under Coleman, but I am sure he will play under Giggs. Ethan Ampadu, although not actually a centre-back, looks as though he will get plenty of minutes in that position. Ampadu has already broken into the Chelsea starting line-up during last season and should be offered more opportunities to do the same for Wales. Newport County, Man United and Football Manager fans will know of Regan Poole, the young, ball-playing centre-half who probably deserves a chance in the team after just missing out on game time against Mexico.
By the next European Championship, if Wales get there, Williams will be 35. This is by no means past it. Rafael Márquez just appeared in his fifth world cup for Mexico, aged 39. Williams can still contribute for Wales, but for how long? Does Ryan Giggs need to think about the future? Does he need to start to build the experience of younger players in the heart of the defence? Of course he does and I think Williams needs to play a role in that. Ash has played 79 times for Wales and at the top level in the Premier League. He has captained Wales for 6 years. His role in helping to build the next generation of Welsh defenders will be vital, but will it involve enough game time to warrant wearing the captain’s armband? And will Williams’ form be good enough to warrant much game time?
If the answer to these questions is no, then perhaps in terms of the captaincy it is time for Ash to say goodbye. Giggs, perhaps sensing his appointment was controversial, ensured consistency in at least one key regard, keeping Ashley Williams as captain. If Giggs wants to plan for the future perhaps, it could soon be time to revisit that decision.