Welsh football has had many false dawns throughout my 25 year lifespan, but in the past 5 years the Welsh ranks have slowly started to grow with a whole host young talents, including Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and, of course, Gareth Bale. However, Bale aside, over the past two years, perhaps the most talked about of the current Welsh talent pool has been the precocious talent that is Crystal Palace midfielder Johnny Williams.
Thanks to FIFA eligibility rules, being born outside of Wales does not deny you a place in the Welsh national team in this modern age. Despite his Welsh sounding name, Jonathan Williams was actually born in Kent, but fortunately for the Welsh national team, the cultured Williams qualifies for Wales thanks to his Anglesey-born grandfather. Since making his breakthrough in his early teens, Williams has always been associated with Welsh football despite his English upbringing and he has played through every youth level of Welsh football from U17 level to U21 level, even becoming the second youngest player to represent Wales in the U21 team at 17 years old.
“Even though I was born in England I’ve never really had the call from them… it was always Wales that showed that, when I was 14, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
Williams had signed for Crystal Palace at a young age, before signing his first professional contract with the club in April 2010. Following the signing of his pro contract, Williams went on to make a solid reputation for himself in the U18 and reserve squad and soon his exploits in those two supplementary. The Palace youth system has been quite the conveyor belt of talent over the past decade with many of their ‘products’ going on to more illustrious pastures: Wayne Routledge, Victor Moses, Nathaniel Clyne and Ben Watson have all come through the Palace ranks to have successful Premier League careers. More recently, Manchester United have spent around £15m on securing Palace’s current 18-year-old wonderkid Wilfred Zaha for next season. Williams looks to be following in the footsteps of the Palace alumni and without a doubt he’ll be forging an exciting career in the top flight in the near future.
Williams made his breakthrough in the Palace first team at the start of the 2011/12 season with his debut coming as a second half substitute in a home game against Coventry City. There had been huge hype surrounding his first team debut as tales of his mercurial performances for the reserve and youth teams swept through the Palace fanbase. His early performances lived up to the initial hype and despite being only 17, Williams looked to have an important role to play in Palace’s season. However, tragically, Williams’ season was sidetracked after he broke his fibula whilst on Wales U21 duty in November 2011. Fortunately the injury had no real lasting effects on the Welshman and Williams would slowly be reintroduced to the first team fray towards the end of the 2011/12 season, finishing the season with 18 league appearances and a new 5-year contract keeping him at the club until 2017.
After a preseason regaining full match fitness, Williams has excelled in the Championship this season. He has put in some truly wonderful displays, so much so that the Welsh wonderkid has been dubbed by the Palace players and support as “Joniesta” in ode to the player sharing a similar playing style to Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta. Palace manager has taken a different route with his comparison by dubbing the 5”5 Welshman as Palace’s very own “David Silva”.
His displays for the Eagles this season has seen Williams step up to the Welsh senior squad and he recently made his debut on a snowy Friday night at Hampden Park against Scotland. Williams came on as a half time sub for no less than the current King of Welsh football, Gareth Bale. The King was not missed, as Williams delivered a virtuoso display in place of Bale. The Welsh fans and media were purring at the prospect of having another potential superstar to accompany Bale and co. After an excellent performance in Glasgow, Williams found himself in the starting XI for Wales’ game against Croatia 3 days later. This time Williams was lining up on the right side of an attacking trio behind Craig Bellamy and alongside Bale. Once again, “Joniesta” excelled and stole the limelight from Bale and for me, as a spectator in the Liberty Stadium that evening, he was the best player on the pitch alongside Luka Modric. As Wales manager Chris Coleman said after the game: “In the next couple of trips you will be asking me about Jonny as much as you do about Gareth (Bale).”
Style, Strengths and Weaknesses
As alluded to with the exuberant comparisons to the cultured Spanish World Cup winners, David Silva and Andres Iniesta, Williams does not exactly fit the mould of your usual midfielder in the second tier of English football. The Championship is perceived as an environment of rough and tumble football (perhaps wrongly at times) and on first glance the 5”5 stature of Williams (an inch shorter than his supposed Spanish doppelgänger Iniesta) is not suited to such a dogged football setting. Williams defies such logic. Undoubtedly, Williams is an elegant midfielder, but alongside that he has a definite combative side. Whilst watching him play for Wales a couple of days ago, I was impressed with how he chased and harassed the Croatian midfield for the duration of his 70 minutes on the pitch. Despite playing against seasoned internationals like Modric and Darijo Srna, Williams was certainly not overawed by them and was very much in their faces at times. The same goes for his appearances in the league for Palace this season – size means nothing to the determined Williams.
However, I’m sure at the end of Williams’ career,we’ll not look back on it and praise his work rate, but instead marvel at his ability on the ball. If you were to ask someone what foot Williams is they’d probably reply by saying he’s left-footed – if you were to watch him play it would be hard to work out, as the Kent-born star seems comfortable on either foot. This means that Williams can be found playing anywhere across the midfield and overall he is a highly versatile midfield player. In the recent Wales’ fixtures v Scotland and Croatia, Williams at some point found himself playing down the middle, out on the right and out on the left. However, I would argue that he is at his most potent in the number 10 role where he has more room to wander and to influence play.
My favourite trait of Williams’ play has to be his ability to escape from tight areas, even with several opposition players surrounding him. I’m a sucker for a player that can trick and waltz their way from opponents and I think it is this ability that most identifies him with the Iniesta comparisons. You will not find many more exciting quick footed dribblers in the Championship and certainly not many with as deft a first touch.
As mentioned previously, Williams is very far from being a physically towering presence in the game and you could argue, despite his dogged nature, that it is his stature that lets him down at times. It is perhaps because of this that Williams can go missing in games at times, such as in Crystal’s Palace recent 4-0 home loss to Birmingham City; although Williams was deployed in his preferred central midfield role, Williams was largely anonymous as he was bullied out of the game by a well-disciplined Birmingham side. However, Williams is an extremely intelligent footballer who is regularly praised for his attitude off the pitch, so I’m sure with time and experience, Williams will become far more adept at finding space to escape unnecessary physical duels with the opposition.
For a player that constantly finds himself surging past defenders into dangerous positions, Williams is still yet to score a senior league goal for Crystal Palace, with his sole goal for the club coming in a League Cup game against Wigan. On watching Williams play, it’s clear that he does possess a powerful shot, but he now needs to improve his shooting accuracy and begin to add goals to his game to become a more complete attacking threat.
I think it would be unrealistic for Crystal Palace fans to believe that Williams will remain at the club for the entire duration of his new contract that lasts until 2017. The football world was aware of Williams’ talent, but now he has announced himself on the international stage with aplomb, even more are going to begin to take notice now.
Unsurprisingly, the Premier League big guns have already been linked with Williams with many of them rumoured to be interested in the Welshman even before he had made his senior bow for Palace. Roberto Mancini is supposedly a big fan of Williams and fees upwards of £8m have been discussed in relation to a Man City bid. As well as City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs have all been mentioned in transfer gossip columns in relation to signing Williams, alongside almost every top flight club it seems. There is clearly an endless supply of options for Williams
Williams is a very down-to-earth character and I would like to think that he will not be as enticed by the glitzy lights of the Premier League as others. He is certainly destined for the Premier League in the next few years, but I personally feel that Williams’ development would be aided by remaining at Selhurst Park and playing regular first team football for the next one or two seasons – whether that be in Championship or the Premier League.
Featured image courtesy of au.eurosport.com