Witnessing history is one thing, making history is another. Neco Williams was one of many teenagers across Wales inspired by the performances of Cymru at EURO 2016, and now the young defender is out to make a big impression at EURO 2020.
“I remember just watching it when I was a kid,” said Williams to UEFA earlier this week. “I was in school, and what the lads did then back in 2016 was historic. People still talk about it now, how they got to the semis and how well they did. For us as a team, especially us youngsters who have stepped up and got into the squad, we just want to try and do what Wales did in 2016 or, if not, better.”
Back in November 2019, on the same day that Aaron Ramsey scored the two goals against Hungary to book Cymru's place at the EURO 2020 finals, Williams was also on the scoresheet for his country as the U19 side defeated Kosovo 2-0 at Rodney Parade. The present was all about EURO 2020 that night in Cardiff, and Williams was seen as one for the future.
But things can change very quickly in football, and the postponement of the tournament offered Williams the opportunity to establish himself in the senior squad over the course of the next year. Before he even made his senior international debut, Williams had become a Premier League and FIFA World Club Cup winner with Liverpool. Becoming part of the 1st team squad at Anfield, it was clear that 2020 would be defining year for both club and country.
Back in August 2020, Williams signed a new long-term contract with Liverpool, much to the delight of manager Jürgen Klopp. “From the first day he trained with us he trained like a machine,” said Klopp to the official Liverpool website at the time. “Every day he became better and better and better and I thought, ‘OK, what’s that?!’ There is so much positivity about this kid that I am really happy we have him here.”
Williams made his Cymru debut against Finland in September 2020, and made headlines just a few days later as he scored the winning goal against Bulgaria in the UEFA Nations League in Cardiff. “To make my debut for my country, then to make my home debut and to even score is a surreal moment," said Williams after the match. “I'm sure my friends and family are all proud of me.”
The versatile defender only turned 20 in April this year, but now has 13 senior international caps to his name, with the most recent coming against Italy in Rome as Cymru qualified for the round of 16 despite the 1-0 defeat. Named in the starting line-up by manager Rob Page for the biggest match of his international career, it was another milestone in a career that remains very much in the ascendency. However, Williams has plenty of support within the squad, including those heroes of 2016.
“A few of the lads that were in the 2016 squad they give us advice about how they got to the semis,” he added. “Obviously, they're fantastic with us youngsters. This is our first major tournament, especially for me and a few of the younger lads. The team is very close. The chemistry, the bond we have is very special. If that comes together and with the quality we have in this team, hopefully, we can get to the quarters.”
However, standing between Cymru and a place in the quarter-finals of EURO 2020 are Denmark in Amsterdam. A talented group with a strong team spirit similar to that of Cymru, the squad and the nation has come together during the tournament following the cardiac arrest suffered by their star man Christian Eriksen in the opening match against Finland.
“We all can't wait for the game,” said Williams. “We know it's going to be a tough game. Denmark are a quality side and they've got world-class players, but with the quality we've got in this team, and the experience we've got in this team, we're going to put that into the game and, hopefully, we can get the win. All our focus now is just on that game.”