LONDON: Playing under Gareth Southgate prepared Rhys Williams well for his time in Saudi Arabia with the leadership skills of the England head coach helping the Australian defender become one of the most consistent performers in the Saudi Pro League since his arrival in July 2018.
That was just three days before Southgate led England to a semi-final clash in the 2018 World Cup against Croatia. He was the first boss that the young Williams, now 32, had in England as he became a senior professional at Middlesbrough, going on to play in the English Premier League as well as the Championship for almost a decade before leaving in 2016.
Williams told Arab News: “I haven’t talked with Gareth about life in Saudi Arabia as he has a lot on his plate. But he had that leadership, he was someone that all the young players used to look up to.
“He used to be the first to arrive at training – and the last to leave – and he was such a good professional. There are lots of different kinds of leaders, but he seemed to be all the kinds rolled into one.”
Southgate placed his faith in the versatile defender and on occasions played him in central midfield at Middlesbrough. “He helped me a lot and gave me a chance. I always thought his man-management was great and this is a really important aspect as you need to keep everybody happy, even if they are not playing. Gareth was a great role model,” he said.
The same could be said for Williams at Al-Qadisiyah. He has become an important figure at the club situated in the city of Alkhobar, near the border with Bahrain. “I feel like I am a bit of a leader here and I like to approach coaches and know what they are thinking.”
Yousef Al-Mannai, his Tunisian coach at Al-Qadisiyah, must be thinking that the 32-year-old is a valuable asset. Being a relatively long-serving import must mean that he is doing something right in a demanding league.
“There is pressure on foreign players here and when each team is allowed to sign seven from overseas then it can be unforgiving. A lot of teams have the foreign players in attacking and creative positions and as a defender it means that I have to be on my toes in every game.”
Williams, who has made 14 appearances for Australia, thrives when high standards are demanded.
“There are expectations on foreign players, and I enjoy that. If the Saudi captain does not play, then I captain the team a lot and that is great and there is a lot of respect there, I think.
“You have to perform. This is my third season and I have seen about 15 foreign players come and go in my time here and I am the only one still here. It is a tough league and if you are not prepared mentally or physically then you will find it difficult. Many foreign players don’t last a year and come and go after six months,” he added.
Even in his 27 months with the club, Williams has seen improvements in the domestic scene. “There are some amazing players here and especially the big four teams have players who could be in any league.”
It is hard to compare the Saudi Pro League to those in Europe. “It is not as fast or physical as England but is slower and more technical, more similar to Spain and Italy. A lot of the foreign players who come here are European or South American and have plenty of experience.”
Australia exports players all over the world but at the moment, there is a lack of Saudi Arabian talent overseas. There is no doubt in the defender’s mind that there are plenty who are good enough.
“When I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised at the standard of the Saudi players. It is very high, and they are technically very gifted. Perhaps they lack a little in tactical awareness and mentality, but that is improving. I’d like to see more players move overseas,” he said.
For now, his teammates have to make do with looking at photographs of Williams in battle with famous stars such as Fernando Torres and Karim Benzema from his England days. “They always like to know who you played against and are impressed when they see me in action against such players.”
While Williams, linked with a move to Liverpool in 2012, wants the locals to head abroad, he is happy to stay in Saudi Arabia for as long as possible.
“Coming here has been a life-changer, it has been an amazing experience for myself and my family. After living and playing in the UK and Australia, I wanted to try something different and it has been great.
“My wife loves it here, and we had our daughter here and our son goes to school here. I will always remember this time and I never want it to end,” he added.