A smile spreads across Neco Williams’ face as he remembers the route home from Liverpool’s training ground. Sprawled across the back seat, not so much weathered as beaten by a storm, the drive back to Wales felt about “three hours long”, and for the sake of light relief his grandfather would point out all the old buildings and factories, reciting their names until Williams had learnt each one by heart.
Cefn Mawr, once an old mining village in Wrexham, has always provided Williams’ bedrock. When he made his debut in that extraordinary 5-5 draw against Arsenal last season, he brought almost 20 people with him on that same path to Merseyside. “Fifty-mile trips, four times a week, three training sessions and a game on Sunday,” he says. “It was a lot of travelling. When the gaffer told me I’d be playing, I texted everyone [in the dressing room] asking for spare tickets. Everyone’s very close in the village. They were so proud. It was a surreal moment.”
But for Williams, making a first senior appearance in that chaotic Cup tie also marked a destination of sorts. The point at which raw materials were realised as refined talent and all the ground covered was vindicated. “It’s not saying that I’ve made it or anything like that,” he says. “[But] it was just such a relief to think I’ve got to the position where I can pay my family back. They’ve done everything for me since my first training session at Liverpool. Now I want to do everything I can for them.”
A strong but slender full-back, Williams may still only be 19 years old but he is now far removed from the slightly wide-eyed teenager who broke into the first team. In fact, in the resuming months, he has gone on to make 22 senior appearances and tasted a level of success a scarce number of players can even imagine, claiming both Premier League and Club World Cup winners’ medals.
“I don’t think you actually realise how important those achievements are until you retire,” he says, even if he does admit it can feel a little dreamlike. “Right now, it just makes you want to win as many more as you can. That’s the aim for me and our team. Just because we’ve got those medals, there’s no way we can stop. We need more.”
Somewhat inevitably, though, being thrust into one of the world’s most competitive squads has presented steep learning curves, too. After an ultimately meaningless mistake during Liverpool’s 7-2 thrashing of Lincoln City in the Carabao Cup last September, Williams was subjected to a torrent of online criticism that led him to briefly delete his Twitter account – a decision tinged with regret but outlasted by resilience.
“I don’t think any 19-year-old should be getting stick like that,” he says. “I haven’t got the experience, it’s always going to be tough coming into one of the best teams in the world, I’m young and I’m learning and, of course, I’ll make mistakes. I had some of the experienced lads around me like Virgil [van Dijk] and Hendo [Jordan Henderson]. They told me even the best players in the world get bad comments. They aren’t going to affect me. If they did, it’s only made me stronger and a better player.”
For all Williams’ vast potential, he is acutely conscious that it will still take something bordering on the miraculous to usurp Trent Alexander-Arnold in Liverpool’s starting eleven. It is a gift and a curse of trailing “one of the best right backs in the world”, though Williams dismisses it as a concern, happy to glean insight and expertise from a friend he counts as a role model.
“I look up to how Trent is now, coming through the academy,” he says. “It shows nothing is impossible with hard work, determination and commitment. I know it’s going to be hard to get in the team and play week-in week-out but I just have to take every chance I get and prove I’m capable of being Trent’s main back-up and that I’m always ready to step up.”
That opportunity beckoned last month when Alexander-Arnold was ruled out with injury and Williams was plunged in at the deep end. For a while, against Brighton, it seemed as though the tide had turned against him. “As a footballer, there’s nothing worse than having a bad game but the main thing is to learn from it and not dwell on it,” he says of the penalty he conceded a little naively in the first half. “You look at the mistake you’ve made and make sure to put it right. You can’t sit and sulk about it.”
Within the space of the next fortnight, Williams assisted Curtis Jones’ Champions League winner against Ajax and then kept a clean sheet against Wolves, increasing in stature with every passing minute. “I learnt a lot from that run of games,” he says. “It can be difficult if you’re not playing for a few weeks to jump straight in. The standard and the intensity of the Premier League and Champions League is difficult but the main thing is to be mentally prepared. I felt like I started to find my feet. My aim now is just to keep proving to the manager that I’m good enough and keep getting better. There’s nowhere better to do that than at Liverpool with the best players and the best manager in the world.”
But while Williams is now established as one of the leading lights of Liverpool’s academy, he did not always stand out as a fledgling talent. He was certainly coveted, choosing Liverpool over Manchester United as a nine-year-old, but by his own admission was “quite near the bottom” of the age groups until U16s coach Barry Lewtas converted him into a right back. Only then did Williams suddenly flourish, starting for the U18s while still only 15 himself, a soaring presence in spite of “everyone feeling like giants”.
Over the course of a decade in the academy, there are always moments of developing crisis, junctures which can either solidify or demolish years of foundations. During his “rollercoaster” rite of passage into the first team, Williams has leant on the injury that brought his progress to a shuddering halt – a stress fracture in his spine discovered on the first day of pre-season under new U18s manager Steven Gerrard – and the courage it subsequently forced him to unearth.
“I’d never had a big injury before,” he says. “I hadn’t had the chance to prove myself to Steven, I couldn’t even do any gym work. For almost 12 weeks, I was just stretching every day, watching the lads training and wishing I was out there. You don’t realise how much it affects you and your mental health as well. My first game back was in the FA Youth Cup. I’d never been so scared in my life. It was my first time playing at Anfield. After the game, I saw that Steven had called me ‘magnificent’. I think that’s what gave me the boost to go on and do what I’m doing now.”
Without wanting to look too far into the future, Williams offers one guarantee. Whatever further success he goes on to experience, he wants to bring the most treasured highlights home. There is one in particular that already stands out: driving down to Cefn Mawr a few days after winning the Club World Cup, hearing the names of all the buildings and factories in his grandfather’s voice, before spending the evening celebrating with old friends at the club where he first kicked a ball. Williams laughs because it used to feel as though that journey back would never end. Now it’s the bridge between the beginning and everything still to come.