From non-league to Champions League – The surreal rise of Rhys Williams at Liverpool

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It is a path rarely, if ever trodden, but it is one that Rhys Williams will no doubt be regularly reminded of as he continues to find his feet at Liverpool.

As recently as March, the 19-year-old was turning out for non-league Kidderminster Harriers, having joined the National League North side – in the sixth tier of English football – on loan at the start of 2019/20.

Initially a half-season deal, Williams impressed at Aggborough and earned an extension in January, only for the National League to vote for a premature end to the season in April, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Williams played in 29 of Kidderminster’s 33 games, but with his campaign cut short he returned to Merseyside unclear of the plans for his future.

A new contract came in September, however, and the following month he was coming off the bench for the closing stages of Liverpool’s Champions League victory away to Ajax.

Kidderminster themselves summed up the magnitude of Williams’ achievement best, with the teenager nailing the ‘how it started, how it’s going’ trend as part of their Instagram post:

It wasn’t his debut, with two previous outings coming against Lincoln and Arsenal in the League Cup – both as a starter – but it was arguably his most significant.

He is the 11th-youngest player to make his European Cup debut for Liverpool, and the fourth-youngest centre-back, behind only Phil Thompson, Tommy Smith and the late Miki Roque.

Far from it has Williams indicated he can follow in the footsteps of bona fide club legends like Thompson and Smith yet, but if his surreal rise has shown so far, anything can happen.

Williams’ time with Kidderminster was designed to harden him as a defender; soon after joining he described it as a “massive step from under-23s” football, where he had most notably plied his trade while at Liverpool.

Only three months into his time with the club and a high boot left him with a broken nose, the situation soured as Darlington went on to score the only goal of a 1-0 victory in the resulting attack.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Saturday, November 4, 2017: Liverpool's captain Rhys Williams during the pre-match warm-up before the Under-18 Premier League Cup Group D match between West Ham United FC and Liverpool FC at Little Heath. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

For Williams, who joked in an interview with the club’s official website in February that it was a “welcome to non-league,” the situation was part and parcel of the vagaries of the lower tiers.

“I probably head 15 balls a half,” he explained. “It’s quite direct but that’s what I needed to get better at and I think I have done.”

Before joining Kidderminster, Williams had already drawn comparisons with Virgil van Dijk, largely owing to his size, position and wavy hair, but also due to his qualities as a centre-back.

As part of Neil Critchley‘s under-23s side, he was the defensive leader, a standout in terms of his possession play, with a keen eye for a pass – particularly from long range – but also a sharpness in the tackle.

He was also among the under-18s group that lifted the FA Youth Cup under Barry Lewtas in 2019, but while his namesake and long-time housemate Neco made a more direct step up to the first team, the decision to drop down to the National League was a masterstroke from Williams.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - Thursday, April 25, 2019: Liverpool's Rhys Williams celebrates with the trophy after the FA Youth Cup Final match between Manchester City FC and Liverpool FC at the Academy Stadium. Liverpool won 5-4 on penalties after a 1-1 extra-time draw. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

“Listen, you can get your arse slapped at this level by players who don’t care where you’ve come from because it’s all about what they’re taking home,” Russell Penn, Williams’ manager at Kidderminster, told the Liverpool Echo in September.

“If you’re not putting a shift in it doesn’t matter where you’re from, you’ll get told. I think Rhys learned that very, very quick, hence why he was so respected here.

“Don’t get me wrong, his quality was second-to-none, so we don’t even have to talk about that. That’s why he’s at Liverpool.

“I just hope he’s learned the dirty side of things that you need at all levels of the game.”

Penn recalled not only a broken nose, but a concussion, a red card and experiences of “playing against 30, 33-year-olds who are there just to beat you up” and “500 fans booing [him]” away to Spennymoor Town.

This may no longer be the traditional route for youngsters looking to make the grade at Liverpool, but they have clearly benefited Williams, who looks to have stepped ahead of the likes of Nat Phillips, Billy Koumetio and Sepp van den Berg in Jurgen Klopp‘s reckoning.

LINCOLN, ENGLAND - Thursday, September 24, 2020: Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk (R) and Rhys Williams during the pre-match warm-up before the Football League Cup 3rd Round match between Lincoln City FC and Liverpool FC at Sincil Bank. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

His lofty, 6’5″ frame certainly helps – and Klopp acknowledged his importance in a “long-ball festival” in the closing stages at Ajax – but Williams has clearly impressed with his application on and off the pitch too.

He remains a raw talent, who speaks with a youthful sincerity and at times plays closer to naivety, as he showed at times against both Lincoln and Arsenal, but he is one the manager can now mould.

Williams himself would not disagree that his situation has been boosted by the current injury plight within Liverpool’s defensive ranks, with not only Van Dijk out for the season but Joel Matip struggling for fitness, too.

His outing at the Amsterdam ArenA came in a role that has been assigned to Matip on a number of occasions in recent years – the stoppage-time centre-back, thrown on to add another body into the defensive area and grind out a result.

But with Van Dijk sidelined and question marks looming over Matip’s fitness, it is likely that this won’t be Williams’ last experience of first-team football at Liverpool.

Liverpool's Rhys Williams (left) and Arsenal's Eddie Nketiah battle for the ball during the Carabao Cup fourth round match at Anfield, Liverpool.

In fact, if he progresses as he and the coaching staff will hope, he could provide the Reds with a welcome option as this ridiculously busy campaign unfolds in not only the Premier League and Champions League, but the FA Cup too.

He will almost certainly start in the FA Cup third round in January, but it would be no surprise to see Williams feature more prominently in the months leading up to then.

It would be a remarkable achievement for the teenager, who only six months ago looked set for a longer spell in the lower leagues, and one that vindicates the commitment he has shown with Liverpool since his arrival as an eight-year-old.

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