Rachel Williams is yet to start a WSL game for Manchester United since joining the club last summer. But if the club achieves its ambitions by finishing in the top three and qualifying for the Champions League for the first time, the role she will have played in that is a massive one.
There have been measurable moments on the pitch, coming off the bench to score in big wins against Aston Villa and Liverpool either side of the winter break to boost goal difference – it could be that close when it all comes down to it in May.
Then there was the hugely significant stoppage time winner against Reading at the end of January, having the composure to skip past multiple defenders throwing themselves at her as she skipped in-field from the left, before firing an unstoppable shot high into the net.
The margins are set to be so tight that if United do see things out to break into the top three for the first time, that goal will be one of the standout differences to look back on.
But most of the impact Williams has had at United has arguably come behind the scenes.
Marc Skinner said just this week that his plans for the 35-year-old were ‘bigger’ than solely what she could do on the pitch, describing her as ‘one of the most genuine people and honest footballers I think I’ve ever worked with’. United have a famously tightknit squad, where many have quickly become good friends outside football, and Williams has only helped gel the group even closer.
From her perspective, this is the ‘most sociable squad’ that she has ever experienced in a long senior career that began at hometown club Leicester nearly 20 years ago. She is not the only one to say that either – Nikita Parris called it a ‘sisterhood’ like she has never seen before earlier this season.
Williams is often portrayed as the experienced head who will put an arm around the shoulder of younger players and pass on her years of wisdom. She will do that if teammates come to her asking for advice, but it isn’t an entirely a true reflection of her role.
Instead, she prefers to let her personality do the talking and lead by example.
“You ask any player in training, they don’t want to mark Rachel,” Skinner said. “Regardless of what people think about her age, Rachel runs around like she is 10 years old.”
Williams disagrees ever so slightly, but only about the number: “Everyone says I bring this quality and this experience, but for me I still feel like I’m 15 playing in the park.”
Her start of the season with United was actually delayed because of injury, one she sustained during a pre-season session going into what was described at the time as a ‘full-blooded’ tackle, trying to win the ball as if it mattered the most in the world at that exact moment: a born competitor.
“She makes everybody else better around her and, when she comes on, we know that she will put her body and soul on the line for this club and her teammates,” Skinner continued.
As a non-starter, Williams lines up in training as the ‘opposition’ and works so hard and presses to prepare her teammates for whoever they are to face at the weekend. “That, for me, shows that she is here for the team and she should be celebrated for that.”
Williams says what is important for her is to ‘stay real’ to her roots. She was playing top flight football before the WSL era. Even when the WSL began it was only a part-time league where players trained just twice a week in the evenings after their regular jobs were done for the day.
Williams was a plasterer when she was a part-time footballer and still loves ‘hard graft’ and DIY now – she fully intends to return to her craft upon hanging up her boots.
It is a far cry from the fully professional environment that today’s younger players know today. For many of her United teammates at the start of their respective careers, the current climate and professional contracts from late teens or early twenties is all they have ever known.
This season, she told the following story to the likes of Ella Toone and Alessia Russo during a United away trip: “When I was at Doncaster Belles when we didn’t have a physio and I had a dead leg, no physio equipment. The manager took me into a cleaning cupboard and just found some soap to give my thigh a quick rub to get me on the pitch because he wanted to me to play.”
She said of the reaction that came from the emerging superstars, “Their minds were blown, but it blows my mind knowing what they’re doing now.”
Williams’ experiences from those early days and her attitude are an invaluable asset because it has shaped how she is, how she holds herself now and what she can contribute.
“I was living my dream, but it was never going to be something I can live off, but now it is. It has grounded me,” Williams explained.
“This isn’t my job. When I come to training every day and play on a weekend, that isn’t my job. My job is the plastering and it’s on hold. Having to balance the two at times did get really hard, but it’s made me absolutely enjoy the football side more. I never feel pressure.”
The secret is ‘hard work’. Williams recently told the daughter of a friend in Leicester’s academy: “Don’t ever think someone is going to hand you something. No matter how good you are, someone out there is training harder to be better than you, so you have always got to be on your toes.
“That’s not pressure – enjoy it, love what you do, see it as a challenge. If someone says you’ll never make it, make sure you do, because I was told that.”
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