He is the captain of his adopted country and one of the most reliable defenders in the Premier League, but Ashley Williams admits he is very much an accidental Welshman.
Ahead of captaining Wales at their first major tournament in 58 years, Williams reveals it was completely by chance he ever came into consideration for the nation he has represented 58 times.
Born in England but eligible to play for Wales through a grandfather on his mother’s side of the family, Williams was a lowly League Two player with Stockport County when he was discovered by coach Brian Flynn.
“Wales was not on my radar, I can’t say it was, I never imagined growing up being at a major tournament as anything other than a fan,” Williams told BBC Wales Sport.
“My grandad on my mother’s side was Welsh and I am very grateful for that. I was playing for Stockport County at the time I was discovered and luckily we had [Wales goalkeeper] Wayne Hennessey on loan, so Bryan Flynn came to watch him.
“He liked me during the game and recognised that I had a Welsh surname. Then Wales called Stockport to check if ‘Williams’ had any Welsh roots and they asked me and I said yes. Then I got a call-up by John Toshack.”
Released by West Bromwich Albion at 16, Williams joined non-league Hednesford Town before signing for Stockport. At the time he was waiting tables.
Williams made his Wales debut in March 2008 and less than 48-hours later, he was a Swansea City signing, about to storm through the divisions in his adopted nation.
Williams might have grown up supporting England and watching the likes of Paul Gascoigne and John Barnes, but his family and friends have quickly embraced his adopted nation.
“Mum and dad are really proud. I have lived in Wales for nine years now and every time I play for Wales and the national anthem is played, my mother gets emotional,” he said.
“A few of my English friends now support Wales and then there are a few who support England who want tickets but I have told them none of them can have tickets just to watch England.
“I think when Wales play England all my friends will support Wales and will then support England in the other games. I did grow up in England and follow the England football team and there is no secret in that.
“It is a bit strange for me but I am the captain of Wales, all my loyalties lie with Wales and the football team. It is all I have known for ages.”
Dark days and the loss of Gary Speed
It is not just Welsh football fans who felt they were destined to never live their dream of qualifying for a major tournament, because the captain felt that way too.
“Even in the early days with Wales, it was never really on my mind that realistically we could make it,” Williams reflects.
“The more it has gone on, the more that has changed, but even with that said, I couldn’t predict I would be doing it as a captain. That is something my family and friends are all really proud of.”
Toshack started Williams’ Wales journey but his international career truly began to click into gear under the stewardship of Gary Speed.
Speed’s death in 2011 cast a huge shadow on the progress being made.
“When Gary was Wales manager he lifted the place at a time when we needed the lift. He brought a lot of new ideas into the camp and that was where we started,” Williams recalls.
“He started the ball rolling by changing the style of the football. He made everything more fun in and around the camp and the hotel. The lads respected him instantly, from the first day he walked in.”
When Chris Coleman succeeded Speed, Williams feels the players were not ready for the transition.
“The players were definitely still grieving for Gary when Chris came in and it was difficult for him,” he said.
“You try and be as professional as you can, but it was a strange job at the time, playing for Wales.”
Light at the end of the tunnel
So long the bridesmaids of international football, the campaign for qualification to Euro 2016 proved to be decisive, a Wales team inspired by Gareth Bale finally securing their safe passage to a major finals. From the agony, came the ecstasy.
“There wasn’t one moment where it turned around. It needed time and we wanted to do it for Gary Speed, because we felt we owed him something,” Williams said.
“And we felt we owed Chris Coleman. He had come in and worked so hard and given so much and the results just weren’t good enough. We kind of felt that was on our shoulders.”
And how does Williams feel now that they have done it?
“We will see when we get there, but I expect it will be my proudest moment, to lead out Wales at a major tournament will be massive for everyone and especially myself, I will be very proud,” Williams said.
“I could never imagined being in this position when I was down in the lower leagues. I am looking forward to it massively, we have all worked so hard to get to this point.”
Euro aims with Bale on side
Second top-scorer in all Euro 2016 qualifying groups and a Champions League winner with Real Madrid, many will expect Gareth Bale to have a huge impact on proceedings this summer.
But Williams is at pains to point out that, to Wales’ players, the world’s most expensive footballer is simply one of the boys.
“It is a close-knit group and that includes Gareth Bale. He’s sound, he’s normal as he always has been. It’s weird, but he doesn’t act like a superstar,” Williams explained of the £85m man.
“He’s nice, he’s humble, always playing little jokes and as a person he is exactly the same as he was when I first met him, when he was playing for Tottenham.
“I can’t say enough about how it helps the young players and the new guys coming into the squad. He might be intimidating because he is such a big star, but he isn’t.
“He doesn’t have an entourage, he is just Gareth, the same guy he was all along with silly little jokes. In every training session and every game there is always a Gareth Bale moment where you go, ‘wow, he is superhuman’.
“He is a player who can win matches. He is like nothing I have ever seen before with my own eyes. He is the next level, the top level. He gives us that belief you need.”
You can listen to the full interview with Ashley Williams on BBC Radio Wales Sport on Monday, 30 May, from 19:00 BST.
Who do you think should start at Euro 2016? Step into Chris Coleman’s shoes and pick your XI – and then share it with your friends using our brand new team selector.